New York, NY, June 25, 2003- Leaders from urban parks in over 100 cities and 12 countries converged in New York City from June 21 to 25 for the international conference, "Great Parks/Great Cities: Celebrating 150 Years of Central Park," hosted by the Central Park Conservancy, Project for Public Spaces (PPS), and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.
Since 1996, PPS has co-hosted urban parks conferences that promote their mission to improve public spaces as catalysts of urban revitalization. With over 500 participants, this year's conference was the largest yet. "The response was overwhelming," said PPS Vice President Kathy Madden. "We're finding that more and more people are catching on to our message."
Park advocates have long argued that actively used, well-maintained parks are key to improving the quality of life, and ultimately economic vitality, in city neighborhoods.
This is the first year that the Central Park Conservancy has been a co-host. "We are delighted to share our story and our management techniques to encourage the restoration of existing parks and the creation of new ones," said Regina Peruggi, president of the Conservancy.
The conference highlighted the emergence of a growing movement that is rapidly bringing parks and public spaces to national prominence. Park advocates have long argued that actively used, well-maintained parks are key to improving the quality of life, and ultimately economic vitality, in city neighborhoods. Over time, advocates have grown more sophisticated in their approach, using new tools and strategies to make their case to the public.
The first day of the conference focused on the 150th anniversary of Central Park, which has enjoyed a robust recovery since its low point during the fiscal crisis of the late 1970s. This renaissance, made possible by a public/private partnership, has been a model for the revival that many flagship urban parks have enjoyed in the past 25 years, despite declining public funds.
Parks departments in cities across the United States are feeling the effects of this year's budget deficits, now nearing historic levels. Houston, for example, faces a $40 million budget deficit this year. "By far, the most challenging hurdle we face is providing essential core services in the face of budget cuts," said Holly Beretto of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department (HPARD).
In Seattle, the parks budget was cut $5 million in 2003, and is expected to fall another $1 million in 2004. Kansas City's parks staff has been reduced by 132 employees in the past year alone. Smaller cities are also feeling the pinch: Tacoma, Washington shaved $4 million from its parks budget in 2003.
The popularity of measures such as Proposition 40 indicates a strong public desire for better parks.
Federal spending on urban parks has also dropped dramatically. Urban Park and Recreation Recovery (UPARR), the major federal program for city parks, has received zero funding since 2001.
With public funds in short supply, a major theme of the conference was the importance of public/private partnerships, for which Central Park has served as a model. "Since the Central Park Conservancy was founded in 1980, it has worked closely with the City of New York to create a partnership for the benefit of the public," said Peruggi. "The City demonstrated its confidence in the partnership in 1998 by awarding the Conservancy a contract to manage Central Park."
Thanks largely to such partnerships, other major parks - such as Atlanta's Piedmont Park and Houston's Hermann Park - have been restored and continue to thrive. Forest Park - the largest park in St. Louis - is undergoing a $90 million restoration funded by an equal combination of public and private monies. The project will be completed by the end of 2003.
The success of the partnership model in revitalizing such high-profile parks has been accompanied by an increased focus on improving parks in underserved neighborhoods. The conference examined ways in which the model has been adapted, through citizen initiatives and new funding innovations, to serve a broader range of parks and communities. In Los Angeles, for example, there are 0.3 acres of parks per 1,000 residents in the inner city, compared to 1.7 acres in more affluent areas. The passage in March 2002 of California's Proposition 40, the largest natural resource bond in United States history with $2.6 billion for urban parks, open space, clean air and clean water, will help address the inequity in park access.
"Prop 40 demolished the myth that a healthy environment is a luxury that these communities cannot afford or do not care about," said Robert García, director of the City Project at the Center for Law in the Public Interest in Santa Monica. Thanks to the new funding, the City Project is creating the first state parks ever in downtown Los Angeles.
The popularity of measures such as Proposition 40, which passed with 57 percent of the vote, and Seattle's Pro Parks Levy, which will raise $200 million over eight years to implement a new parks master plan, indicates a strong public desire for better parks.
"When you see two strangers from completely different backgrounds sharing ideas, that's when you know it's a success."
Conference organizers see public support as a sign that the moment is ripe to build awareness and gain momentum for the parks movement. They emphasize that the decision 150 years ago to build Central Park was the result of persuasive arguments made by citizen proponents with regard to the future viability of the city. Public support fueled political will on the part of lawmakers to set aside the land for the Park. Today's park advocates make a similar case, and draw upon a growing body of evidence that supports the economic value of park investment.
Recent research, such as a study conducted by the nonprofit New Yorkers for Parks and the accounting firm Ernst & Young, shows that investment in park restoration and maintenance pays off through increased property values. The study found that after 10 years of park investment, assessments on single-family homes near Brooklyn's Prospect Park exceeded assessments on homes further from the park by 150 percent. Similar results were found for commercial rents in buildings adjacent to Manhattan's Bryant Park.
Such findings spread faster and reach a larger audience as the awareness of a broad parks movement grows. "Conversations about the importance of city parks have historically been local ones, but this conference gives voice and visibility to the emergence of a true nationwide city parks movement," explained Dick Dadey, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, a national organization of city parks leaders.
"These conferences work because people make connections they otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity to make," said Madden. "When you see two strangers from completely different backgrounds sharing ideas, that's when you know it's a success."
No sooner had the conference ended than thoughts turned to the future. London, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto have already approached PPS about hosting the next conference.