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The Roller-coaster history of park funding

Updated: Apr 2, 2022

By Charlie McCabe

Since Central Park first opened in New York City, just before the Civil War, Americans living in urban environments have flocked to parks to escape the increasingly crowded conditions of their cities and their neighborhoods. They have come to parks to enjoy leisure time, entertainment, food and drink, and, beginning in the latter half of the 19th century and increasingly in the 20th century, exercise. Friends and family congregate and spend hours enjoying everything from gardens to waterways to hiking and biking, and even indoor spaces for visual arts and performances. As many parks proved during the darker days of the Covid-19 pandemic, parks are many things to many people.

Increased park usage does not lead to increased (or even sustained) park funding.

Americans’ history of developing and maintaining our public parks has followed a specific path, much like we do on a bike ride, a run, or a walk through a park. We have had periods of tremendous investment in public parks, often spurred by a charismatic individual or firm, followed by heavy usage, and then a struggle to keep the park and its facilities in working order as sustained usage begins to take its toll. Periods of decline typically follow those “golden ages” of investment. At times, we use a national crisis, such as the Great Depression in the 1930s, to spur fresh investment and renewal. All too often, however, there is a subsequent decline that mirrors challenges to our cities and our regional and national economic well-being.

This pattern of investment and neglect has continued for over 150 years across the United States. We often refer to this as parks being "loved to death."

In the late 1970s (after several decades of declining spending and as a result, ongoing care), a different way of thinking emerged in the consciousness of many residents of our cities, born of necessity when many cities were facing financial insolvency. The residents organized into groups and began demanding increased investment in park spaces while also forming safety patrols, picking up litter, and painting out graffiti. The reasons were many and varied, including issues of safety, the need for respite from the even more crowded urban world, the desire to “make a difference” (borne out of the environmental movement that began around the first Earth Day in 1970), and knowing that without citizen intervention—challenging and working with our government agencies—conditions would not improve in our once-great parks.

The best-known early efforts took place in New York City, with the rise of the Central Park Conservancy and the Prospect Park Alliance, organized around two of the Olmsted and Vaux masterpieces of 19th-century park design: Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

These two grassroots organizations were just the first of many to emerge. Beginning in the late 1970s, dozens of “friends of the park” groups quickly grew to hundreds, some becoming even more formalized organizations called park conservancies, and most, if not all, operating as nonprofit organizations. The progression and sequence of all volunteers to formalized nonprofits varied widely from park to park and from city to city, depending on a host of factors, ranging from fundraising capacity to the relationship with city government.

In next week's post, we'll look specifically at Central Park and the many rises and falls through its history and how it set the stage for the concept of partnerships between public park agencies and collaborating nonprofits.

Copyright 2022, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC

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