I don’t know what it is about running in NYC that seems to always get my attention. Their park system is fantastic and the greenways for walking, biking and running are well thought through. Even where thegreenbelts don’t exist, there are neighborhood squares, pocket parks and urban plantings. And in the midst of this sea of nature in the urban jungle, I worry that our reaction to the recession may threaten the model of public space in NYC, in our community and in yours.
Great public spaces define our communities. They are places where we escape the day, where we learn to play ball, where we catch fish, watch a local concert, listen to political views, or catch up with friends. Sometimes they are artful in their presentation, like the photo of Luxembourg, in Paris, France and some present great art like the photo from Parc Quel in Barcelona, Spain. While I am not crazy about the suburban interpretation, where each one acre lot has attempted to move the public space into each back yard, the centuries old urban model of squares, greens, parks, and gardens excites me. What I noticed during my run in NYC is that many of the great spaces didn’t happen by accident, they were carefully planned and leveraged private funding. Philanthropy sits at the core of our great public spaces.
In NYC’s West Village, the neighborhood is experiencing a renaissance from the $172 Million “High Line”. Once an active elevated railway that serviced the local food industry, these rails went quiet when the automobile took over. In 1999, members of the community stepped forward and saved the elevated platform from destruction. With $44 million in private donations for capital and $4 million in private funding for maintenance, this privately led public/private partnership claims to have inspired $4 billion in local investment and $900 Million in new city taxes during the next 30 years. Today, you can enjoy strolling through the gardens, lounging on the park benches, and listening to your favorite speaker or musician in their amphitheater. But the private funding and support of the High Line is not unique. On my runs through Central Park, I couuldn’t help but see plaques and statues dedicated to benefactors who reached deep into their pockets to enable the private conservancy that maintains the park. And in Wilmington, there is Rodney Square, funded in large part by local philanthropist John Jacob Rascob in the 1920’s. The multi-million dollar modernization of Rodney Square in the 1990’s was funded in large part by the Garden Club of Wilmington, who takes an active interest in the maintenance of the square.
But what should become of these existing spaces and how will we inspire new ones in this time of recession? Certainly the public sector does not have an appetite for land conservation, park development and open space maintenance. Our greatest hope still lies with philanthropy. Which is why I worry about a national approach to divert philanthropic funds into national coffers. Take the “Buffett Rule” for example. Warren Buffett has opened up the doors to solve the national debt issue by insisting that the wealthiest philanthropists pay additional taxes. According to the CATO Institute, there are approximately 236,833 citizens who earn more than $1Million. Assuming that they didn’t find a way to avoid the new tax (which they would), new taxes would yield $72 billion, not nearly enough to fix our woes. But worse, the demonization of the philanthropic segment of our society could devastate our public spaces. The Buffet mentality would have a chilling effect on our communities as these normally generous stewards recoil and become hyper-protective of their wealth. They will soon be joined in their apprehension by the small businesses that normally support playgrounds, highway plantings, and the neighborhood parks.
One great irony in all of this debate is that the town squares that protesters are now demanding an assault on capitalism are funded by the very people they oppose! In my run through the NYC financial center, the Wall Street protesters are camped out on a square sponsored by Brookfield Financial Properties, a private company! They recently poured $8 Million into restoring the park, damaged on September 11th. I wonder if these rebels will send Brookfield a thank you note.
How we solve our national woes will be an ongoing debate. What I hope is that we recognize that there is a significant potential for unintended consequence by targeting one class of citizens and labeling them as selfish. At a time when we should be lauding the potential for individuals to create wealth and inspiring them to share it for the public good, I fear that we could dampen both. So for now, go take a walk in a space that may have been brought to you by a philanthropist, collect your thoughts, and share them with others in your Town Square.