Parks crisis leads to ballot question

At forum, consultant says women are key to park success

California’s budget crisis has taken a terrible toll on the state’s park system, with more than half of the state’s parks partially closed or struggling with deep service cuts.

But Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, says the crisis may end up being the best thing that ever happened to the park system. She says she and other activists have been saying for years that the state’s parks are underfunded and ignored, yet no one paid attention. “But when the governor said, ‘Close state parks,’ suddenly people started to listen,” Goldstein says.

The strong outpouring of support for the beleaguered state park system mushroomed into a political campaign for a Nov. 2 ballot initiative to support the parks. The initiative, dubbed Proposition 21, would hike the registration fee on all noncommercial vehicles by $18, raising an estimated $500 million a year for the state park system. Not all of that would be new money, since the $140 million the state currently spends on the parks would revert to the state’s general fund.

Parks across Massachusetts may not be in as much trouble as their counterparts in California, but they are also struggling with reduced funding and lack of public support.  How to keep parks healthy in hard times was the focus of a panel discussion among park experts at the Boston Public Library on Wednesday night.

The event was hosted by Boston College Citizen Seminars, the Friends of the Public Garden, and the Boston Parks and Recreation Department. In addition to Goldstein, the panelists included parks consultant Dan Biederman, who led the restoration effort of Bryant Park in New York City; Meg Cheever, the chief executive of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, and Robert Stanton, a former director of the National Park Service. Former Gov. Michael Dukakis moderated.

Biederman, who has been hired by the Friends of the Public Garden to help secure corporate sponsorships for the Boston Common, said the first priority must be a safe, entertaining, and attractive park space.

He said people don’t like benches; they want movable chairs. He said they like green space, not cement. (He said there’s too much “hardscape” near the Park Street and Boylston T stops on the Common.) Park visitors also want entertainment, like movies, tai chi, chess, reading areas, and ping pong.

 “If you’re going to have great parks, play to women,” he said. If a park’s visitors are predominantly men, he says, that’s a sign that something is wrong with the park. Women, he says, want clean and attractive bathrooms and they’re wary of homeless people. He says the answer is not to remove the homeless people but to attract so many visitors to the park that the homeless people don’t stand out. He says a ratio of 200 to 300 visitors for each homeless person is about right. (He says Bryant Park has 13.)

If a park is successful in attracting people, Biederman says corporate sponsorships will follow. He downplayed concerns that Boston Common might be turned into an advertising medium for corporations, saying most companies are willing to be relatively inconspicuous.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

He said many corporate neighbors of Bryant Park in New York have opened their checkbooks without demanding any naming rights because a vibrant park allows them to charge higher rents for office space. In Boston, he said Millennium Partners and developer Ron Druker feel the same way. “They see improvements as key to boosting the asset value of their real estate,” he said.

Other corporate sponsors want to be identified, but not as prominently as most people think, Biederman said. He said Coca-Cola Co. originally wanted its logo and red-and-white color scheme splashed all over a section of Bryant Park, but eventually settled on having its name in small print on the side of a ping-pong table and on the paddles and balls.

“You can do sponsorships without the greedy sponsors demanding billboards,” he said. “They’re not piggish about how much credit they get.”