Central Park at 150

by Anne Schwartz, Jul 21, 2003

Today Central Park is cherished by the many New Yorkers who come to the park to escape from the rest of the city ("An Escape from Reality" By Sarah P. Lustbader), to appreciate nature, to form new communities (“Dancing in the Park” by Kendall Williams) or to make art (“Our Project For The Park,” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude). And Central Park remains a national model. The park’s rebirth over the last two decades, accompanied by a dramatic drop in crime within its boundaries ("Taking Back the Park from Crime" by Julia Vitullo-Martin) has shown other cities how they can restore their public landscapes. The Central Park Conservancy, begun by Betsy Barlow Rogers in 1980, pioneered the concept of a non-profit community organization raising funds and working with government to fix up and maintain a public park. Parks throughout the city and country -- even the national parks -- have adopted this idea of public-private partnership.

The very success of the Central Park model, however, raises some concerns. The reliance on private funding could weaken the government's traditional role in maintaining public space and ultimately reduce the opportunity for all citizens to enjoy it. Although Central Park has remained the quintessential public space, in Bryant Park, for example, private events held in the park temporarily keep much of the public out.

The reliance on private funding could leave the city with a two-tier park system. Individuals and corporations are most likely to donate to a park they care about, favoring parks in affluent areas. Despite efforts to provide private funds for the rest of the system, such as the non-profit City Parks Foundation, parks in poor neighborhoods, particularly outside Manhattan, could be left to depend on dwindling public dollars.

The activism of the Central Park Conservancy has fostered beautifully maintained grounds and funded many public performances and educational programs, "setting a standard to be achieved for the entire city park system," said Christian DiPalermo, director of New Yorkers for Parks. This has raised New Yorkers' expectations for all of the city’s parks. "You can't have Central Park with a completely different set of policies as the rest of the system," said Ethan Carr, a visiting professor in the Bard Graduate Center's landscape history program. But bringing the condition of all parks up to the level of Central Park would require the city to greatly increase its funding for parks, something it did not do even when the economy was thriving.

It is not only in fund raising that Central Park serves as a model. The conservancy, which operates the park under a contract from the city parks department, is in the forefront of park management as well. The conservancy does not just raise money. It runs the park and hires most park employees. The city parks department has ultimate oversight but does not manage Central Park as it does most other city parks.

The restoration of the park has been guided by a master plan, something urban park expert Peter Harnik says is key to a well-run park. And unlike the parks department in New York and many other cities, the conservancy plans for the long-term upkeep of areas that it has restored, protecting its capital investment and minimizing costs in the long run.

The park has had great success with its innovative "zone management" system, where one gardener is responsible for a specific section of the park. The gardener has the authority to enforce rules -- such as prohibitions against trampling newly seeded areas, littering or letting dogs run loose -- and is someone to whom visitors can complain or report problems. Doug Blonsky, the administrator of the park, said the zone system “works wonderfully in developing relationships with the community."

Any controversy within Central Park’s boundaries -- be it crime, turning a blind eye to wine drinkers in the park while ticketing beer drinkers at the beach, or installing a work of art on its walkways -- immediately gains prominence because this is, though not our biggest, our most beloved and most used park. But a century and a half after it was first created, Central Park continues to inspire. The question is whether the New York City park system as a whole can benefit from its example. Ethan Carr said, "If we are going to call Central Park the great success story of American parks in the last 20 years, we have to find out how that can be extended throughout the New York City park system."