by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers

Former President, the Central Park Conservancy

From a speech give at the Urban Parks Institute’s Achieving Great Parks conference

We need to reestablish an urban model that was at one time a success, to take back the street, the square, the public spaces. Frederick Law Olmsted created the field known as landscape architecture, but he was also an urban planner and visionary. I was very fortunate to partake in Olmsted’s vision. Because it was so supple, so flexible, so ingenious, it still serves us today. He saw the benefit of open space and parks in cities. But of late we have lost our way.

What are the three characteristics of successful partnerships? I say: the three P’s – passion, patience, and persistence. I have yet to find a success story in this country that did not start with someone with a vision who was told it couldn’t happen. They didn’t believe they couldn’t do it, and that’s why they went ahead.

“The three P’s of successful partnerships are passion, patience, and persistence.”

All of us here are part of a movement, ‘reinventing government.’ It’s last year’s buzzword, but that really is what we’re doing. We are part of a new democracy, in which citizens no longer ask what government can do for them, but offer themselves, not through government programs, but through non-profit organizations. Conservancies, friends groups, business improvement districts – they all help government do what it can no longer do on its own. We’ve had to ask ourselves: how does this fact make civil servants feel? The image I find handy is that it’s like the human body and an organ transplant. You really need the life-saving organ of the private support, for initiative, for vision. But the body wants to reject it.

Nevertheless, government has become receptive to local initiatives, and I think that is the groundwork of a healthy society. It is a challenge for government to embrace public-private partnerships not as a stop-gap measure, but as standard operating procedure. When I started my work to save Central Park, I thought it was entirely a local phenomenon based on the city’s fiscal crisis. Now we all realize that it’s a broad, general crisis.

We are all urban planners in some ways…. It is up to us to see to it that a humanistic design approach is used to counteract simplistic, developer-driven urbanism. We need to develop a powerful new urban vision that is also economically sound, appealing to the free market, and politically feasible.

With the community as client, we have an educational role to play. We are the nexus between community need and the design professions. We must help the community to understand that it has a responsibility to help develop the program that the designers will carry out. We need to help the community set priorities and evaluate the designs in progress so that the community really can be the client.

“The person I call ‘the zealous nut’ is different from the crank. Run away from cranks, and ego-maniacal gadflies. But the zealous nut who really, loves the community and understands what the place means – that is a very precious individual.”

There is nothing more precious than what I call ‘the zealous nut.’ We cannot do this paternalistically. We need to find the ‘civic sparkplugs’ — usually they’ll identify themselves – and then capture their energy. There is nothing more precious than what I call ‘the zealous nut.’ They are different from the crank. Run away from cranks, and ego-maniacal gadflies. But the zealous nut who really, really loves the community, who lives there and understands what the place means – that is a very precious individual. And that precious individual of course is connected to other individuals, and I think that is the way we begin a dialogue and have an energy source to propel a project ahead.

You also need a strong vision. It must encompass design, management and maintenance strategies, or you will need to rebuild everything again and again. Citizens need to be incorporated into local maintenance strategies so they feel psychologically invested and will work as partners with the government.

We’re moving into an era of contract management for parks. If we’re going to contract out, it’s very important that we also have performance measurements. Government itself must be more accountable. Even our not-for-profit-selves need measurement systems. We too can become bureaucratic, and therefore there must be a structure of accountability. Via the governments with whom we have contracts, we are accountable to the people.

In Central Park, I stumbled in the beginning by not adequately consulting the community as a first step. Fortunately we learned how to incorporate community consultation into the planning process. I was lucky in having fine landscape architects and other consultants including Project for Public Spaces who produced a plan that was respectful both of Olmsted and of contemporary community and recreational needs.

“I wrote “33 Ways Your Time and Money Can Help Save Central Park,” which was like an L.L. Bean catalogue of opportunities. It was kind of a primitive vision. The next week $25,000 came over the transom. It came in $5, $25, $50 contributions…”

I began by running a summer youth program as part of the Parks Council volunteer association after writing about Olmsted, and I thought ‘You know, the people of the city have to care about the park – they have to wake up.’ I wrote an article “33 Ways Your Time and Money Can Help Save Central Park,” which was like an L.L. Bean catalogue of opportunities. And the list was kind of a primitive vision. The next week $25,000 came over the transom. It came in $5, $25, $50 contributions, and these checks were accompanied by wonderful memories – that’s when I decided I had to stay and stick with the vision.

In 1975, I became a ‘zealous nut’ in an office in the midst of the Parks Department headquarters. I had Brooke Astor on my side; that really helped. In 1979, Gordon Davis, the recently-appointed park commissioner, appointed me Administrator of Central Park, but didn’t give me a budget; it had to be raised. That really motivated me. I had a vision, which was improved by consultants, but I needed a board composed of the right people. Don’t kid yourselves. You need people of means who are able to give, and ask other people of means. You also want people that represent the diversity of your population. Constructing a board is really an art.

And I thought: I must make the people of New York City see the park in the same light as the Museum of Natural History, or the Bronx Zoo, or the Botanical Gardens – they must see it as a major cultural institution. Grace Glueck of the New York Times came to write a story, and asked ‘You mean you think of this park as a cultural institution; and those trees, those sculptures, as your collection?’ And I said ‘You’ve got it.’ That’s really how the Conservancy was launched.

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