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The Public-Private Partnerships of Urban Parks: Who Benefits?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nathan Teklemariam
April 18, 2019

In recent years, public-private park partnerships (P4s) of urban park management and administration have gained much attention in the United States as linchpins to urban revitalization and economic development. In particular, P4s that have utilized decaying old transportation infrastructure as an adaptive reuse for urban park systems have proved as catalysts to large-scale investments into urban centers that have long been in decline. Although contracting out of park management has become a widespread practice among OECD countries in the last several decades, there is very little known about the current wave of non-profit organizations’ roles in initiating and transforming old transportation infrastructure into vibrant parks. More specifically, little is known about how these parks have affected surrounding communities equitably. 

Perhaps, there is no greater an example of a successful adaptive reuse of an aging infrastructure to an urban park than the High Line in New York City. When Friends of The High Line (FHL) formed in early 1999 to lobby then Mayor Giuliani’s office not to dismantle the vacant elevated rail line, but rather to preserve and turn it into a linear park spanning parallel to the West Side Highway, no one really knew what the outcome of such a project would bring to the city. To call the High Line a success is an understatement. As a non-profit organization, FHL oversaw the design and construction, and is currently in charge of the overall maintenance and management of the park. The city leases the infrastructure and overseas FHL’s proper management of the High Line. 

Since the park’s completion and opening in 2009, the surrounding Chelsea neighborhood has seen a major transformation. The founders of the High Line envisioned around 300,000 visitors annually for the park. In 2016 alone, 8 million people flocked to the park, making it the most visited site in New York City that year. The park is projected to earn NYC $1 billion in tax revenues in the next 20 years. 

The overwhelming success of the High Line, however, comes at a cost. The unintended externalities of the project are little known or studied. Since the completion of the High Line, many high-rise hotels and housing developments have been erected along the stretch of the linear park, all targeting the very wealthy. Coupled with the rezoning of the Chelsea neighborhood that coincided with the development and opening of the High Line, the stretch that parallels the park and the Hudson River has become the most sought-after site for real estate developers. 

The neighborhood is also home to the Chelsea-Elliot Houses, one of the largest public housing projects in Manhattan, making up nearly one-third of the population. Although the neighborhood was in the early stages of gentrifying, the High Line has accelerated the process and the once affordable Chelsea has become the equivalent of other wealthy areas such as the Upper Eastside and Upper Westside neighborhoods. United States Census figures show that the average household income in Chelsea in 2017 was about $160,000, almost five times the average of households in public housing in the area.

More problematic, a 2016 article in the journal of Urban Geography by Reichi J. Alexander titled, “The High Line and the Ideal or Democratic Public Space,” found that the majority of the park users and benefiters are not locals. The study concluded that visitors to the High Line are overwhelmingly white (83 percent), “To a degree that is far out of line with the racial/ethnic demographics of the borough and city, that the level of racial homogeneity significantly exceeds that of other comparable parks, and that the lack of diversity cannot be explained by neighborhood composition.” In contrast, 40 percent of NYC’s population is African-American and Latino.

Urban parks provide a multiplicity of benefit to city life. They are the quintessential public space for its residents and tourists alike, bringing people together across social, economic and racial divides. They provide green space and a refuge away from the intensity of urban life.  They are beneficial for the physical health of residents as spaces for physical exercise and mental solace. They play a major role in mitigating heat island effect created by the otherwise concrete built-up areas that dominate the city landscape.

Non-profit “friends of” organizations in cities across the United States are currently in the process of adopting a FHL and High Line model of turning their aging infrastructures into urban parks. In almost all cases, the proposed projects are directly adjacent to low-income communities, such as those in Richmond, VA and Baltimore. It is important to learn from the experience of NYC about the overall process to avoid unintended consequences in both design and community engagement processes that could lead to inequitable outcomes. Therefore, a rigorous impact scenario analysis must be in place for such urban park development, a responsibility where city managers and administrators must take the lead and make an in-house assessment priority prior to signing off to P4 arrangements.   

Author: Nathan (Natan) Teklemariam is a third year Doctoral student at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. Teklemariam is a 2018 ASPA Founders’ Fellow and a 2018 ASPA International Young Scholars recipient. [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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