Parks partnerships? Or raw deals?

A troubling turn away from public support for parks

Daly Field, state-owned parkland on the Charles River in Brighton, is up for grabs. With the help of some community leaders, Simmons College has succeeded in getting the Massachusetts Legislature to enact a bill that may permit Daly’s exclusive use by the college and two other organizations on weekday afternoons, evenings, and some Saturdays during the best part of the year for outdoor recreation. Under the plan, Brighton High School and the local Little League would share the spoils with Simmons for exclusive use of the park during certain peak hours under the terms of a 20-year-lease with a right of renewal for another 10.

The rationale for the legislation is that the Department of Conservation and Recreation doesn’t have the money to maintain all its properties, with some neglected to the point of uselessness. The proposed solution is to sell some public rights to a private entity.

The Daly Field saga is only the latest example of a troubling trend of increasing reliance on private funding of public parks. In cases like Daly Field, it comes with strings attached that limit public access to the parkland.

The most high-profile case involving the increasing turn toward private funding is the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, the popular parkland that snakes above the now-submerged Central Artery highway in downtown Boston. The Greenway Conservancy, the nonprofit entity formed to oversee the new park, is far from a typical park “friends” group. The Conservancy is an orphan, an integral part of the Big Dig for which the Commonwealth never found a fully supportive, adoptive parent.  Finally, in 2008, the nonprofit, private Conservancy was tasked by the Legislature with caring for the string of parks above the Central Artery.

Through private fundraising, the Conservancy more than matched the initial contribution of the Turnpike Authority, which oversaw the Central Artery project. In accordance with the initial agreement governing the Greenway, the Conservancy has been receiving some state funding ever since. But the state now wants to wash its hands of any responsibility for what has become a crown jewel of public parks in Massachusetts. Department of Transportation Secretary Richard Davey wants to end all state support for the Conservancy, telling the organization it must plan to be entirely self-sufficient by 2018.  

Davey’s main responsibility is caring for Massachusetts roads, bridges, and transit systems — all of which are desperately in need of scarce public dollars. But that’s not a reason for Massachusetts to walk away from the parkland that resulted from the biggest public infrastructure project in state history.  Davey ought to recognize that the Greenway is a prized state park and give the DCR commissioner oversight of it — and the necessary funds to assist the Conservancy.

The Conservancy is a mirror image of most “friends” groups, which play a supporting role to the public authority in charge of a park.  In the case of the Greenway, the “friends” group was asked to play the lead role — and is now being told to prepare for a solo performance in which it takes over all of the government’s role, too.  It’s unlike the Daly Field situation in that the Greenway has never sought exclusive use of the park for any groups; credit is due for that.

Numerous “friends” groups partner with the Boston Parks and Recreation Department. They range from the Friends of Kittredge Square Park in Roxbury to the Friends of the Public Garden, which provides major assistance to the Garden, the Boston Common, and Commonwealth Avenue Mall.

Both of the groups were formed, mainly by the parks’ neighbors, to assist the city parks department in maintaining the parks and, in some cases, to add amenities the public sector is unable to afford.  Unlike air and water, which have broad constituencies transcending neighborhoods and sometimes even national boundaries, parks often are supported by park lovers who aim to enhance parks they use the most because they are close to their home.

The Friends of the Public Garden, for example, was created more than 40 years ago because the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay and the Beacon Hill Civic Association were dismayed at the Garden’s condition. They believed a new not-for-profit organization with a single purpose could best turn the situation around.  Thus the original “Friends” group was begun.  Public-private partnership is a term invented since then.

Not long after, encouraged and advised by the precedent-setting success, other neighbors formed the Franklin Park Coalition. Similar groups emphasizing advocacy, volunteering, and eventually financial assistance, began springing up throughout Boston, some incorporated and some not.  Each one adds value to the park system.  An intangible value is the feeling of joint stewardship by so many citizens.

Despite the protest of parks advocates, Gov. Deval Patrick signed the Daly Field legislation earlier this month. His commissioner of conservation and recreation, Ed Lambert, now has the Solomon-like task of negotiating with a group led by Simmons, which calls itself the “Friends of Daly Field,” and its city and state legislative supporters.  Happily, he is only authorized to make a deal but not required to do so.  Still, the pressure is on.

I wonder whether Daly’s condition might not be quite as bad as some have said.  On a recent Saturday afternoon a baseball game was being played.  The fence was broken, shrubs cut off the view of the river, but the grass was green.

The underlying problem, of course, is lack of public funding for parks. One can argue that parks benefit by citizen efforts, but not to the point of desperation. The Conservancy stepped up to the plate to do what government has abdicated, but is now being told to do even more. At Daly Field the outcome may be even sadder.  Reversing this downward trend would take a very small fraction of state and city funds.

Meet the Author
As a self-described “parkie” for many years, I believe Friends groups, by whatever name, should assist with operations and fundraising for public parks, not be solely responsible for them.  Only government represents us all.

Eugenie Beal is on the board of the Boston Natural Areas Network, which she helped found in 1977, and a longtime member of the Friends of the Public Garden. She was the first chairwoman of the Boston Conservation Commission, in the 1970s, and the first director of the Boston Environment Department.