Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Special service organizations like conservancies vs. public sector operation

Photos below all from Bryant Park in late November 2012.

The New York Times has a column, "Parks Department Takes a Seat Behind Nonprofit Conservancies," about the fact that the NYC Parks Department is barely funded and takes a back seat to the nonprofits that manage the city's big parks such as Central Park, Prospect Park, and Bryant Park.

Those organizations raise millions of dollars each year--some as donations, some, depending on the organization as an add-on fee to property taxes--and for all intents and purposes "own," manage and operate the parks.

The point of this is to provide "more service" to a community-civic asset than the city could normally provide based on general tax revenues.  The idea is threefold, that (1) the "special service districts" (which include business improvement districts) provide the level of service that area stakeholders want, (2) reduce the cost to the general fund by paying for the operations directly; (3) and allow the city to divert the monies that would be spent to other areas not able to raise special funding.

In NYC, this is complicated by the fact that the city is underfunding the parks department generally.   So the spaces that have nonprofit operator-managers get high quality service, and the areas lacking equivalent organizations get very little.

Special service organizations managing publicly-owned space raise important issues:

1.  How the public, which owns the underlying civic asset, is engaged in decision-making;

2.  That differentiated areas not able to raise additional funding get less or no service;

3.  Equity issues that result from this disparity raise concerns about 14th Amendment violations ("equal protection under the law").

I have written about this with regard to business improvement districts.  See "NoMA revisited: business planning to develop community" and "Neighborhood commercial district revitalization in DC."

In my writings on community benefits agreements ("Community benefits agreements (revised)"), it was suggested that a certain percentage of awards could be directed to a fund to provide benefits to areas lacking the same kinds of monetizable opportunities.

Should the well-off public space nonprofits tithe a portion of their funding stream to support less well-off organizations?

State Senator Daniel L. Squadron proposes that "the wealthiest conservancies tithe 20% of the dollars they raise" to be used at "the less-well-endowed parks. ("Can a Tree Grow in the Bronx?," New York Times). Also see "A Radical Proposal For City Parks, and Philanthropy" from the New Yorker.  Parks advocates have fought the proposal ("Parks advocates tear into a de Blasio-backed parks proposal," Capital New York).

From the New Yorker article:
The alarm is understandable. The proposal does constitute a radical challenge to the philanthropic status quo. But there’s another reason why Squadron’s idea has troubled this community. It probes the uneasy relationship between philanthropy and inequality, an uneasiness that is as much a part of America’s philanthropic tradition as the celebrations of its voluntarism.
I agree that there is an issue of equity that should be addressed, and it is especially troubling that the parks advocates for the well-off areas express minimal for the underserved areas.  Also see "Public parks are becoming gardens of private wealth" from the Financial Times.

A necessary step in any case: creating a capacity development infrastructure for parks (and  community) groups

Squadron's legislation calls for the creation of a "Neighborhood Parks Alliance" to assist those parks that lack special organizations ("New York Senator Proposes Neighborhood Parks Alliance," WNET).  This is exactly the right way to go.  The point is not to limit success of those areas that can succeed, but to step in and provide assistance and capacity building to those communities that lack the right resources.

Another place I've come across where this is an issue is in Baltimore County with the recreation department.  For budgetary reasons, in the 1970s the department stopped providing programming, meaning that they could cut staff and save a lot of money.

These responsibilities were devolved to interested residents, implemented by creating a set of "Recreation and Parks Councils" to fund and offer programming for specific facilities, set up within specific sub-districts of the County (there are 40 parks and recreation councils covering the county).

In the well-off areas of the county, these organizations raise $2+ million each year and the centers (maintenance and construction is still provided by the County) offer a great deal of programming.  In less well-off areas, a Rec. Council might raise $15,000 in a good year. 

What the Baltimore County Rec. and Parks Department hasn't done is stepped in and built a capacity development and support infrastructure to provide training in parks, recreation, fundraising, and program development issues. 

(They also haven't provided additional financial support to the underfunded communities.)

This would help everyone, but also would begin to right the equity issues that are now unaddressed.

NYC has done this for business improvement districts, offering a great deal of capacity development and program assistance.

-- NYC Small Business Services
-- starting a BUSINESS IMPROVEMENT DISTRICT a step-by-step guide

Another example is the Park Pride organization in Atlanta, which supports all the parks and open spaces in the city, and has an annual conference at the end of March that always offers a great array of sessions.

There are other examples of capacity building infrastructure programs to assist community organizations.  The since ended Neighborhood Revitalization Program in Minneapolis was a great example--it provided training and support to community organizations allocating money on neighborhood projects derived from a tax increment financing program.

Conclusion.  While the 20% charge might be too much, Senator Squadron's legislation is leading to a necessary discussion of the issues raised by a kind of privatization of the management of public space and the differentiated level of services that result, accentuating already existing social and economic disparities. 

Step in with funding as needed.  And when necessary, the government budget should be used to step in and provide financial support to provide services in the communities that aren't able to self-fund.

The existence of nonprofit management organizations at high profile parks shouldn't be used to reduce funding to government agencies serving those areas not managed by such entities, which is the case in NYC.

Provide oversight and intervene when necessary.  Sometimes local community groups become crazy and the city needs to step in.  See "An example of a big problem with nonprofit organizations: who runs the show?"

Provide capacity building systems.  And regardless, agencies should step in and build the capacity development infrastructure that is necessary for all such organizations to be successful and is required in we want to reduce and eliminate the service and other disparities that currently exist.

Make organizing groups easier.  The past entry "'Networked solutions' for some problems with ANCs in DC," discusses creating a master friends organization for parks, not unlike Park Pride, that takes on general responsibilities, as a framework for the creation of individual park friends groups, without their having to each be separately incorporated.

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