The Central Park Conservancy: The Unique Management of a Mythical Park

Two couples on benches, 1987, a photo of Historian Emerita Sara Cedar Miller, the Conservancy’s photographer at the time, who recalls that the couple on the left were New Yorkers and the two on the right were visiting from France. Photo via the Central Park Conservancy website.

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If you walk in Central Park, you’ll find green pennants hanging from the Park’s lampposts. On them are quotes from real people describing their “Central Park moment” and what this space means to them. “I can be alone in the company of the entire city.” “Thank you to the staff and volunteers for understanding and nurturing all the lovely gifts from nature.” “Central Park has become the love of my life.” A recurring inscription at the bottom of these banners reads Central Park Conservancy. From my first moments in New York and the Park, I wondered what this organization was and how it came into being. To understand this entity, which has set the pace for New Yorkers for over forty years, we must return to the 1970s. 

Act I: “A Sea of Dust” 

Completed in 1876, according to the vision of the “Greensward Plan” created by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Central Park quickly became an essential part of New Yorkers’ lives. After a brief decline at the beginning of the 20th century, the iron fist of Robert Moses, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks between 1934 and 1960, strove to put Central Park back on its feet. However, after his reign over New York ended, the park deteriorated rapidly during the 1960s and 1970s. The tenures of Mayors Lindsay and Beame didn’t help matters, as they appointed a new commissioner every year, preventing any lasting trends from emerging. 

By 1978, New York was on its last legs, mired in one of the worst fiscal crisis the city had ever seen. Ed Koch, trusted by the banks, had the task of turning around the city’s economy (and thus its reputation) as mayor. Koch was elected to end this financial crisis and increase security following the blackout and riots of 1977, which he succeeded in doing after three terms in office—a visible urban success story. Jonathan Soffer, a professor at NYU specializing in modern urban history and politics writes, “The Koch administration created a new spatial order for New York City in the 1980s by promoting gentrification and privatizing public space”. One of the most visible symbols of this new spatial order was the “renaissance” of Central Park. 

At the time, most of New York’s other parks, often considered works of art, were in a deplorable state of repair. Central Park had become a sea of dust.” Koch appointed a motivated and determined Parks Commissioner, Gordon Davis, to remedy this situation between 1978 and 1982. Davis wanted to balance private sector investment and management with public sector involvement. Although previous administrations had severely reduced the budget of the Parks Department and left 84% of parks in poor condition, after two years as Commissioner this figure had been reduced by 10%. . 

During Davis’ time as head of the Parks Department, he strove to reassert control over the use of Central Park,” being stricter about what events could take place there and finding a way to use money from the affluent population who wanted to improve the park. His first project, which was to set the tone for the rest of the repairs, was the Central Park Dairy between 1979 and 1981. However, relying on private funds only was insufficient to accomplish this titanic task.

The first two people to suggest the creation of an independent administrative entity for Central Park were billionaires Richard Gilder and George Soros. Initially reluctant to create such an institution, Davis eventually appointed Elizabeth Barlow Rogers to the newly created position of Central Park Administrator in 1979. Her first move? The founding of the Central Park Conservancy (CPC).

Act II: Who are You, Central Park Conservancy?

CPC was to be a foundation for private fundraising and management of Central Park.” This group of private citizens, primarily volunteers, led by a board of officials and donors, was officially formed by Koch in December 1980. Barlow Rogers had already been involved with the Park for several years. She ran a summer youth program and wrote an article in 1976 titled, “33 Ways Your Time and Money Can Help Save Central Park.” Following this article, $25,000 came the following week. They were all small contributions ($5, $25, $50), but emotional memories accompanied them. Those experiences convinced her that this model could be sustainable for Central Park. Her aim was to make people think of “the park as a cultural institution and the trees and sculptures as a collection.” 

At least, that’s the vision she detailed in her 1987 urban planRebuilding Central Park: A Management and Restoration Plan.” This exhaustive work describes the CPC’s mission, organization, and projects. Its methods are summarized in fifteen steps: policy formulation, compilation of an inventory, both historical and current, dissection of landscapes into 21 precincts, maximization, establishment of priorities (scenic value, user activities, circulation, athletic use), setting aesthetic goals, developing solutions and recommendations, preparing scopes and estimates, establishing a project schedule, fundraising, public relations, design process, construction and finally, maintenance. 

Criteria for Restoration, taken from “Rebuilding Central Park: A Management and Restoration Plan”

Several features are of particular interest, including the division of the Park into 21 zones or “scopes of work” to which different teams (such as gardeners) are assigned, enabling accurate monitoring and accountability. Elizabeth Barlow Rogers’ in-depth work also reveals how to make every decision: what to renovate and when, how to dedicate a space to an activity, which species to protect, how the staff is organized, and so on. 

This plan, for example, presented Central Park as a park for the people,” emphasizing the role of “socially useful landscapes.” Subsequent renovations, reconstructions, redevelopments, and maintenance of the Park have been organized to meet the needs of the people. The report points out that “the uses of Central Park have remained constant over the past 125 years,” including walking, (ice) skating, horseback riding, concerts, boating, lawn tennis, and ball games.

The impact of the CPC’s takeover of Central Park’s administration was soon felt. The first renovation project, Sheep Meadow, was quickly followed by Bethesda Terrace, allowing New Yorkers to experience a “new view of the park as one of NY’s greatest museums deserving of private and public support.” The CPC mission was well underway.  

More than forty years later, despite a few setbacks, Central Park has become synonymous with a green oasis amid skyscrapers, a haven of greenery loved by locals and tourists alike—a vast and meticulous project covering more than 843 acres, well worth spending several decades in.

Act III: Still “A Park for the People,” by the People?

Like any new venture, the CPC encountered much criticism. A first salvo was simply directed against the change itself and condemned that the renovations were distorting the work of Olmsted, Vaux, and Mould. 

The second criticism concerns Elizabeth Barlow Rogers’ traditionalist vision of what Central Park should be. She subscribed to the Olmsteadian ideology, which viewed the Park as “a scenic retreat, a peaceful space that would act as an antidote to urban stress.” This vision aligned with Commissioner Davis’ decision to limit the public’s use of the Park. Since then, organizing events, demonstrations, and political meetings has been tightly controlled. Even today, certain areas of the Park are reserved for “passive recreation.” The official website of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation states, “The Department does not grant any permits for special events or demonstrations on the Sheep Meadow, the North Meadow or the Heckscher Ballfields in Central Park.”

When Gordon Davis envisioned the future of Central Park, he wished for it to be the “city’s most public place and dreamed of the park “as a democracy.”  But Barlow Rogers’ purely leisure-oriented argument deprives the Park of its historic role as a public forum, an agora. One might, therefore, wonder whether this vision might not counteract the idea of the Park as a democracy since citizens can hardly use it as such to formulate and circulate their ideas freely. The Park is therefore “for the people”, but not for all the uses the people would like to make of it.  

But perhaps this democratic idea is linked to the fact that the Park is now renovated and maintained by the people.” Thanks to an original management method, the park is now run by ordinary citizens who work for the CPC, often voluntarily, and can also enjoy the park. Of course, the private status of the CPC has also been criticized and calls into question it’s management of a public good.

Parks are public goods, non-excludable and non-rival, i.e., goods from which no consumer can be excluded and which are not exhausted with each consumption. These goods are typically managed by public services (town hall, state, etc.). The innovative aspect of the CPC was raising funds from the private sector (in addition to those given by the public sector) and using them to maintain a public good, while managing the latter privately (with private actors). 

The fear that emerged was that the CPC would turn Central Park into a commodified private property rather than a truly public space. This concern has grown even more so since the CPC took over a large part of the Park’s operations in early 1998 following the signing of a contract between New York City and the CPC, which delegated the entire management of Central Park to the CPC. Many types of goods, including public goods but especially the commons, can be destroyed by proprietary logic. 

Yet, I wish to argue that this is not the case here. First, I’d like to emphasize the immense opportunities that the CPC has offered Central Park, which would not be what it is today without the CPC’s action. What’s more, the governance of Central Park, a public good, can be likened to that of the commons imagined by Elinor Ostrom in 1990. In effect, she recognizes a common good as a good built by the community around it. A commons is thus an organization rather than a resource. 

For Ostrom, the rules determining a mode of governing the commons are institutions. She defines an institution as “a set of rules put into practice by a set of individuals to organize repetitive activities that have effects on these individuals, and possibly on others.” Her micro-institutionalist approach can be found in how the CPC operates, and it could almost be argued that it and Central Park have practically become a commons. If not a resource commons, because Central Park is a human construction, at least a social and/or cultural commons, guided by social cooperation. 

Although imperfect, the CPC can boast a resounding success in renovating and maintaining Central Park and proposing a new vision of public parks’ prospects (on a scale never seen before). This “experience in private sector and government cooperation” has proved fruitful. The Park is now more policed, touristy, and also pleasant. Its original management style and dedicated funds also enable partnerships and opportunities that the Park might only have had with the CPC, such as the Central Park Climate Late, a research initiative created in 2022.

“The mission of the Central Park Conservancy is to preserve and celebrate Central Park as a sanctuary from the pace and pressures of city life, enhancing the enjoyment and wellbeing of all.”

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This article was edited by Katherine Hohman and Blakely Kehl.