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Innovative Governance for Urban Parks

"There should be more than one way to run a park."  
                                                                –Adrian Benepe

So went the thinking behind the creation of Central Park Conservancy as recounted by Adrian Benepe, former New York City Parks Commissioner and now Director of Urban Parks for the Trust for Public Land.  Adrian was here in Miami this week, touring the city, talking with park advocates, and looking for ways that the national organization and its cadre of urban park experts could add value to Miami and Miami-Dade County parks.

Miami1Adrian talked about the challenges cities face in continuing to be the sole steward for their parks in the face of huge budget challenges, and a list of pressing needs longer than your arm.  Why not, he argued, find new models that not only bring more resources into the equation but also add more value?

His words ring true for cities across the country who increasingly see parks as part of their strategy for economic development while struggling to find new models for developing and operating them – or, as editor and columnist for Fortune magazine, Geoff Colvin sees it, "…developing the most crucial competency for every company today, innovating the business model."  Substitute the word 'parks' for 'company' and all his ideas are relevant to our work.

In a recent interview with Urban Land magazine, Colvin extrapolates his ideas about business model innovation for real estate:

It's a big story in commercial real estate, as the buildings tend to last a long time. But the buildings may last longer than the business model. In an awful lot of businesses, the model lasted for decades, if not a century. It just doesn't anymore. The ability to envision different business models for a given property is going to be extremely valuable.

And, a source of competitive advantage.  The most important element of business model innovation for parks right now is around governance.   How can cities and their bureaucracies give way to more decentralized, resourceful decision-making?  Park visitors want so much more from their experience than one public agency can manage, even if they had all the financial resources to do so.  A better way is to find a structure that gives all the stakeholders the freedom to express their ideas – through social media to formal advisory roles to a full-fledged partnership stake.

The stakes here are high – as in the case of the High Line development, which has helped to trigger the construction of 40 new buildings, 12,000 new jobs and $200 million of new tax revenue (predicted to hit $900 million by 2020), not to mention the tourism dollars generated from nearly 5 million annual visitors.  Millennium Park, the subject of my next post, has generated $2.4 billion in new real estate construction in the last ten years according to a Texas A&M study.  If, as Adrian says, parks are becoming the linchpin for economic development strategies for cities, then we need to rethink our motivation for P3s as being about much more than a default option for governments due to a lack of money.

HighLine2The value of a conservancy as a private partner to park agencies is about constituency and constancy.  According to Adrian, in addition to Central Park Conservancy and Prospect Park Alliance, there are 200 'friends of the parks' groups in New York City, as well as a set of city-wide park advocates – all working together to bolster parks.

It may be that we have to start thinking about the business model for parks as a system of interconnected activities and stakeholders; a system that demands flexibility and creativity in determining how a park does business in order to stay vibrant and relevant to its users.  Public agencies can't have a monopoly on how they runs parks and continue to do it competitively and successfully; they will need to tap into partnerships, external resources and new programs to keep parks vital.

Colvin, in his interview with Urban Land magazine goes on to say,

The problem in doing [business model innovation] is primarily a cultural problem—people just having personal difficulty changing their view of what they do, what the company does. Anytime you change things, you threaten existing interests. Conceptually, making these changes is easy. Even technologically, it's easy. It's the human element that makes it difficult.

In Miami, we are challenged with bridging the gap between the city's now well-established donors and advocates for arts and culture with a small but increasingly vocal group who care about the city's parks – our outdoor living room and extensive waterfront that makes up another element of our urban culture – and who see a need for a whole new way of thinking about parks as the city experiences another real estate boom and it becomes too expensive to do so.

Why not?  The weather here is fine, people are outside more than in most cities, and downtown Miami as well as Miami Beach are dense enough now to make bicycling an easy and convenient way to travel.  Why not green our paths and waterfronts and make it easier and more pleasant for residents and visitors to get around this beautiful place – and do it in a way that builds on our economic engine and strengthens peoples' connection to the city?

Adrian reminded us that with Mayors Bloomberg (New York City) and Nutter (Philadelphia) leaving their jobs as two of the most high profile green mayors in recent history, there is a void in a national mayoral voice making the case for the value of investing in city parks. Who might step in and continue to lead us with innovation governance and business models for running our parks and enlivening our city life?

KBlahaKathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she's not writing for the blog, she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solutions.