(Photo of the gardens of the North End Parks, Rose Kennedy Greenway, Boston)
One of the most frequently questions I get as a consultant is who funds public parks?
By and large, the answer is the public (taxpayers, like you and me) fund public parks, largely through local taxes paid to your municipality (city, town, county) - primarily through sales tax, property tax or other specific fees, these are all collected into a bucket called the general fund. Parks must compete against all other needs in a given city or town, like schools, roads, and public safety. Schools and public safety (fire, police, Ems, hospitals) are the largest consumers of taxes at the local level. Parks, along with libraries and public health are usually very low on the priority list. In most cities, parks receive less than one percent of the total budget at the local level.
Surprising, isn't it?
Generally speaking, when economic times are good, parks see more investment, especially in capital investments to buy new parkland or build a new playscape or pool. When economic times are challenging, parks see cuts, especially in operations and maintenance. For example, during the 1960s and 1970s, many older northern industrial cities, like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, saw economic declines that triggered the departure of residents and businesses from those cities. With less revenue from taxes, reductions in services like parks were widespread. This created a vicious cycle with many historic and popular parks, like Central Park and Prospect Park in New York, saw degraded conditions, less usage, reduced maintenance, and at times, unsafe conditions for park users.
People, primarily volunteers, began to notice the worsening conditions and began to take action, advocating for more public funding, volunteering to raise funds and improve conditions, and proposing partnerships with city government to step in and close the gap. Starting in Central Park but spreading to other parks in other cities, people forged working relationships with like minded individuals and key leaders in city government. Friends of parks organizations, park foundations and park conservancies were formed. Their focus became working together with local governments to improve park conditions and encourage people to visit parks and raise funds for both repair and ongoing maintenance. Slowly, over time, these partnerships grew more and more successful.
We'll cover more about how these partnerships work and their impact in future posts, but despite over 40 years of history, parks nonprofits are still pretty rare. Based on research performed by The Trust for Public Land, there are 223 parks nonprofits operating in the 100 largest U. S. cities. Half of these are less than 20 years old, in fact the median year the bulk of these organizations was established is 2005. Collectively, these organizations raise and spend about $596 Million annually in those parks. While this seems like a lot, its just six percent of all spending (totalling $8.18 Billion) in the park systems of the 100 largest cities. And remember, this is a small portion of total city spending, usually one percent or less.
There's a lot more to tell about how public and nonprofit park organizations work together to program, improve, and maintain public parks in cities across the United States and I look forward to doing so in future posts. In the meantime check out "Public Spaces, Private Money," a good primer is the study of parks conservancies written by The Trust for Public Land in 2016.