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Big fancy parks for those who can afford them

July 16, 2012

Or: what kind of park, redux. Last year I wrote a blog post on the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the phenomenon of high-profile, partially-privatized, elite parks in NYC.

Over the weekend Frank Bruni at the New York Times wrote a gushing paean to New York City parks, exulting over “gorgeous waterfront promenades” and “verdant proof that growth remains possible.” Today, Catherine Nagel of the City Parks Alliance writes in the Daily News a similarly glowing assessment of new urban parks, advocating for a view of the city from, literally, the ground up.

All this attention coincides with Greater and Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, a conference in the Big Apple meant to highlight the resurgence of urban greenery.

Bruni’s piece fails to give anything but passing mention to the issue of unequal distribution of parks resources, although a brief quote by Holly Leicht of New Yorkers for Parks hints at the larger story clearly lurking behind. Bruni is actually encouraged by the increasing privatization of city parks, enthusiastically remarking how the Brooklyn Bridge Park will be funded by private real estate development in the park, ignoring the ongoing controversy over what will be the first private residences in a public park. (Note: it was recently announced that the luxury hotel/condo in the park will be built by Toll Brothers, best known for covering large swaths of the U.S. with McMansions.)

Nagel’s piece avoids any discussion of uneven spending and the increasing prioritization of elite parks. She presents a ringing endorsement of private partnerships, calling the Brooklyn Bridge Park model a “spectacular example of new thinking,” and deftly (if, I believe, somewhat ill-fittingly) terming the making of some of the most exclusive real estate in the world along the High Line Park in Manhattan a “neighborhood renaissance.” A little later she offers a surprisingly tepid endorsement of public investment, calling for government to not “entirely cede its role” in investing in public parks.

The sentiments expressed by Nagel and Bruni fall in line with current en vogue, in fact almost desperate, search for new modes of private-public partnership funding in the face of dwindling public coffers. This is the kind of development we’ve been seeing more and more in places like New York City and other urban centers – marked by decrease in public spending and responsibility, and increasing reliance on privatized assistance, sponsorship, and outright ownership. It is, at best, a realistic turn by government accountants fully aware of the limits of their own abilities in the age of tax cuts, loopholes, bailouts, and giveaways. At worst it could well signal the complete surrender of the urban realm to large corporations and financial institutions and the small number of people who control them.

Trading the development of prime locations into exclusive residential enclaves for privately developed “public” parks might make for a greener city, but it also spurs increasing inequality. The New York City metropolitan area now ranks as the most unequal urban region in the country thanks in part to this mode of urban and economic development. Another recent New York Times piece on Brooklyn sheds light on the contradictions of the uneven development that has typified the city in the recent decade – struggling neighborhoods passed over by economic development ironically spared the effects of gentrification.

There is every indication that these kinds of projects will continue: the Hudson River Park Trust proposed (but failed, for now) to lift development restrictions on the waterfront parks on the west side of Manhattan. And the NYC parks department itself is looking to sell corporate sponsorship rights to its basketball courts and dog runs.

Of course, there is no denying the importance of urban nature. One of the clear high points in the dizzying process of late 20th and early 21st Century urbanization and globalization is the acknowledgement by cities throughout the world that there is an ecological function to urban areas (even if often couched in economic terms). Both Nagel and Bruni as well allude to the current attention to green space by many cities beyond New York. Following greater attention to environmental crises and climate change, the efforts for “sustainability” resulting in more green roofs, planted walls, water collection and recycling, and, yes, more parks, is more than welcome.

Yet how to we ensure that this attention to urban nature transcends trophy projects and high-value real estate returns?

Part 2 of “Big fancy parks” will be posted later this week, focusing on Gardens in the Bay in Singapore.

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