Who owns your favorite park?
That might seem like a strange question. Many people assume that “we”—the public, the people—do. But from New York’s High Line to Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park, parks in U.S. cities are increasingly managed, financed, and policed by private groups that have little accountability to the public. Just as many other services once seen as public goods—such as healthcare, schools, and water utilities—have increasingly become the property of corporations and wealthy financiers, public space, too, has been privatized.
Historians locate the origins of urban park privatization in 1970s New York City, when the city’s dire economic crisis spurred budget cutbacks of all kinds. These led to the establishment of the Central Park Conservancy and the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, both founded in 1980 with the goal of using private wealth to offset cuts to public funding for parks. The benefactors behind these organizations weren’t looking to aid all parks suffering from declining budgets—just those frequented by wealthy white people and tourists.
Two decades later, when the Friends of the High Line was founded in 1999 to rehabilitate a former railroad right-of-way on Manhattan’s West Side, having a private organization play a key role in the development of a park was neither novel nor controversial. It had become normalized, expected, and celebrated that new parks would involve the private sector.
When the High Line’s first section opened in 2009, it was toasted by critics and the public as a transformative urban park: it featured a unique mix of built and natural materials, and was situated three stories above city sidewalks. But the political and economic bases that made the High Line possible were equally transformative. The park marked the culmination of three decades of neoliberal changes to urban park governance, cementing the outsized role of private groups in park development, financing, and organization. Just as the High Line’s strange aesthetic mix of wild-looking plants and industrial relics set among a linear walking path has been widely copied, urban boosters across the U.S. mimicked Friends of the High Line’s strategy of mobilizing public-private partnerships to produce architecturally acclaimed green spaces.
In Chicago, park developers leaned on the Trust for Public Land, a national group that provides private funds and organizational support for privatized park projects, to build the city’s answer to the High Line, the Bloomingdale Trail (also known as The 606). In Houston, where private influence has long held sway in urban development projects, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership relied on private funds for 91% of the initial funding for a linear postindustrial space along the city’s central waterway, including $30 million from ex-Enron billionaires Rich and Nancy Kinder.
There are more to come. Emboldened by the success of Buffalo Bayou Park, the Kinders have since granted $70 million to the Memorial Park Conservancy. In New York, billionaire High Line donor Barry Diller has taken a similar tack, battling various opponents to develop a $250 million privately managed park, Little Island, in the Hudson River.
Visitors to these shiny new parks might ask: So what? What’s so bad about a few architecturally brilliant parks being paid for with private dollars?
The problem with the High Line, the Bloomingdale Trail/The 606, Buffalo Bayou Park, and other parks like them is that they aggressively accelerate an unequal parks landscape. The same cost-cutting of public parks funding that started in the 1970s advances today, and its effects most harm poorer communities and communities of color, where local private resources to offset defunding don’t exist to nearly the same degree. These inequalities deepen even further when we consider that private parks organizations wield their clout to direct public funds to underwrite upscale, privatized parks like the High Line, which received $144 million in public money for its construction. The racial and economic geography of private park investment keeps the spaces from being accessible to a broad public.
The parks’ privatized security deepens this inequality. Private managers like the Friends of the High Line and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership also get to decide park rules—rules that can and do differ from those of city-run parks. Focusing on the “quality of life” violations that viciously cleansed urban public spaces of homeless people in earlier decades, the gaze of private security frequently trains itself on the people of color and poor people who visit these spaces. Few of the tourists that the parks are designed to attract—able-bodied, middle-class, white—care or even know about this aspect.
Recently, private park boosters have moved forward with proposed improvements to parks in communities of color. In Chicago, this has taken the form of developing similar parks in Pilsen (El Paseo) and the Far South Side (Big Marsh) in an effort to make park-building appear equitable. In New York, organizers have initiated plans for Queens’s answer to the High Line, QueensWay, a project billed as “a gateway and introduction to New York City’s most diverse communities.” In Houston, the Kinder Foundation gave $3 million to the Emancipation Park Conservancy, private keepers of a local symbol of Black freedom and have recently announced a $100 million offering to expand Buffalo Bayou Park into the historically Black neighborhoods east of downtown. These developments appear to offer some measure of racial equity into urban park landscapes, but given that few new park plans are tied to affordable housing, there is little question that these new parks will drive up local housing values, potentially leading to the displacement of long-term residents of communities long starved for park access.
The trend of investment in parks recalls the political strategies honed by 20th-century master planner Robert Moses, who was the force behind decades’ worth of bridges, highways, and public housing in New York City and its surrounding areas. Moses recognized that rallying the public to support park projects was easy, because of the social goods that they represented (never mind that his parks were usually concessions connected to disruptive infrastructural projects like highways). Biographer Robert Caro writes that, for Moses, “parks symbolized something good, and therefore anyone who fought for parks fought under the shield of the presumption that he was fighting for the right—and anyone who opposed him, for the wrong.”
The symbolism of parks remains powerful today. Wealthy benefactors use parks’ collective image as public, universal goods to push through plans that do not benefit the public, but that serve the private coffers of real estate developers and corporations, and those—like the philanthropists themselves—who are invested in building the symbolic and cultural power of their respective city. As elites build new park spaces in their own image, they deepen inequality and shape cities’ public realms as consumerist and securitized, to be squeezed for every last drop of private profit.