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Conservancies: All for One, One for All, or Both?

As Conservancy North, a fledgling 501c3 ramps up its service to Northern Manhattan’s parks and open spaces, it helps to look at the role of conservancies in other parts of the City.  

In addition to being a board member of Conservancy North, I am a public member of the Community Board 2 Parks and Waterfront Committee, and Washington Square Park is part of our purview.  They are just now setting up a conservancy, and frankly the whole system makes me crazy.  It’s a circular argument:  they don’t have funding to support the parks so the rich parks start conservancies of local burghers and then the elected officials see that the parks are improving so even less money is allocated.

In this case, and apparently in many of them, the Parks Administrator is also the principal of the conservancy.  But since the Administrator is paid by Parks the conservancy needn’t pay this person so everyone acts like the public, via the conservancy, is getting a good deal. To me it looks more like the public is paying a private employee of a 501c3.  Yes, their goals are worthy: more gardeners, more maintenance, and regardless of how you see their effectiveness or ethics, more PEP officers, and theoretically, that serves all parks users and the surrounding neighborhood.  But to me this still privatizes the park. No, they’re not controlling who enters as they do in Gramercy Park, but they are privatizing who gets a say in what’s done and how.

But what’s worse to me is that rich parks with conservancies make it look like all parks are doing well, and they are not.  So many parks do not have fairy-godmothers, and the state of the lucky ones leads the rich of NY - the people who donate the big bucks - to assume that all parks are doing well.  People are not encouraged to donate to the poor parks they don’t see.  

Perhaps conservancies should not raise funds for specific parks, with the conservancy effort going into a general fund instead. But we all also know that won’t work.  People will put time, effort, and dollars into the park they use, or the park whose state affects their real estate value, or whatever metric they use.  In any case, it’s personal.  So when I read articles like Parks Department Takes a Seat Behind Nonprofit Conservancies, I wonder if State Senator Squadron's suggestionthat the wealthiest conservancies reroute some of their funds to less wealthy parks is a good one.  On paper, without further details, I provisionally say yes.

But there are additional ideas worth thinking about.  Can the money raised by conservancies be leveraged against public funds?  For example, can money raised by a specific conservancy be matched with public funds and directed to a fund for all parks without conservancies?  Could there be a model where un-rich area residents are matched with donors and the residents provide the work and brain trust aspects of the conservancy in exchange for donations?  That would address the notion of hand-outs for parks whose local residents don’t take an interest, because surely one can argue that the rich area residents of the fancy parks are putting in time and effort in addition to money. Yes, they have more resources, but equity in effort needs to be recognized for any system to be established.

An organization analogous to City Parks Foundation, but geared toward capital projects and not just specific activities, could make sure that parks that are already getting funds from conservancies don’t drain the available funds.  

Ideally New Yorkers would rise up and demand that more public funds go toward parks so that all are well funded. But that means taking moneyfrom somewhere else in the "social" pot and is thus fraught with difficulties. Until open space is seen as critical to public health and not just an amenity we won’t see a change that affects the whole city. Ultimately the way people interact, recreate, and relate to their environment and the related social lessons and lifelong fitness and public health issues these factors address are right up near education in importance for our future.  If we could monetize the deleterious effects of not having programmatically rich, appealing, flexible, safe, well-used public open spaces the city would find a way to fund them.

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