Funding our Parks and Park Systems in the Coming Fiscal Crisis

By Candace Damon, Catherine Nagel, and Claire Summers
The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on municipal fiscal health will be extraordinary. With large portions of municipal expenditures mandated by state or federal law, discretionary spending will be highly constrained, and agencies that rely on unrestricted funds – fire, police, sanitation, schools, and parks – will be competing to establish the essential nature of their services. Historically, park systems have fared poorly in these competitions, and preliminary municipal budgets from around the country suggest that this crisis will prove no different, absent effective advocacy.
The last generation of park activism shows what effective advocacy looks like: many park and recreation systems have become more resilient to fiscal shocks by adding new sources of operating revenue. These include locally-specific sources of additional public funding (e.g. dedicated tax surcharges), contributed income (e.g. memberships and sponsorships), earned income (e.g. facility rentals and events), and “value capture” of a portion of the dollar value estimated to have been created by particular parks (usually those that could be shown to have created higher commercial real estate values).  As we enter the coming fiscal crisis, park systems that have built strong partnerships with non-profit and private entities and diversified sources of revenue should emerge stronger than those that did not, but the peculiarities of COVID’s impacts suggest that all of these new revenue streams are also at risk in the coming months and years. 
So with the General Fund shrinking; earned income at risk because its generation requires activities proscribed by social distancing; contributed income under pressure due to multiple demands on it; and the short to medium-term health of urban commercial real estate markets uncertain, where will park systems’ funding come from?
We should make the case to philanthropy, primarily local philanthropy, that supporting urban park systems now is an opportunity to advance long-term structural change. We spoke to three foundation program officers who currently support urban parks at significant scale, asking them to comment on the values parks foster that most resonated with them and the conditions under which they would consider increasing their support for parks and park systems. They were unanimous and emphatic in citing the potential for park systems to improve public health – physical and mental health and access to healthy food – and provide equitable access to an inclusive public realm. In the latter case, all interviewees stressed a broadening of the meaning of the words “equity” and “inclusive” to encompass not only the much-discussed 10-minute walkshed, but also concepts like establishment of broadband ubiquity in parks, partnerships with entrepreneurs and locally owned businesses to build community wealth, and close examination of the equity implications of some recreation being more conducive to post-COVID play (e.g. golf) than others (e.g. basketball).
The potential of philanthropy should not and cannot take local government off the hook: our public park and recreation systems need public funding. To paraphrase one of our interviewees, “We are not going to simply plug public budget shortfalls. We are philanthropists. The difference between charity and philanthropy is that philanthropy should change the conditions that led to the problem. Charity gets you the service you need. Our job is to challenge our grantees to retool to better serve their mission and then get them started.”
Philanthropy can help advocates make the case that public dollars should be allocated to reflect our values. Parks provide or have the potential to provide services more equitably, effectively, and efficiently than how those services are typically provided, including by public safety and criminal justice entities; private healthcare providers and insurers; and providers of aspects of food security/agriculture, affordable housing, and climate change/resilience services. Initiatives that demonstrate the integral nature of parks in urban life – and recognize the fiscal implications of those initiatives – are already gaining attention. LA County’s Parks After Dark (PAD) Program gives young adults a place to congregate safely at night. The LA County Parks Department and Sheriff’s Department believe that the program has meaningfully reduced crime and saved the County $2.2 million in criminal justice costs in 2018. In Philadelphia, rather than spending $9.6 billion on “gray” infrastructure to fix the city’s deteriorating stormwater system, the Water Department is spending $2.4 billion to integrate green solutions on public and private properties throughout the city, including 500 acres of public parks. Advocates need to insist that these and other efficiencies inure to the benefit of park systems’ budgets.
Racial equity will be central to any fruitful argument for increased funding of parks; any such argument must grapple with the often problematic record of parks and park systems on this front. We and others have written about this history elsewhere. Historic disinvestment has left many low-income communities and communities of color without access to quality parks and recreation opportunities and with park assets in need of significant upgrades. Both recent and historic park investment has tended to prioritize affluent neighborhoods, central business districts, and communities where “transformation” was hoped for. Examples are legion and date from at least Reconstruction and the origins of Plessy v Ferguson. Central Park owes its birth to the use of eminent domain and displacement of residents, including a 225-person mostly African American community. Mac Miller’s Blue Slide Park speaks to the amazing playground (that Candace grew up playing in) in Pittsburgh’s affluent Squirrel Hill. Opened in 1962 and billed as the “most imaginative” of the city’s contemporary wave of investment in public parks, in 1967 it was the site of a “play-in” by Black North Side children protesting their complete lack of playgrounds. In recent weeks, multiple reported incidents in urban parks across the country have reinforced the notion that public parks are White space, and activities acceptable when undertaken by White people are not when undertaken by people of color. Of course, our urban parks also improve mental and physical health, mitigate the impacts of climate change, lower crime rates, and make a city more attractive to employers. They can, and when well-designed and programmed frequently do, create a more inclusive public realm, including by providing places for emergency response, protest and celebration. City Parks Alliance, HR&A and others have sought to elevate these values while being mindful of more fraught legacies, creating playbooks for progress.
Successful advocacy for increased funding of parks will also require data-driven approaches. All of our program officer interviewees agreed that a quantitative demonstration of achievement of the broadly-defined values of a park or park system would be powerful, including performing the data collection and analysis needed to make that demonstration. Credible analyses of the benefits cited in this article have been performed in discrete instances across the country. HR&A has shown that parks investment in a LMI Black neighborhood – when driven by community priorities for that investment and overseen by community stakeholders – can help stabilize or grow Black population and create wealth for Black homeowners through single family home appreciation, while also welcoming new, non-Black residents. The City of Dallas is currently seeking to better understand its park systems users, including their demographic and geographic characteristics. City Parks Alliance has built on many of these analyses to create a framework for developing, implementing, and evaluating a data-driven equitable investment park strategy. We need to make these kinds of analyses and the communication of their results a standard component of advocacy. In the short term, this means message testing and leveraging voices from across sectors, including health, housing, business, and resilience to communicate the breadth of parks’ value and of the diverse coalition supportive of parks.
The coming fiscal crisis is an opportunity to reimagine urban park systems to achieve long sought goals of public safety, public health, equitable economic development, inclusive access, and environmental resilience. Now is the time to strategize, collaborate, and implement actions that will recognize those values.