Because the COVID-19 pandemic has quashed so many travel plans, parks have become more important than ever, for people to walk, exercise, or just hang out (socially distancing, of course). If you’re a city dweller, you’re lucky if your hometown has a high ParkScore, a rating system developed by the Trust for Public Land that analyzes how many residents of a city have a park within a 10-minute walk of home. The index factors in investments in parks, acreage, and amenities to come up with each rating. The research also shows that, regrettably, 100 million Americans don’t have green space within 10 minutes of home in cities and surrounding metropolitan areas.
The Trust’s criteria, it must be noted, do not just count public parkland but also privately owned parks that are managed for “full public use.” Given the squeeze on the public purse, parks owned and/or operated by private companies or organizations seem to be filling a growing need, with obvious benefits though potential drawbacks. In the August 2020 of RECORD, we explore several such recently completed public—yet private—landscapes. In Seattle, Expedia developed a 2.6-acre waterfront beach, adjacent to its headquarters and connecting to a public trail, with walking and bike paths. The company owns the property, yet its investment in remediating the former brown site is an environmental benefit to all, and the park is kept open to the public 24/7. Similarly, CityPlace and CityPlace Park, a large residential and commercial real-estate development north of Houston, has incorporated essential flood-control systems (paid for by the county government) into a series of cultivated landscapes—from nature preserves to man-made ponds to urban-style plazas. All are open to the public beyond its residents and tenants.
While such amenities are a boon in underserved areas, not everyone feels welcome in certain corporatized places. And a category of such parks—POPS—privately owned public spaces—have proliferated in cities, giving developers zoning concessions in exchange for creating and operating a public space. But such private operators don’t always continue to live up to their agreements, rewriting the rules for such spaces, decreasing the hours they are open, or taking over space for commercial use. Dozens, if not hundreds, of POPS in New York are no longer operating as promised for the public. And, because of COVID-19, New York’s mayor is allowing a temporary change to the rules, so that outdoor restaurants can operate in some of these spaces.
Right now, true public space is particularly vulnerable. A bleak report on New York’s parks—significantly financed through private donations and revenue—describes a funding loss of nearly 70 percent this year due to COVID-19, which will lead to severe cuts in maintenance and services. Brooklyn Bridge Park, including Pier 3, one of its latest phases, is in a different position: though on city land, its operating funding comes from the commercial and residential enclave along the park’s highly desirable urban edge—part of a controversial land deal made with the developer.
Such relinquishment of development rights or other versions of privatization may look tantalizing to cash-strapped government officials, but public outrage tends to be swift. The waterfront Liberty State Park in New Jersey would lose 22 acres of a fragile environment for migratory birds to the expansionist plans of an exclusive private golf club next door—though conservationists and many of the state’s officials say they are against allowing the club to lease any land from the park.
America’s extraordinary collection of National Parks is facing similar pressure. The National Park Service is short $12 billion for maintenance, yet a proposal to privatize some park services—outsourcing management of campgrounds, for example—sparked an instantaneous backlash when it became public last fall. Among other things, the plan called for allowing Amazon deliveries and limiting senior discounts.
A vast amount of public land is supported in part by private entities. When those private funders are donating for the public good, that should earn our gratitude. But when public space is privatized for profit, or for a quid pro quo that will not be honored, that hurts all of us. Whether an urban pocket park or a vast national wilderness, public lands need to be conserved and maintained for everyone. It is an effort that deserves our vigilance and our advocacy to protect what we have now and for generations to come.