“Perhaps the most amazing thing about Central Park is how little tax money goes into maintaining it. Though it is still ultimately the city’s responsibility, the park has been managed since the 1980s by the nonprofit , and it relies on private donations for most of its budget. The marriage between the city and the Conservancy has been a fruitful one. Can this model, known as a public-private partnership, restore and invigorate all of New York’s green spaces, including neighborhood parks in less affluent areas? It’s an important question, not only as the city faces tough fiscal times but as urban planners increasingly view parks as tools of economic development and public health.
People who lived in New York in the 1970s and early 1980s still remember how forbidding the parks were in those dark days. Douglas Blonsky, now head of the Central Park Conservancy and thus Central Park’s administrator, recalls that when he started working there in 1985, most of the benches were broken and most surfaces sported layers of graffiti. “The Great Lawn was a dust bowl,” he says, at least when the weather was dry; when it rained, seas of mud meant that “you could barely walk through the park for days.”
But where “government had given up,” citizens stepped in. In 1980, landscape designer Elizabeth Barlow Rogers and others founded the Central Park Conservancy, whose original purpose was to raise money, stop the park’s decline, and restore several of its major landmarks. The city eventually gave the Conservancy the lion’s share of day-to-day control of the park.Because its workers weren’t organized into public-sector unions, the Conservancy had a great deal of freedom to institute private management practices—above all, emphasizing accountability. The park is now divided into 49 sections, with a master gardener responsible for the condition of each. About 85 percent of the Conservancy’s annual budget comes from private donations, mostly from people who live within a ten-minute walk of the park. “Obviously, it’s an incredible backyard, and look what it does to your real-estate values,” says Blonsky.”
Private sector fixes for government problems: remove graft, instill accountability, watch good things happen.