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Part 2: What Exactly Is A Parks Nonprofit?

Updated: Jan 24


(Swampoodle Park, Washington, DC. Photo from NOMA Parks Foundation)


In my last post, I covered the most common parks nonprofits: friends of parks groups, park foundations / conservancies and city-wide parks foundations. These are all close relatives, the remaining four I'll cover here are less common but interesting nonetheless. In future writings, I'll cover mixed models, which are unique blends of the core seven organizational types.

  • Park Development Corporations

  • Community Development Corporations

  • Business Improvement Districts

  • Public Benefit Corporations

Park Development Corporations: These special-purpose entities are created by state and local governments to tackle a large-scale park project that encompasses both commercial and public park development. Funds can include private equity or public economic development funds, but development is geared to help either re-pay public investment in the parks themselves or to help pay for the ongoing cost of maintenance and operations. Park Development Corporations can be paired with Parks Conservancies or Friends groups, as has been the case for many in New York City. Examples include the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation paired with the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy; Hudson River Park Trust paired with Hudson River Park Friends; and The Trust for Governors Island paired with The Friends of Governors Island.


While park development corporations get much of their revenue for park operations and improvements through a combination of public funds (often from state/city agreements) as well as recurring revenue via lease agreements, the Friends groups stand apart with separate boards of directors, staff, and fundraising goals to help with specific aspects of programming, as well as with operations through volunteer programs.


Community Development Corporations: These not-for-profit corporations emerged in the 1960s to tackle economic development, education, community organizing, and real estate development for a specific area in a city. Over time, they have become well-known as the developers and landlords of low and moderate income housing, providing a variety of services for residents. The first CDC was Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in Brooklyn, New York, in 1967, with a large outdoor public space called Restoration Plaza. CDCs have grown to manage public parks and plazas in partnership with public parks agencies, much like parks conservancies. Increasingly, public spaces and parks are built as part of CDC housing projects in cities across the U.S., especially in areas where housing is needed and open land is at a premium.


Business Improvement Districts: Often called public improvement districts, BIDs are special taxing entities chartered through a combination of state and city legislation for a defined portion of a city, often a commercial business district. BIDs usually focus on specific programs to improve the overall level of maintenance of the streetscape and of the ground floor/first floor of buildings and property. Since the funding comes from an additional assessment or tax of property owners, the historic focus of BIDs has been “clean and safe.”

In many cities, BIDs have signed agreements with public parks agencies to take on programming, maintenance, and improvements to public parks, much like park conservancies. In a number of cities, and especially New York City, this has resulted in extending the city plaza program, where underutilized portions of streets are converted into public plazas (sometimes temporary, sometimes permanent) that are programmed and maintained by local BIDs or under contract to nonprofit organizations.


In the 1990s and early 2000s, when BIDs were rapidly expanding, many ran into challenges, in particular, homeless people occupying sidewalks, benches, bus stops, parks, and plazas. Because of their “clean and safe” promises, they often worked to move homeless people out of the spaces, usually without looking for natural allies, such as shelters and aid organizations. Thus they only succeeded in moving people around from public space to public space versus solving the problem.


Since then, many BIDs have worked with shelters, funders, law enforcement, and health services to more holistically address these situations in a growing number of cities. A number of BIDs have created separate park conservancies to develop new parks, as well as program, operate and maintain those parks. Examples include NOMA Parks Foundation (Washington, DC), Capital Riverfront BID (Washington, DC), and Downtown Detroit Partnership: Parks + Public Spaces.


Public Benefit Corporations: These special-purpose entities are corporations set up through government officials and managed by development professionals for the purpose of developing or managing large-scale commercial developments that have extensive public facilities. Battery Park City Authority in Manhattan is an example of a public benefit corporation, funded by the State of New York to allocate a portion (36%) of the developed Battery Park City to public parks and spaces. The Authority created and funds the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy to “manage, maintain, operate, and program” the parks.


Thanks for reading!

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