The Central Park Conservancy, a private charity formed by philanthropists and activists in 1980 to address deplorable conditions in the park, has been an unbelievable success.
Once a park in disrepair with lawns that were more aptly referred to as dustbowls, Central Park has resumed its rightful place as a major attraction in New York City—thanks primarily to the $430 million in private money that has poured into the park over the last three decades, supplementing (and dwarfing) $120 million in government funds.
After celebrating the success of the project, The New York Times drops the obligatory quote about why private funding cannot work for parks elsewhere:
“The more difficult question,” said Alyson Beha, the [non-profit New Yorkers for Parks'] director of research, planning and policy, “is what about all these other parks that don’t have the private money and are not located in wealthy neighborhoods?”
Most parks don't have the good fortune to be surrounded by highrises full of some of the richest people in the world. But that doesn't make the Central Park model any less instructive for parks everywhere.
For one thing, people donate to similar preservation efforts all around the globe, not just in their home communities. The Nature Conservancy's home page states front and center: "We're working with you to make a positive impact around the world in more than 30 countries, all 50 United States and your backyard."
But even if people are only willing to donate to park conservation efforts in their backyards, the public option doesn't look too promising at the moment. We Are Out of Money, federal budget woes threaten national parks funding, and many state park systems face funding crises. If you're against privatizing parks, let alone mere public-private partnerships for park management, the alternative may not be publicly-funded parks—it may be no parks at all.
California has slashed funding for its state park system by $11 million for next year alone, as Reason's Harris Kenny has noted, and the state is considering any and all options for privatization or public-private partnerships. Oklahoma has privatized some of its park system in recent years, but federal requirements mire further progress. And Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, and Washington have had to cut services, trim staff, or increase fees.
A 2007 report from the free market environmentalist Property and Environment Research Center also documented the success of the Central Park Conservancy—and not just in Manhattan. Cities around the world—from countries as varied as Brazil, Turkey, and Chile—have followed the Conservancy's blueprint.
As a board member of the Conservancy, John Stossel has documented some of its efforts for Reason.