It takes more than a tuft of grass to make a good urban park. Some of the best downtown parks in America have non-profit management organizations that produce spectacular results. It’s time for DC to join them.

Photo by thisistami on Flickr.

DC is unusual in that the vast majority of the city’s parkland is under National Park Service (NPS) control. While this arrangement spreads the cost of local parks across all American taxpayers, it also shackles the parks to restrictive and sometimes uncompromising NPS regulations that have hampered events, food sales, bikesharing, and change in general.

NPS regulations are great for preserving Yellowstone, but not so great for making city squares lively.

Other cities have found that municipal control of parks can be just as disappointing. In the case of New York’s Bryant Park, for example, it wasn’t until the city turned the park’s management over to Bryant Park Corporation, a non-profit, that it went from being a dilapidated den of crime and drug needles to a vibrant space where residents feel welcome.

Bryant Park, New York. Photo by brianac37 on Flickr.

Because BPC isn’t part of a municipal government, it’s been able to bypass onerous procurement rules.  Its full time management staff host events like fashion shows and holiday markets year round. It also cleans the park everyday, works with food vendors, and maintains a temporary ice rink, outdoor ping-pong tables, chess sets, and porch chairs.

Bryant Park’s full time staff is something a lot of conventional parks just don’t have. At a park panel at the 2010 ASLA conference, Jerome Barth of the Bryant Park Corporation noted that its staff can repair benches the day they break and rearrange movable park furniture as crowds change throughout the day. Imagine DC’s parks getting that kind of attention to detail!

Bryant Park, New York. Photo by Mat McDermott on Flickr.

The District could do the same with a lot of the downtown parks that NPS currently controls. The result would be parks that were both more attractive and more useful, and land near these public gems would surely go up in value.

There is already some political support for making the shift. While campaigning, Muriel Bowser told the told the Committee of 100 that if elected, she’d improve downtown parks:

I would work with federal officials to transfer jurisdiction of the many park spaces currently managed by the National Park Service so they have better amenities and programming for residents and visitors to enjoy. Freedom Plaza in particular is an area particularly well suited to the creation of a central park, though I would not limit my focus to this one location.

In its recent environmental assessment for renovating downtown’s Franklin park, NPS contemplates a new management system where private partners could explore ways to generate revenue and share responsibility for park maintenance. The private partner would be held to NPS standards for maintenance and preservation, and NPS staff would be free to attend to other nearby land like the National Mall and its surrounding memorial parks.

In DC, good candidates include Franklin Park, Mt. Vernon Square, Farragut Square, Dupont Circle, and Freedom Plaza.  Georgetown Waterfront Park, Meridian Hill Park, and the proposed 11th Street Bridge Park are other good candidates outside downtown. Whether the District created a single partner for each park, or one to manage them all, would depend on exactly what each park needs.

Funding sources for parks organizations can vary, from government appropriations, to a special assessment or share of recordation taxes on surrounding property, to vendor fees. Whatever the funding source, the rise in land value would help the District’s bottom line.

Other cities have successfully managed parks this way. Aside from Bryant Park, New York uses similar non-profit groups for the High Line (Friends of the High Line) and Madison Square Park (Madison Square Park Conservancy). A local BID-type organization, Union Square Partnership, maintains Union Square.

In Philadelphia, the non-profit Historic Philadelphia Inc. operates Franklin Square, which contains a carousel, a miniature golf course for kids, food concessions, a playground, bathrooms, and a holiday light display.

Non-profits provide the bulk of these parks’ operating revenue, and they maintain them as high-quality, attractive public spaces that are open and free to the public.

Union Square, New York. Photo by David Robert Bliwas on Flickr.

Washington deserves top-notch urban parks. We already have an abundance of parkland, and if it were free of so many management constraints, our parks could reach their full potential.