The Future of Park Funding

Last evening I attended a presentation entitled “City Parks and Libraries as Anchor Institutions” at the University of Toronto, Munk School of Global Affairs.  Sponsered by TD.

About 100 registered attendees filled the Vivian and David Campbell Conference Room to hear speakers Siobhan Reardon (Free Library of Philadelphia) and Jamie Torres-Springer  (Partner at HR&A Advisors) speak on their respective areas of expertise.  Ms Reardon spoke first, discussing her time, as president and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia.  An excellent presentation on the makeup of the Philadelphia market and how the library serves the community, but it was Mr. Torres-Springer’s talk, as advisor and consultant to many park projects around the continent that held the greatest interest for me.

As I’ve said myself many times and in many places, parks must not only have intrinsic value, but they must be proven to have value beyond themselves.  They must somehow “prove” to the community they serve and the community at large, that their value is real, quantifiable and manageable.  It’s not enough to say, “parks are beautiful,” and leave it at that.  Things without value are soon left behind, abused and given little, if any thought, at all.

Today, for modern great cities like Toronto, New York, Chicago, Boston or Vancouver with sky rocketing land values and land-use pressures building on all fronts, parks must show how they contribute to the cityscape as a whole.

This is not easy, for historically parks have served purposes not easily quantifiable such as, “Escape from the rigors of the city” or “Improve quality of life.”  Much research has been done in the past couple of decades on how one’s health is affected by living near a park 1– and the data seems to support the contention that just having a park nearby (even if it isn’t used by an individual) can have a positive impact on one’s health.  The “pastoral” style parks of the past (High Park, Hyde Park or Central Park) attempted to bring some of the country into the city.

1 “Scientists are routinely taking into account income and other differences in their studies. So the question is no longer, do people living in greener neighborhoods have better health outcomes? (They do.) Rather, the question has become, do people living in greener neighborhoods have better health outcomes when we take income and other advantages associated with greener neighborhoods into account?” That answer is also, yes, according to Kuo.

Parks have long been recognized as adding value to adjacent properties, but exactly how much was always a bit of a puzzle, but with today’s statistics easily available and the machines to crunch the numbers we know that land located within a quarter mile of a “good” park will have a land value of some 8% higher than other properties, while a property located near a “signature” park is estimated to be worth up to 20% more.  Land value impact is not insignificant.

Parks have also been called upon to help “build cities” by being anchor areas to any given neighbourhood – a place for people to gather and commune with one another.  In Toronto, particularly, “linear” parks held define parts of the city and, to a small extent, act as transportation and corridors for commuting walkers and cyclists.

 The demand on land has seen parks take on new responsibilities, on top of their historic roles.  Many parks are now heavily “programmed” with art and cultural events.  While Harbourfront might not be what we think of as a park – it is non-the-less a public space in which people gather.  It’s heavily programmed with art and cultural programs – some free and others for a fee.  I can’t think of any major park in the city core that is not programmed, at least part of the year, with events like farmer’s markets, art shows, concerts, movies, occupations, neighbourhood fundraisers, etc.

While historic “city building” had the parks acting in a passive role, today’s, “neighbourhood development” calls on the park to be more assertive and interactive within a neighbourhood.  One particular park the Don River Park at Eastern and Bayview Ave. will be a centerpiece for the 2015 Pan American Games, being hosted by Toronto.  Adjacent to the park will be the athletes village which will be left for housing stock once the games are over.  Developing the park, in conjunction with mid to high density housing adds value to each and every unit in this case a 20% premium just for being up the street from the Don River Park.

Finally, among the new roles our parks are being asked to play is that of “tourism.”  In the case of Habourfront, not only to local residents and workers us and enjoy the area almost daily, but people from across the city come to enjoy the programming, harbour views, cultural activities and restaurants.  But more, people from around the world come to the area as well, maybe not specifically for the Harbourfront experience, but as part of their overall vacation plan, making Harbourfront a bona fide tourist destination.  The newly minted Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York city, while grander in stature, is similarly blessed with “tourist attraction” status.

So, what we have is an expanding and evolving role that cities are asking parks to take on, at a time – for much of North America – when municipalities are cutting back their funding!  City budgets are being strained to the breaking point, and Toronto is no different than any other city in that regard.

Just as an aside, the average funding per acre that cities use to fund parks is about $2.8K for your standard neighbourhood park.  Signature parks, like Harbourfront or the Brooklyn Bridge Park require more in the neighbourhood of $180K per acre!  If you’re planning a signature park for your city, you can see the cost disparity is a major problem.  That’s where funding – other than public – is going to have to make up the difference.

Funding Components

Every park depends on public funding.  It’s the base that helps get a park started and the leverage that helps get economic interest in the park, from the private sector.  Without public funding, parks rarely get created in the first place for it’s public money that is the main indicator of where other monies needs to be spent.  It’s public money that get infrastructure – such as parks – rolling in the first place.  For example, were it not for public money, the Don River Park and all it’s adjacent real estate development would never have gotten off the ground.  Ataritari (the attempt by Mayor Art Egleton to re-invigorate a post-industrial area of Toronto’s Lower Don River)  was a rare example of public money not being able to attract private investment – largely because not enough public money was spent to rehabilititate the land.  Ataratiri may have been 25 years early, at any rate.

Another form of income for the park is “earned revenue.” Which is what any park can earn through programming, special events or fees for use that come through park activation and animation of it’s resources.  This may include naming rights of park assets.

After the big windstorm that knocked down thousands of trees in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, the city was obliged to raise millions of dollars that it didn’t have through naming rights and expanded concession fees to help rebuild the park.

Other forms of earned revenue may include;

  • Food and Beverage
  • Events, promotions and other fee-based activities
  • Parking
  • Corporate sponsorship
  • Special tax or mil-rate assessments

Philanthropy.  Individuals, families, small businesses, corporations and foundations have always given to parks, recognizing their historic value.  Now that parks are taking on the new roles, there’s even more need for philanthropic activity.  Were it not for the generous gift of Provincial Surveyor, John Howard, Toronto’s High Park would never have been created.  Same for Craigleah Gardens in Toronto’s Rosedale.

Real estate development is yet another form of park funding, albeit a mighty touchy one.  In NYC, when the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy got hold of the land from the City of New York, it wa stipulated that the City would not be paying for any Operational or Management (O&M) costs.  These costs would fall solely to the Conservancy.  The conservancy developed a plan to sell of about 10% of the land at one end of the park area to a land developer.  The money garnered from the sale went to create an endowment for the O&M costs of the park in perpetuity.  Not only did this sale net money for the conservancy, but it also created thousands of new constituents who would use the adjacent park.

Governance and Management [ for another posting on Park Governance and funding, go here]

Personally, I believe that parks have proven their value, even if we only looked at their historic roles.  Their evolving and expanding functions only serve to harden their place in our cities.  The puzzle of how parks are to be funded going forward, remains.  Should it be part private money and part public?  What percentage makes sense?  How far down the private road to we go, before we’ve turned our parkland over to private interests for their management on a for-profit basis?

Then, after we’ve figured out how to fund parks, how are they governed and managed?  If private money is paying for their upkeep, what rights will the municipality give up?  What model of governance is best adopted for their management?  It might be one thing to have a soccer field in High Park named BMO Field, but once they buy the naming rights for the roads, trails and meadows, what is the public left with – RRSP Uplands Trail or Grenadier Savings Pond?  Is that a bad thing and if so why?

Clearly, how parks are funded will have an impact on how they are governed.  As private money flows into the system of parks, an arms length approach of governance and management will have to be developed, while at the same time preserving the public assets against complete privatization or exploitation.  What this will look like remains to be seen, but some hint at what it might look like may be found in the Brooklyn Bridge Park model.

One last take away from last night is recognition by the presenters, moderators and sponsors of the growing value and the importance of “Friends of …” groups like Friends of Dieppe ParkFriends of Withrow  or the Sorauren Park Advisory Committee.  Umbrella organizations like Park People are having a positive impact on park organization and their funding.

– Article courtesy of Ed Horner





One response to this post.

  1. […] after three decades, Geoffery Croft is asking if the private/public model has gone too far.  Are there lessons to be learned, before Toronto starts drinking this varietal? – […]


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