Our Parks Are Not for Sale: From the Gold Coast of New York to the Venice Biennale

Our Parks Are Not for Sale: From the Gold Coast of New York to the Venice Biennale

Many municipal parks agencies have become charity cases, overly dependent upon support from conservancies and “Friends” groups in order to fulfill their missions. Some of the most glaring inequities in the United States are becoming manifest in the way our public spaces are designed, maintained, and regulated.

Photo by Alex Ulam

City agencies in New York are not allowed to take money from the Mafia, and most philanthropic organizations don’t want gangsters at their galas. But there is a long tradition of shady financiers buying respectability through charitable gifts to public causes. Such is the case with hedge fund billionaire John Paulson, who in 2012 made a $100 million gift to the Central Park Conservancy, the prominent charitable organization responsible for the day-to-day maintenance and operation of the park.

Paulson is infamous for increasing his already substantial fortune on Goldman Sachs deals, under which investors allegedly were duped into buying securities that were designed to fail. One of these deals was the subject of an SEC lawsuit that led to the investment bank’s settling for $550 million, one of the largest settlements ever with a financial institution. Although Paulson was not charged with wrongdoing, according to the SEC lawsuit, Goldman allowed him to secretly design and bet against the securities that the bank sold to investors who lost money when the housing market tanked.

Now Paulson is spending a small percentage of his money to decorate what is, in effect, the front yard of many of Wall Street’s largest investors. But Paulson’s bid to establish a legacy among his Upper East Side neighbors—he owns a 28,500 square-foot townhouse a stone’s throw from the park—has sparked a controversy over how public parks are financed.

In an article about the Paulson gift, New York Times Gotham columnist Michael Powell noted that while Central Park benefits from gifts from its wealthy neighbors, “many of the city’s other parks look like ragged country cousins,” adding that “when officials in New York’s more distant parks plead for a little bit more, city officials suggest selling off naming rights and letting corporations slap names on basketball and dog runs.”

Central Park is only the most prominent example of a troubling trend. With city budgets being slashed across the country, many municipal parks agencies have become charity cases, overly dependent upon support from conservancies and “Friends” groups in order to fulfill their missions. As a result, some of the most glaring inequities in the United States are becoming manifest in the way our public spaces are designed, maintained, and regulated.

Central Park didn’t need Paulson’s help. The Central Park Conservancy already had a $144 million endowment before it received his gift. The group, which raises money from tax-deductible charitable contributions and investment revenue, provides 85 percent of the park’s maintenance budget. Thus, it is primarily donations, not taxpayer dollars, that pay for the park’s top talent and its large, capable staff. The president of the Central Park Conservancy makes about twice as much as the city’s parks commissioner, and the Conservancy directly employs about 90 percent of the park’s maintenance operations staff. They do a great job: Central Park has impeccably manicured lawns, carefully pruned shrubbery, and country club–quality tennis courts.

However, considering that New York City is suffering severe fiscal cutbacks, it seems grossly unfair that Central Park is the recipient of such largesse from a billionaire who will be able to write off a significant portion of the donation come tax time. Plenty of New York City’s more than 1,700 parks and recreation facilities could use friends like John Paulson. The city Parks Department’s operations and maintenance budget has been slashed for the past five years and its staff cut by more than 30 percent. Paulson’s “gift” could actually hurt the less well-to-do by pumping up property values in center city districts and pushing moderate- and low-income residents further into the outskirts. After a major campaign by advocacy organizations against more proposed cuts, some of the funding was restored to the 2013 Parks Department’s expense budget and its staff is being increased slightly. But to put things in perspective, Paulson’s gift alone could have restored those five years of parks department budget cuts with tens of millions of dollars left over for park upgrades throughout the city.

Social theorist David Harvey details what is at stake for us all in his 2008 essay “The Right to the City,” published in the New Left Review, where he explores how cities are being redesigned to benefit moneyed interests. This land grab includes physical dislocation as well as the actual stifling of political discourse. “The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves,” Harvey writes, is “…one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”

What opposition there is to this uber-gentrification of central city districts has come in the form of small-scale informal urban design and public art projects. Many of these projects were showcased recently at Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good, the U.S. Pavilion’s exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale. The show’s curators referred to Harvey in their public talks and texts, envisioning the various urban interventions on display as a response to Harvey’s exhortation to take back the public commons. Spontaneous Interventions even functions as a how-to-guide, complete with instructions for citizen activists seeking to create unofficial public spaces, develop grassroots coalitions, and call attention to urban agendas that exist outside the profit-making dictates of the marketplace.

I attended the Biennale’s opening in Venice this past August (it closed in November) and was struck by its various connections with Occupy Wall Street. The exhibit featured examples of a growing worldwide design initiative known variously as Insurgent Urbanism, DIY Urbanism, and Tactical Urbanism. Architects and designers are embracing the movement, as are community activists, artists, and other non-credentialed citizens.

Occupy also called attention to the co-opting of the public commons by the moneyed individuals and groups. And it is notable that Zuccotti Park, OWS’s headquarters, was created in 1968 under a 1961 zoning program that amounted to an enormous giveaway to private developers. Under the program, the New York City Department of City Planning outsourced the development of more than five hundred privately owned public spaces (POPS), which included outdoor plazas, arcades, and even indoor spaces. In exchange for providing “public space,” private developers were granted the right to build more than twenty million square feet of residential and office floor space that would not otherwise have been permitted under zoning regulations.

According to a study done in 2000 by Harvard University professor Jerold Kayden, the city’s planning department, and the Municipal Art Society, about 40 percent of the “privately owned public spaces” were practically “useless,” with lackluster designs, few amenities, and little or no sunlight. Some of the public spaces were in fact inaccessible to visitors.

However, it appears that many of the developers who built the public spaces did not actually want the general public to use them. According to a study done in 2000 by Harvard University professor Jerold Kayden, the city’s planning department, and the Municipal Art Society, about 40 percent of the public spaces created under it were practically “useless,” with lackluster designs, few amenities, and little or no sunlight. Some of the public spaces were in fact inaccessible to visitors.

Another problematic aspect of the POPS deal is that private property owners were given a surprising amount of control over spaces that legally were supposed to be public. “The events at Zuccotti Park highlight the continued inadequacy of the laws regarding privately owned public spaces,” Kayden wrote in a 2011 New York Times op-ed. “Other than the requirement that this space remain open 24 hours a day, the owners were left to promulgate their own rules; the only limit is that they be ‘reasonable.’”

The zoning guidelines for the program that littered Manhattan with useless plazas have been tightened, but developers continue to build out-of-scale office buildings and luxury towers that profit from tax abatements and special exemptions from city zoning codes. In addition, as the New York Times reported this past fall, owners of the apartments in New York City that go for tens of millions of dollars pay “far less” in property taxes in relation to the value of their apartments than typical New York apartment owners do. Meanwhile, the public continues to be shortchanged under new models for outsourcing space creation to the private sector.

While the mega rich are colonizing their skylines, cities are competing for tourists and knowledge workers with state-of-the-art parks. The Central Park Conservancy was merely one of the first iterations of the contemporary park privatization model. Consider the three most prominent parks to break ground in New York City in the past decade: the High Line, Hudson River Park, and Brooklyn Bridge Park. These projects, which are still being built out largely at the expense of the taxpayer, boast striking new and expensive designs, but they are almost completely dependent upon private sector financial support for their maintenance and operations budgets. That private sector support comes at a price, as the parks that are funded under the new financing models are forced into making tradeoffs that compromise their contribution to the public realm.

The first major New York park created under the new model is Hudson River Park, which runs along Manhattan’s new gold coast from affluent downtown up to West 59th Street. Unlike a typical park funded by tax dollars, Hudson River Park must raise its own funds through income generated from concession fees, grants, donations, and rents from commercial tenants within the park. Among its largest sources of revenue are special deals with the Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex and the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. These businesses have long-term leases from the Hudson River Park Trust and as such they don’t pay property taxes, the city’s main source of income.

However, the most problematic aspect of the arrangement is that, unlike a typical municipal parks department, the Hudson River Park Trust is both a development agency as well as a parks agency, which can lead to the park’s public aspect becoming compromised by commercial considerations. Further, the salaries of the people who run the park are in effect coming from rents from the private developments, not from the citizens who use it. Not surprisingly, given the park’s requirement that it be self-funding, over the past decade, the Trust has had major battles with neighboring communities over its proposals for more large-scale commercial developments in the park, which the Trust argues are necessary to plug multimillion dollar shortfalls.

Another variation on the park privatization model is outsourcing the development and maintenance of a “public space” to a “Friends” group. These groups then raise money by renting out part of the public amenity to commercial entities or by soliciting money from wealthy neighbors. The High Line is an abandoned rail trestle in Lower Manhattan that was converted into a “public park,” at a cost to the city of more than $115 million. Today, the park, the first two phases of which have been completed, has among the highest per-square-acre maintenance cost of any public greenspace in the city. Some argue that the investment has paid off by serving as a catalyst for a high-end real estate boom in the surrounding area that includes stunning new office and residential towers designed by such starchitects as Jean Nouvel and Shigeru Ban.

However, although the High Line is a public park under the jurisdiction of the city Parks Department, it is the well-connected nonprofit Friends of The High Line that runs the place. The organization’s director, Robert Hammond, makes more than the New York City parks commissioner and has supplemented his six-figure salary with special consulting fees charged to Friends of the High Line as well as lobbying fees that he has charged his organization for meeting with city officials. Then there is the High Line’s board, which includes some of the city’s biggest players in finance and real estate. Among the High Line’s wealthier supporters is power couple fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg and media mogul Barry Diller, both of whom own major businesses within blocks of the High Line. In total, the couple has made a reported $35 million in gifts to help fund the High Line. In addition to gifts from wealthy neighbors the Friends raise money by throwing extravagant fundraisers and by capturing the revenue from concessions both on the High Line and in areas below it.

When it benefits their interests, the Friends extend their influential support to proposals for nearby large developments that require city zoning variances to achieve their enormous ambitions. One notable project that the Friends supported is the expansion of the Chelsea Markets, an indoor mall and office complex that threatens to block views and cast shadows throughout the area. The developers of the Chelsea Markets had pledged $20 million to endow a new fund to help with the maintenance of the High Line. To appease widespread community opposition to the expansion, city officials reportedly crafted a deal under which the developers agreed to donate one-third of the multimillion dollar gift originally slated for the Friends of The High Line to fund affordable housing in the area as well as educational programs on technology training and wellness for young residents of nearby public housing projects.

Then there is Brooklyn Bridge Park, which takes the park privatization model to a whole new level. About 9 percent of the park is slated for large luxury condominium developments, a high-end hotel, and commercial enterprises. The special entity in charge of maintaining the park, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, is designed to fund its operations through collecting rents from long-term leases for several of these development parcels as well as payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) from the luxury condominium developments. The novel financing scheme for Brooklyn Bridge Park has the potential to raise lots of money, even as it muddies the “common ground” in the public space by creating two classes of users: the residents who live there and the citizens who use the site.

The conflicts of interest in many of these newfangled park development schemes are not immediately apparent to visitors. As Harvey notes in his most recent book, Rebel Cities, “Much of the corruption that attaches to urban politics relates to how public investments are allocated to produce something that looks like a common but which promotes gains in private asset values for privileged property owners.”

However, the Spontaneous Interventions exhibition in Venice indicates that at least among some in the design community there is growing awareness of how public space is increasingly being co-opted by private interests. Many of the featured interventions provided examples of people taking to the streets with public art projects such as yarn bombing, the adorning of benches and signposts with yarn or knitted items. Others involved more flagrant law breaking through activities such as painting bike lanes on streets without permission. Spontaneous Interventions was organized, appropriately enough, by New Yorkers. The team included architecture critic Cathy Lang Ho, the U.S. Pavilion’s 2012 commissioner and curator, with help from co-curators David van der Leer, assistant curator of Architecture and Urban Studies at the Guggenheim Museum, and Ned Cramer, editor-in-chief of Architect, and Anne Guiney, executive director of the New York City-based Institute for Urban Design. According to the exhibition’s organizers, the unifying themes that constituted this call to arms were “Citizenship, Equity, Protest, and Participation.”

Not that Occupy-shy powerbrokers should get nervous. “It is not actually a revolution, it is a rebellion,” Lang Ho, said in a telephone interview in New York. “You need both bottom up and top down. We are not saying that these actions supplant the need for master planning or general planning departments.”

Spontaneous Interventions was not an outlier at the Biennale; the emphasis on societal transformation and public engagement pervaded other exhibitions as well. Starchitecture has lost its luster for many in the design press, and architects are beginning to pay at least lip service to broader issues of public space, urbanism, and social responsibility.

However, it is striking that this rather subversive exhibition was chosen to represent the United States by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. State Department. The exhibition took place at a Neo-Georgian-style building from the 1930s that serves as the permanent U.S. Pavilion in Venice. It was part of a sprawling architecture festival that included an international exhibition and separate exhibitions hosted at fifty-five national pavilions, most of which are located in the Giardini della Biennale, a large fairground adjacent to the Venice Lagoon.

The U.S. Pavilion was not the first institutional venue to showcase the growing movement of artists, architects, and community activists engaged in guerrilla urbanism. Politically engaged design initiatives with official support are rearing up around the world. One example is DESIGN ACT, a project at Iaspis, the Swedish Arts Grants Committee’s International Program for the Visual Arts, which was created in 2009 to establish an interactive platform for activist designers. And the exhibition circuit also has showcased activist architecture with exhibits such as Actions: What You Can Do With the City, put on by the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

The so-called global cities are obvious places in which to challenge the status quo. They are the nerve centers of an increasingly concentrated financial world, and the surplus capital wrung from the 99 percent is manifest in the shimmering new towers and urban projects transforming their centers. As Harvey notes, the “right to the city” is falling into the “hands of private or quasi-private interests,” and transforming places such as Manhattan into gated communities for the rich. The answer, Harvey says, is to reestablish democratic control over city resources and urban development decisions. The question at hand was whether the U.S. Pavilion’s exhibition represented such a rebellion or was primarily a window treatment for the ongoing pillaging of public commons.

So-called global cities are obvious places in which to challenge the status quo. They are the nerve centers of an increasingly concentrated financial world, and the surplus capital wrung from the 99 percent is manifest in the shimmering new towers and urban projects transforming their centers.

The rebels exhibiting in Spontaneous Interventions are engaged in urban activism. However, the show’s slick presentation was at odds with the gritty subject matter of many of the 124 featured projects, These projects were displayed in photographs on banners made of a material called Ultraflex that called to mind oversize pages that might have been ripped from the pages of Real Simple.

The banners included detailed information for the budding urban interventionist on how much each project cost in dollars, how many people were required for its implementation, and the number of hours required to make it work. A color code reflected which of six possible improvements the project addressed: information, accessibility, community, economy, sustainability, and pleasure.

On the day of the Biennale’s opening, the exhibition’s interactive features held a crowd. Visitors excitedly pulled on the posters, which hung from the ceiling by cables, attached to counterweights. Each poster listed a problem afflicting cities such as “Abundant foreclosures and homeless population,” “Blight,” or “Lack of Open Space.” With a pull on a banner the attached counterweight rose to reveal a hidden solution. One banner featured AirCasting, a platform for recording, mapping, and sharing environmental data via smartphones. It is aimed at building stronger environmental justice movements in neighborhoods afflicted with pollution. Pull on the project’s banner, raise the counterweight, and voila, the “solution” is revealed: “Visualize air pollution and make data available to a wider public.” To which the viewer in return might reply, “If only it were that easy!”

All of the projects have been realized in the field, and several of the projects have gone viral. One notable example was the banner for Parklets, which provided a brief history of PARK(ing) Day, an annual event involving the temporary transformation of parking spaces into parks, which is celebrated in 162 cities in 35 countries. The initiative came from the San Francisco design studio REBAR, which in 2005 created a temporary micro-park at a parking space in downtown San Francisco.

Parklets also credited PARK(ing) Day with serving as a catalyst for new government initiatives such as New York City’s Pop-Up Café license program, which allows businesses to extend outdoor seating into adjacent parking spaces during summer months, and San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks program.

Other interventions took aim at current government initiatives that are curtailing basic human freedoms. One example is chair bombing, from the Brooklyn, New York-based activist design collective DoTank. Chair-bombing refers to a popular activist tactic used to combat the removal of public seating. Cities often remove benches to discourage vagrancy and to back up anti-loitering laws. DoTank makes Adirondack-style chairs fashioned from discarded shipping pallets. A “bench-bomb” from San Francisco read, “These benches are more than places to sit. They are a visual resistance to the privatization of public space.”

However, Spontaneous Interventions may fall short of its ambitions. “Urban innovations with respect to environmental sustainability, cultural incorporation of immigrants, and urban design of public housing spaces are observable around the world in abundance,” Harvey notes in the version of his “The Right to the City” republished in his 2012 book Rebel Cities: “But they have yet to converge on the singular aim of gaining greater control over the uses of the surplus (let alone the conditions of its production).”

It is encouraging that an increasing number of people are asserting their rights to remake the city and that urban interventionists are getting official venues to showcase their work. However, when it comes to the powerful forces that are ravenously consuming and in some cases destroying the public commons, Spontaneous Interventions does not offer real solutions. Community activism that simply nibbles at the edges is not enough. Small-scale rebellions can raise consciousness and help bring needed improvements to cities, but what we really need is a revolution.

Alex Ulam is a freelance journalist who covers finance and urban planning. His work has appeared in the Nation, Maclean’s, Landscape Architecture Magazine, the Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications.