13 October 2016 | Jamie Harris
Today, the GDP of New York City is larger than that of both Spain and Mexico. But back in the 1970s, it was suffering, with its middle classes moving from city to suburb and its public services squeezed. In particular, its iconic Central Park - 843 acres of green space in the middle of Manhattan island - which was in dire straits.
Maintained back then by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks), Central Park no longer received the federal funding for restoration of its landscapes and structures it once enjoyed, with officials turning to concerts and other events to bring people in to the park. Decades of poor maintenance had left the park a graffiti-strewn "dust bowl" susceptible to all manner of crime.
It was with the late 1970s formation of the Central Park Conservancy that the tide began to turn. This organisation, which runs the park today, resulted from the 1980 merger of two advocacy groups - the Central Park Task Force and Central Park Community Fund in 1980. Five years earlier, the latter group had recommended that a board of citizen-appointed guardians should oversee the strategic direction of the park and a chief executive "with clear and unambiguous managerial authority" of park operations.
Since its inception, the conservancy has sought to set the standard for urban park management, not just through its landscaping and grounds maintenance operations, but also the way it interacts with park visitors, local communities, and the wider City of New York. Its original objectives were to redevelop the park to become more welcoming and to oversee a fundamental shift in the way management and maintenance work was overseen.
Work began with a team of volunteers raising private funds to gradually restore and maintain the park's landscapes and structures. The dairy, originally a refreshment building, was transformed into the park's first visitor centre in 1980, while the restoration of the park's Bethesda Fountain, Great Lawn and Belvedere Castle were completed in the years following. Much was achieved through thousands of hours of voluntary work before the conservancy set out to seek private capital funding.
These renovations allowed the conservancy to then turn its attention to more broadly capturing the best practice on urban park operations and working to strengthen the city's connection with its citizens. Today, the Central Park Conservancy is a not-for-profit organisation that raises 75 per cent of the Park's $67 million annual budget. Its focus on the use of local volunteers ensures that the park continues to connect with the local community it serves.
Own the zones
Central Park Conservancy manages the park by splitting it into zones, each with dedicated staff responsible for every aspect of groundskeeping and maintenance, from waste management and horticultural needs to the wider visitor experience.
Chris Cousino, associate director of urban park management, has been with the conservancy since 2003, when he joined as a gardener.
"Having the same face in the same area has a public benefit," says Cousino. "Park users get to know the gardeners and build a level of respect and trust in their work. We've definitely seen better care of the park by the public as a result."
Each zone is grouped by section, each section in turn managed by park supervisors. On-site staff are supported by specialist park crews such as tree specialists, infrastructure and turf specialists. Should a tree surgeon be required in one particular zone, the zone's operative requests the services of the specialist team to their supervisor, who then feeds the request to the specialist team.
The conservancy's Maura Lout says: "There's also the accountability of being wholly responsible for that space as well, serving as the eyes and ears of the park and spotting any safety concerns."
Security is managed by the City of New York, with a New York Police Department precinct headquarters based on site.
The conservancy has a department for planning, design and construction developing preservation and conservation in the park. Lout says engagement with the park's volunteer operatives is important at this stage, as they are likely to have been involved in a particular project's development. "Operational staff get the opportunity to inform the development of the plans."
The conservancy prides itself on consistent communication with stakeholders. A schedule of works appears on the conservancy's website detailing current and planned works, while a director of community relations liaises regularly with local advisory groups to keep park user representatives abreast of all future plans. Lout, who joined the conservancy in 2011, says: "It's our practice to go to all of the community boards (not just those affected by planned work), for the purpose of clarity and relationship building."
Lout joined to help set up the Institute for Urban Parks, conceived by current conservancy president and CEO, and Central Park administrator Douglas Blonsky as an educational organisation designed to share the knowledge and expertise gained through the conservancy's 30 years working in the park, and for which there was - and remains - a clear demand.
"We get requests from park groups as close as the other side of Manhattan to as far away as you can think," says Lout. "New Zealand, Australia, Shanghai - we get requests in the hundreds over the course of any given year."
The Institute for Urban Parks comprises the Center for Urban Park Discovery (disseminating information to the general public through programming about responsible park use and how they as individuals can become a part of the park's stewardship) and the Center for Urban Park Management (educating urban park management professionals on all aspects of park care, and aimed at professionalising the field of practice).
And so the conservancy is promoting its template for zoning, horticultural care and local sourcing of volunteers to city parks the world over - a sustainability success story. And Lout, now director of urban park management, says it is currently a good time to be doing such work.
"We're approaching the time when people who were here at the very beginning of the conservancy are now beginning to retire, taking with them this wealth of institutional expertise. Their collective knowledge was vital to codify and, therefore, disseminate before it was lost. Hence, the institute was born."
The conservancy is putting together handbooks on issues ranging from turf care and waste management to managing special events (the conservancy has an events arm that oversees any filming requests, concerts and events such as the New York City Marathon). A handbook on its signature zone management system is also in production.
As well as its global reach through the institute, the conservancy continues to develop its social outreach within New York. Cousino now has a role on the conservancy's Five Borough Programme, set up to train and mentor NYC Parks gardeners from parks in The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queen's and Staten Island in issues of horticulture, maintenance, and management.
At the other end of the scale is the relationship the conservancy has with the City of New York. The conservancy completes any restoration and renovation projects, but it works with the city parks department at the planning stage.
Maintaining this close relationship with the local authority is seen as mission-critical, and Lout's role as institute director is to educate other park personnel worldwide on the relationship their park organisations should cultivate with their local authorities.
"Our partnership with the NYC Parks is the fundamental building block of everything we do," says Lout. "We strongly encourage every group that asks us for advice to feel the same way about their public partner. The best private-public partnerships work when you take that partnership meaningfully and treat it with as much care as you do any other relationship."
Lout believes that the Institute for Urban Parks has set the standard for the profession of urban park management.
"The profession doesn't exist to the degree we believe it should," she argues. "We'll ultimately have a portfolio of handbooks of all of the skills, publications, training and ongoing support that urban park managers need to care for their urban parks in the best way that they can."
This will be increasingly important in a world in which, by 2030, 60 per cent of the world's population lives in urban areas.
"These parks are only going to become more important," says Lout. "People really must value them as the piece of critical urban infrastructure that they are."
Through the services of its operational staff and volunteer network, Central Park Conservancy has managed to build a level of trust and respect for its work that allows for a consistent flow of private funding which, along with effective management, should ensure the park never again suffers social or economic stagnation. Its commercial and educational structure satisfies all elements of a truly sustainable operation.
A question of stewardship
Central Park's use of volunteers and community groups to maintain parks may be set to become a mainstream activity in the UK.
In March of this year, the London Borough of Croydon said it aimed to have community groups and volunteers managing its green spaces to ease financial pressures.
The existing model for service delivery was, the council argued, not sustainable in the long-term; "significant changes in the way we do things are required."
The aim is to encourage "community stewardship", requiring a greater role for the community and residents in organising, managing and taking responsibility or projects, event and services.
Currently, Croydon's parks service contracts out to a small team of council officers directing and managing grounds maintenance, cleansing, facilities management and tree works contracts.
The council has been holding a "big conversation" with residents, community groups and other stakeholders this summer to consult about its plans for parks and green spaces.
Central Park timeline
1857: Central Park established on 778 acres of city-owned land. (Expanded to current size of
843 acres in 1873).
1960: The 'Events Era' - Central Park becomes a popular venue for concerts, rallies, protests and other cultural events.
1976: Concerned citizens commission a study of the management of Central Park. Lack of accountability and planning are blamed for the park's inadequate maintenance.
1980: Central Park Conservancy founded.
1996: City of New York budget cuts see number of maintenance staff cut. Conservancy hires staff to replace those operatives. Operations management reorganised and zone management system introduced throughout the park.
1998: First contract between City of New York and Central Park Conservancy is agreed, formalising the agreement. City retains major policy decisions and law enforcement within it, but day-to-day operations and maintenance handed to conservancy.
2013: Contract renewed for a further 10 years. Institute for Urban Parks launched, comprising the Centre for Urban Park Discovery (best practice in visitor centres and education about responsible park use, aimed at the general public) and Centre for Urban Park Management (all aspects of operational park management aimed at professionalising the sector).
2015: Total number of reported crimes in the Central Park precinct is 86 - in 1990 the number was 368.