To protect Baltimore's parks, look to New York

Baltimore’s park system is truly one of our city’s great assets. With over 6,000 acres of land spread over 262 parks, Baltimore boasts one of the largest urban park networks in the country. The many public pools, sports facilities, dog parks, pavilions and hiking trails that the city Department of Recreation and Parks oversees are a major part of what makes Baltimore a great place to live.

But those parks don’t come cheaply; as it is the city is barely able to keep up with maintenance. Go to any park in Baltimore, and you can see city property in visible disrepair of some degree, from little things, like missing stones lining Patterson Park, to the more noticeable, like the long-abandoned Valve House in the middle of Clifton Park. (The city had to lease Lake Roland park to the county for care.)

It’s hard to see how this might improve given our city’s other challenges. After all, how could we justify a large increase in parks funding with freezing schools? But it is possible to have the parks we want, right now, if we follow New York’s example.

It may seem like distant history, considering New York’s wealth and low crime, but not too long ago that city was also in a bad state. A deep recession, wealthy residents moving to the suburbs, the crack epidemic and industrial job losses created conditions that would be familiar to Baltimoreans. The city’s sprawling parks department, once a powerful agency, saw its funding cut dramatically and repeatedly. At its Great Depression-peak the department had 75,000 employees, but by 1996 that number had shrunk to 2,451, according to “Parks and Partnership in New York City.” Parks, especially in poor neighborhoods, fell into severe disrepair.

The model for a turnaround was developed in New York’s iconic Central Park. In 1980, with the park in a dilapidated state, Elizabeth “Betsy” Rodgers was appointed as the first Central Park Administrator and officially charged with overseeing all aspects of the park’s daily operations. One of her first actions was to merge the parks department’s Central Park Task Force with the Central Park Community Fund, to create a public-private partnership in charge of the park: the Central Park Conservancy.

Granting authority over the park to the conservancy had two immediate benefits: The city saved a considerable amount of money it spent on Central Park, and it no longer needed to provide park services. Using private donations dedicated to Central Park, the conservancy was able to fully restore the park to its former glory. And, spared the need to maintain Central Park, the parks department was able to concentrate attention on less-prominent parks in less-wealthy areas. Today 55 percent of Manhattan’s recreation facilities are managed by a private partner.

The benefit of this model, however, hasn’t been limited to proper maintenance. The Central Park Conservancy has raised funds so successfully that they’ve been able to create a park endowment and secure a steady funding stream for decades to come. They’ve been able to fund park rangers, host free events and sponsor public art. They’ve even created the Central Park Conservancy Institute for Urban Parks to develop programs around the world for the protection of green spaces.

Previous city leaders in Baltimore have recognized the success of the public-private model. In fact, Federal Hill Park is already being maintained by the community group South Harbor Renaissance, which also paid for the park’s Flag Staff Plaza and playground. It is, not coincidentally, one of our best maintained parks.

Baltimore’s leaders should expand this model to other parks in the city, with Riverside Park, Wyman Park Dell and Patterson Park being some obvious candidates. Established community groups already raise funds and advocate for these parks. Giving the groups true authority over their respective parks would better engage communities and allow the Department of Parks and Recreation to focus on areas of the city with less community engagement.

Such private-citizen groups can maintain our parks in a way that saves the city money and actually gets the job done.

Ted Walsh is a graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park. His email is tedwalsh7@gmail.com.

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