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The Globe and Mail

Fears of privately-run public parks have proved groundless

An aerial view of Central Park.

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

When people start talking about private management of public parks, red flags shoot up. Parks, surely, are the ultimate example of something that should remain exclusively in public hands, open to all and operated by government for the common good. Introduce a private element, and you are bound to get commercialism and unequal access.

Not so, says the man who used to run the New York City parks department. Adrian Benepe, parks commissioner from 2002 to 2012, is in Toronto this weekend to speak at a summit meeting put on by Park People, a residents' organization dedicated to getting volunteers and non-government groups more involved in improving Toronto's parks.

Mr. Benepe was still a teenager when he started out as a cleaner in the New York parks. The parks, like the city, were rundown, underfunded and often dangerous.

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New York's comeback has been remarkable, and so has the revival of its parks. Central Park, then a trash-strewn haven for muggers, has returned to its historic status as the green jewel at the centre of Manhattan. Hundreds of other parks have been spruced up and many created, including the popular High Line and Brooklyn Bridge parks.

One reason for the revival was, yes, government. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who left office on Dec. 31, invested $5-billion over 12 years in the parks, Mr. Benepe says, the biggest spate of parks spending since the New Deal. But a second factor was the involvement of companies, non-profit groups and volunteers.

"It runs the gamut from raking leaves and planting bulbs to actually managing a park," says Mr. Benepe, who was involved with the parks for 35 years before leaving to work for a conservation group, the Trust for Public Land. "Arguably, the world's best-known park is run by a non-profit organization."

He is talking, of course, about Central Park. The non-profit Central Park Conservancy, not the parks department, supplies most of its $58-million annual budget, raised through fundraising and investment income. Its crews, not the city's, tend the gardens, collect the trash and remove the graffiti.

Several other New York parks, including High Line and Battery parks, have adopted the model, which has spread to cities from San Francisco to Buffalo. Even New York parks that aren't run by conservancies – still the vast majority – have welcomed outside, non-government help. More than half of the 1,700 parks are watched over by local residents' groups that do everything from planting flowers to petitioning the city for better upkeep. "You have this army of engaged citizens," Mr. Benepe says.

Fears about commercialization or privatization have proved groundless. There are no Pepsi or Microsoft parks full of corporate logos. The parks department, answerable to democratically elected officials, still sets the park rules, even in conservancy-managed ones.

Worries that the system would create two tiers of parks, one for the rich and one for the poor, have proved equally baseless. Central Park, funded in part by rich philanthropists, is thronged with people from the Upper East Side and Harlem alike. The money that the parks department might have spent on Central Park is funnelled to other parks, so, in a sense, the philanthropists are subsidizing other parks, too. By raising the bar, Central Park and others like it have spurred people in other parts of the city to demand improvements to their own parks.

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It's all very well to say that governments should simply step up and take care of the parks on their own, Mr. Benepe says, but "administrations come and go, mayors come and go, council members come and go, budgets wax and wane." Parks, though, are a constant. "If you have citizen involvement, that provides this constancy and this extra set of eyes that transcends political engagement."

Besides, he says, "government can be hidebound by civil-service regulation, union limitations, and bureaucratic fear of doing things." Volunteers bring fresh ideas.

The conservancy divided the 340-hectare Central Park into 80 zones, each with its own gardener. They became zealous guardians of their turf, telling people not to run their dogs through the gardens or reminding maintenance workers to fix a broken park bench.

Mr. Benepe borrowed the idea for other, city-run parks.

Toronto, Mr. Benepe says, has a glorious and well-funded system of 1,600 parks. But, like any government monopoly, they can succumb to neglect without sharp-eyed citizen guardians to nurture them.

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