New York, NY
A public/private partnership between the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the Riverside Park Fund (RPF) has brought about new approaches to the management of Riverside Park. The nonprofit RPF is able to perform functions that the City cannot, such as fundraising and coordinating volunteer efforts, which help ease the impact of the Park’s budget cuts.
Located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Riverside Park borders the Hudson River from 72nd to 158th Streets. The surrounding neighborhoods are racially and economically diverse.
The condition of Riverside Park deteriorated as budget cuts chipped away funding for maintenance and repairs. In an effort to answer community needs for garden space and find cost-effective alternatives to maintain the Park, Park administrator Charles McKinney began entrusting small areas of the Park to individuals in 1981. The area is now made up of 35 individual garden plots known collectively as the 91st Street Community Garden, one of the most beautiful and vibrant areas in Riverside Park. The success of this project encouraged McKinney to turn more Park areas over to the public.
Roles and Responsibilities
The Parks Department still provides basic services and maintenance, but now about 40 areas in the Park are planted, maintained and cleaned by individuals or groups. McKinney guides the process of selecting areas to turn into community projects, referring to the Park’s Master Plan. The Parks Department can also arbitrate between groups who have an interest in a particular area of the Park, acting as the ultimate keeper of the public space.
Civic, community, and business leaders formed the Riverside Park Fund in 1986 to increase public awareness about the Park and raise funds for programming, renovations, maintenance, and capital projects. Although there is no formal agreement between RPF and the City of New York, the Riverside Park Fund has an extensive influence in the Park: RPF produces all Park publications, organizes and advertises for special events, and recruits and organizes all volunteers.
These public outreach efforts have transformed RPF into a high profile group capable of leveraging significant private donations. RPF is better equipped to handle contributions than the Parks Department; it can use funds immediately, while the Parks Department requires a public approval process and City-mandated bidding. Also, since the Parks Department is not permitted to lobby for funding, RPF steps in to lobby public officials for support and prevent further budget cuts.
Funding and Implementation
The City of New York is still the major source of funding for Riverside Park, which has an operating budget of $1 million and capital budget of about $1.5 million. The Riverside Park Fund contributes about $200,000 per year in donations and coordinates the efforts of over 1,000 trained volunteers. Since its founding, RPF has raised over $8 million for the Park; notably, RPF lobbied for $2.4 million in federal funding for the construction of Riverside Walk, a four-mile pedestrian and bicycle path along the river.
RPF solicits donations, then selects enhancement projects with McKinney by polling Park users about what they would like to see built or improved. McKinney is an ex-officio member of RPF’s Board of Directors and serves as a resource for the Board. While he cannot vote on RPF decisions, he helps RPF avoid conflicts with the Parks Department.
The Riverside Park Fund also advises neighborhood groups on fundraising and eliciting volunteer support for their own projects in the Park. For example, RPF encourages groups to write letters to elected officials, bring neighbors to community board meetings, and ask residents to pledge support for the project. Once a strong constituency is developed, the Parks Department is more likely to allow a particular neighborhood group to adopt an area of the Park.
Community efforts have snowballed: increasingly, residents are committing their time and money to rebuild Riverside Park. The patchwork of projects — undertaken by residents, approved by the Parks Department, and supported by RPF — ranges from gardens and fountains to playgrounds and tennis courts. The partnership between the Parks Department and RPF facilitates community input and ensures that the efforts of private groups and individuals build on each other without conflicting with the Park’s Master Plan.
Charles McKinney, administrator, Riverside Park, 212-408-0264
James Dowell, executive director, Riverside Park Fund, 212-870-3070