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Growth and Decline—the Dual Legacy of City Parks (Part 2: Central Park)

Updated: Apr 2, 2022

by Charlie McCabe

Summer Evening in the Sheep Meadow, Central Park (photo by author)

As promised in my first post on the roller coaster of park funding, I'm going to share the story of Central Park, long considered one of the first parks built as an actual park, rather than a public commons (for grazing livestock), public cemetery, or public parade ground. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Central Park was built in stages before and after the American Civil War. The total cost to build the park was $7.8 million in 1865 dollars. (1)

Even when under construction, Central Park was subject to heavy usage, in part encouraged by the park developers. For example, more than 4.3 million people visited in 1863 and over 6.1 million in 1864, at the height of the Civil War. In 1872, on a return visit to Central Park, Olmsted noted that the park had been "rendered uninviting by tobacco quid and spittle, cigar stumps, nut shells, papers, and offal of fruit and other food, which visitors cast away."(2) New York urban planner, architect, and author Alexander Garvin wrote in 2011 in Public Parks: The Key to Livable Communities that the challenge of public parks is really one of stewardship. He said that "successful parks attract large numbers of people, and even though these crowds don’t intend to cause damage, they do."(3)

Garvin has written that Central Park characterized this cycle of growth and decline in public parks, usually brought about by a decrease in funding for operations and maintenance (often seen as a "nice to have" versus "necessary to have"), as well as change in leadership (parks departments were often a source of patronage jobs in older Eastern U.S. cities), or an economic recession resulting in budget reductions across the board. Declines happened during the Civil War, after the park's completion in the early 1870s, followed by increased stewardship (and many new amenities and facilities) until the early 1910s, followed by a decades-long decline until the emergence of Robert Moses as NYC Parks Commissioner from 1934 through the early 1960s. From the 1960s forward, Central Park saw a period of sustained decline until the early 1980s, due to the broader challenges facing New York City, driven by the departure of industry and over 1 million residents, as well as greatly reduced city revenue and spending.

This pattern was repeated in many Eastern and Midwestern cities that saw similar boom-bust cycles, including Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Chicago. Economic downturns are the strongest factor in reduced parks operations, maintenance, and programming, but the legacy of deferred maintenance—the delay of repair, replacement, and care of parks over decades—led to an even larger challenge. There was simply much more to do when the economy finally allowed for increased spending.

Central Park also demonstrated a unique response in terms of the sustained downturn in the 1960s and 1970s. Residents began to organize, having decided that public parks were a key attribute of why they lived in cities and that providing safe, vibrant green spaces was of critical importance. People organized committees, began advocating for increased spending by elected officials, and began volunteering to clean up, replant, or repair portions of public parks and raise funds for that work. By 1978, there were several committees focused on Central Park, and one of the groups began to assemble a plan to rebuild the park, drawing on the original Olmsted and Vaux plans. Betsy Barlow Rogers, a local resident and architect, offered her services to organize this effort, proposing a new management structure based on a partnership, with ambitious stewardship requirements, which included these elements:

  • An adequate revenue stream;

  • Multiyear planning;

  • Accountable personnel;

  • Equitable resource distribution;

  • Responsiveness to changing demands; and

  • Entrepreneurial management.(4)

For many of us working in the public/nonprofit parks partnership world today, this proposal seems to be the height of common sense, but at the time, it was radical and controversial. But it has led to the creation of hundreds of public/nonprofit partnerships for city parks across the United States. Key is the shared responsibility of park care, including raising funds for park programming, operations, maintenance, and capital improvements, as well as the establishment of volunteer programs that bring thousands of citizens out to help city and nonprofit staff care for parks. This shared responsibility also leads to increased advocacy for city park budgets and the ability to weather economic downturns (late 1990s, 2001, 2010, and the pandemic-fueled 2020) much easier.

Future posts will cover this hopeful way forward in much greater detail with many more examples. Central Park is big (843 acres) and in the middle of the largest city in the U.S., so it can never be a "one-size-fits-all" model. I'll focus on the elements that have made a difference in different cities.

Footnotes / references: (1) Monetary amounts in 1865 dollars. Whitaker, Ben and Browne, Kenneth. Parks for People (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), 21.

(2) Garvin, Alexander. Public Parks: the key to livable communities. 156-157. (3) Garvin, Alexander. Public Parks: the key to livable communities. 155.

Copyright 2022, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC

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