Excerpted from Public Parks, Private Partners, published by Project for Public Spaces, 2000.

In a city, a public space can be an asset or a liability. A main street or a park can be a symbol of a neighborhood’s vitality and character, or an emblem of its disorganization and poverty of spirit. When it is an asset, it takes on the neighborhood’s identity, becoming its star attraction and raising the quality of life, and property values, for residents.

In Brooklyn, New York, for example, Prospect Park functions as a sort of Main Street, as a different version of the idea of downtown. It is a place where people come together, where they have a common investment that is both psychological and monetary, and where they locate the heart of their neighborhood. And many neighborhoods around the park, such as Park Slope and Prospect Park South, bear the name proudly, as proximity to such a resource contributes substantially to their livability and economic value.

This is not always the case. Indeed many urban neighborhoods bear the names of their local parks like badges of shame. These parks are empty and underused, or spilling over with garbage and illicit activity. They are a liability for their neighborhoods. Of course, many cities and towns simply cannot allocate enough funds to their public spaces to maintain them and manage them at a reasonable level. The public pie has gotten smaller, and police, schools, and social services are considered higher priority areas. This can be partially attributed to several factors that have contributed to the rise of the nonprofit sector overall in this country, among them a shrinking tax base in cities in the northeastern United States, because of depopulation and massive federal cuts in urban programs that have forced cities to spend more money to achieve the same level of service to their citizens.

But money is not the only factor, for there are plenty of wealthy cities and towns that have empty main streets, barren parks, or parks that are simply a loose connection of ballfields and play areas. These spaces, instead of bringing people together, actually alienate them from one another. For those communities, parks are at best playgrounds, and at worst sad, humiliating places.

When people say that their neighborhood lacks a sense of community, this is what they mean. They feel that there is no way for them to participate in their public realm, whether as users, as volunteers, or as financial partners. Malls go up in the suburbs and a downtown deteriorates. A violent incident virtually eliminates use of a park. There may be hundreds of interested, caring individuals in the neighborhood who would like to volunteer, or contribute, or simply use that park or downtown in numbers, but they are not organized, and as a result nothing happens. As an incoming parks director in Indianapolis in the early 1990s, Leon Younger discovered this phenomenon in regard to that city’s inefficient, underused park system. People wanted to help. I believe that people aspire to serve, said Younger. However, we needed to create the mechanisms to allow them to invest in the park system.

In Indianapolis, those mechanisms took the form of community partnerships. In one case, the parks department gave maintenance responsibility for smaller parks to churches in the neighborhood, paying them a small fee to do it. This allowed Younger’s park workers to concentrate on rebuilding the city’s greenways and maintaining its flagship parks.

In New York City in the early 1970s, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers was running a summer youth program as part of the Parks Council volunteer association, a parks nonprofit advocacy group. Thinking about and working in Central Park caused her to notice this same phenomenon a lack of mechanisms that allowed people to invest in the park. She wrote an article entitled 33 Ways Your Time and Money Can Help Save Central Park, which she described as an L.L. Bean catalogue of opportunities. The next week, $25,000 in $5, $25, and $50 contributions, flooded the Parks Council offices. These checks, said Rogers, were accompanied by wonderful memories. That’s when I decided I had to stay and stick with the vision.2

Rogers eventually became the Central Park Administrator, a city position that was created specifically for her, as well as the president of the Central Park Conservancy, an organization she launched that now has raised over $110 million to restore the park and employs 216 in staff, including 172 positions in horticulture, maintenance, and programming. But New Yorkers don’t judge the effectiveness of the conservancy by its funding and staff levels. They vote with their feet, visiting Central Park more than 16 million times every year.

Indeed investment is a word with many potential meanings. People invest in their parks with sweat equity by clearing overgrown areas, maintaining gardens, and building paths, just as they contribute to the safety of their neighborhoods with watch programs. People invest with their savings, as they adopt trees or benches, allowing a cities and management organizations to take a longer-term perspective on maintenance and capital programs. And people invest in their parks as they use them, connecting their experiences with those of past generations and different cultures. They endow their parks with their cultural legacy.

Outreach, advocacy, marketing, promotion, programming, organizing volunteers-these are the ways to tap into the constituency of a public place. These kinds of activities, including outreach for capital campaigns and other fundraising efforts, convince people that somebody is doing something, and that the park has an advocate. More and more often, these efforts are an outgrowth of a public/private partnership. The challenge, says Younger, is to find people who have vision and who also know how to solve problems. Put another way, the important factors in making these mechanisms work are leadership and management, not money.

A Short History of Parks and the Role of Leadership

A typical history of urban parks in the United States begins in the 1850s, with William Cullen Bryant campaigning for, and Frederick Law Olmsted designing, Central Park in New York City. The notion of carving out a large space and designing it for recreation and enjoyment by everyone was a new concept, and required a tremendous amount of vision. Olmsted saw it as perfect expression of American Democracy. Although it was his first park commission, Olmsted knew what the stakes of his project were from the start. It is of great importance as the first real park made in this country a democratic development of the highest significance and on the success of which, in my opinion, much of the progress of art and aesthetic culture in this country is dependent.

In Olmsted’s parks, the wage earner as well as the patrician could use the park to its full advantage. These parks were indeed beautiful, and quickly begat expensive housing around them. As a result, the notion of large parks in urban settings caught on. Major cities such as Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago, led the way with large parks of their own, and soon after, nearly every city wanted one.

As the country grappled with large-scale immigration at the turn of the 20th century, the notion of assimilation and the needs of newer Americans became an obvious focus of Progressive city government. As Galen Cranz has pointed out, this period, which she calls the Era of the Reform Park, was one of huge public investment, as parks were built on the sites of razed slums and programmed to solve the ills of the city instead of just provide an escape from them. 4 Much smaller parks were built, with field houses at their centers the poor man’s club house, Cranz calls it, and classes were held in English and civics, to help immigrants learn how to fill out tax forms and participate fully in the American democracy.

As the Reform Park movement scaled back during and after the Second World War, New York again set the example followed by many other American cities. Under the leadership of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, thousands of acres of parkland were bought and developed by the city. However, while parks gained large budgets and bureaucratic support, they lost their movement. Acquiring parkland became an end in and of itself, and cities built parkways along them and sports arenas inside them. Galen Cranz notes this shift in thinking about parks:

“Whereas earlier, park planners had to enumerate all the things that were being accomplished reducing class conflict, socializing immigrants, stopping the spread of disease, educating people to justify the unprecedented expenditure, under Moses parks had become a recognized governmental service needing no justification. The emphasis was instead on multiplying and extending into the suburbs and all the areas that didn’t yet have a field house or some other kind of park. This is a sad period in a way, because it has very little artistic vision. And it has very little artistic vision because it has very little social vision. And this is why people sometimes think parks are boring.”

Somewhere between Olmsted and Moses, parks lost their critical urban function as places where people exercised their democratic muscles along with their biceps. They became merely recreational spaces, and as a result, when leadership disappeared, or budgets were squeezed, parks lost their funding. When the next sets of urban problems emerged, from drugs to depopulation, many cities pushed parks lower on the priorities list, instead of looking to parks for answers. As a result, parks were allowed to languish with outdated and under-funded maintenance and social programs. Crime-ridden, empty, and in various states of disrepair, they became part of the problem, instead of part of the solution.

The bureaucratization and re-prioritizing of parks departments had another effect-parks lost their cachet among the citizenry as well. Therefore, when Leon Younger arrived in Indianapolis in 1992, the parks department was one of the lowest ranking city departments in a newspaper poll. Part of that decline was due to budget cuts, said Younger in a recent speech. The parks department work force had shrunk from 800 employees to about 350 over ten years. However, in the process of cutting back park services, Indianapolis had lost its whole sense of the value that great parks can have for a city.

What is needed to reverse this course of bureaucratic inertia and lack of vision is bold leadership, whether institutional or community based. Indeed, one cannot find a success story in the field where leadership, whether from the public or private sector, does not play a decisive role. In Denver, Colorado, a former state senator named Joe Shoemaker leveraged a $1.9 million investment into 150 miles of trails, boat launches, chutes, and parks in four counties and nine municipalities through and around the city in 20 years. A former parks director helped organize 12,000 volunteers in New Orleans who maintain and revitalize parks, trees, vacant lots, and the grassy medians of the city’s famous boulevards. A park administrator in New York City gives away the park, section by section to community gardeners, teens, and volunteers, understanding that stewardship comes from earned authority.

The clear lesson from these successes is that with careful planning and genuine interest in residents and community issues, cities are discovering that their public parks are more than just expensive lawns to maintain. They are the seeding grounds for their neighborhoods and the places where people come together to help each other. With more citizen involvement in their design, maintenance, programming and use, city parks can achieve their true potential as the centers of their communities.