Privatized parks revitalize public spaces and neighborhoods

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Should anyone be bothered that private groups and individuals are owning, managing or funding public parks? No. But some people evidently are.

Recently, Zócalo Public Square, a media enterprise affiliated with Arizona State University, published an essay asking the question, “How public is your favorite public park?”

The essay, written by Kevin Loughran, an assistant professor of sociology at Temple University, walks through the rise of private ownership or management of public parks in cities across the country. Loughran highlights the High Line in New York City, the Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago and the Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston. The concept has even inspired similar ideas in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll just walk through the first two.

The High Line, which first opened in 2009, is a 1.5-mile linear park built along an elevated freight rail line that had been long abandoned. The High Line is officially owned by New York City, but operated in partnership with a nonprofit organization called Friends of the High Line.

The nonprofit, which was started in 1999 to advocate for converting the rail line into a public space, not only helped raise the vast majority of the private funds necessary to create the park, but to this day takes responsibility for raising the funds needed to operate the park. More than a decade after the park’s opening, no one can deny the popularity of the park.

“An estimated 8 million annual visitors now visit the park, which threads 1.5 miles through a transformed part of Manhattan,” reported NBC New York in 2019. “Once a land of industrial buildings, parking lots and auto repair businesses, the neighborhood is now anchored at one end by the dazzling new home of the Whitney Museum of American Art and at the other by Hudson Yards, a $25 billion development of skyscrapers, shops and a performing arts center.”

The park, which is free and open to the public just like any other public park, has seemingly everything going for it. It was no wonder when Chicago followed suit with its own private partnership to create its own 2.7-mile linear park, the Bloomington Trail, based on converting a rail line into public green space.

In 2013, the city of Chicago, in partnership with national nonprofit The Trust for Public Land, started construction of the project, with government and private funders splitting the cost. By 2015, the park was completed, offering green space in neighborhoods in need of it. “The no man’s land becomes a multi-purpose path,” reported the local ABC News in 2015. “Bike, run, walk, or just sit with a vista that’s a little different 17 feet up.”

As explained by the park’s website, the park, which is also called The 606 after the local zip code prefix, “During construction, The Trust for Public Land served as the lead private partner and the project manager on behalf of the Chicago Park District, and currently takes the lead for public programming and community engagement.”

Here we have two similar parks, which were created with the help of nonprofits and private funding, which made better use of old rail lines in a creative fashion. Loughran himself anticipates the questions one would naturally ask after hearing all of this out, writing, “So what? What’s so bad about a few architecturally brilliant parks being paid for with private dollars?”

Loughran’s central complaint: “As elites build new park spaces in their own image, they deepen inequality and shape cities’ public realms as consumerist and securitized, to be squeezed for every last drop of private profit.” These new parks, he argues, are so successful at beautifying neighborhoods that they drive up real estate values and contribute to gentrification.

That’s one way to look at it. Another is that private groups, in partnership with local government, worked to create new, desirable and needed spaces for people to enjoy. What they created was so good that they boosted the economic prospects of their surroundings.

The positive economic impact of the High Line, for example, is expected to generate as much as $1 billion in tax revenue for New York City over 20 years, according to Bloomberg. That’s money that can be used for any litany of purposes to the betterment of city residents.

No doubt, there are trade-offs to consider. The 606 in Chicago, for example, has likewise contributed to rising real estate values in the surrounding neighborhoods. This has sparked particular concerns over gentrification. But the sky hasn’t fallen there, either.

The city of Chicago responded to gentrification concerns by approving an affordable housing development near The 606, and required property owners near The 606 wishing to convert their properties to maintain existing density levels. The latter intrusion on the property rights isn’t ideal and the city is likely to achieve more through liberalizing its housing market (like completely lifting its decades-long ban on accessory dwelling units).

But even so, neither park spelled doom for their surrounding communities. To the contrary, they made them better places to live and experience. That should be lauded, not condemned.

Sal Rodriguez is opinion editor for the Southern California News Group and a senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of Dynamism or Decay? Getting City Hall Out of the Way, published by the Pacific Research Institute.


Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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