A Portrait of NYC Civic Capacity: the Central Park Conservancy
Note: My Twitter thread about this essay can be found here.
New York City has greater current and potential civic capacity than most people would suspect, and we1 are capable of changing our civic systems such that NYC grows radically wealthier, both absolutely and per capita. This better future is not only possible, it is the fundamentally reasonable proposition.
But I’m not going to defend that idea in its vast, abstract form here. I’m just going to introduce a portion of NYC that works exceedingly well: The Central Park Conservancy, the private entity that runs and funds Central Park.
In a city besieged by trash, Central Park remains clean.
In a city with cost overruns and needlessly bloated budgets, Central Park is a blessing to the city treasury.2
And in a city that welcomes millions of citizens and tourists alike, Central Park retains its pristine beauty, undisturbed by the same intense use that corrodes other less-delicate things.
Because the Conservancy is a world-class institution that defies every governance trope you can think of. Central Park is exceptional in NYC—not just because of its physical contrast, but because of the institutional, operational, and financial excellence that undergirds it. Any of us are free to learn from the Conservancy, and if enough of us do, NYC will bloom like Central Park itself.
My favorite introduction to the Conservancy, and to the history of Central Park, is Saving Central Park (2018) by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers. It chronicles the beginnings of the park in the mid-nineteenth century up until the 1970s, when it was an eroded, desiccated shell of the splendor we know today. EBR then takes us through her work to found the Conservancy, and how she led the revival of our great urban oasis in the face of great push-back. I can’t recommend it enough, especially if you are caught in a nihilistic death spiral about how American cities can’t do anything well (as too many are).3
I’ve also created a transcript of a November 2 podcast interview with the Conservancy’s current President and CEO, Betsy Smith, for a more expeditious introduction into the current operations of Central Park. The remainder of this post contains the lightly edited, timestamped interview with inserted hyperlinks that are worth following.
Here are points I think are especially important to highlight:
What is the Conservancy’s mission? (5:11)
The Conservancy is privately run and funded; it is a public-private partnership with the Department of Parks and Recreation (7:02)
Central Park was a ruin in the 70s (9:31)
How to support the Conservancy (18:06)
Learn more at the Conservancy’s website
Central Park: The Crown Jewel of NYC with Betsy Smith, President and CEO, Central Park Conservancy
November 2, 2022 • 21:13
Josh Schneps 00:05
In this episode of Schneps Connects, we’re talking about one of the crown jewels—or the crown jewel, I think—of New York City, which is Central Park. I’m excited to have with me Betsy Smith, who’s the president and CEO of the Central Park Conservancy. She holds one of the most unique leadership positions, shepherding a New York institution unlike any other. Central Park is completely free to the public with no admission fee, and it’s up to the nonprofit Conservancy to raise the majority of the park’s multimillion-dollar operating budget to ensure its long-term sustainability.
With an unprecedented 42 million annual visitors, Central Park requires long-term strategic planning to accommodate this incredible use while staying true to the park’s founding purpose as a respite from the pace and pressures of life. I think certainly during the pandemic, it was a place that many people could go to safely. Betsy’s role oversees strategic planning, park operations, capital programming, public programming, development and marketing and communication strategies […].
Previously she served on the Conservancy’s board of trustees and the advisory board of the Institute for Urban Parks, the Conservancy’s educational arm. She was a former New York City Parks Assisting Commissioner in the Bloomberg administration, and also served as a board member of Friends of the Highline, the Open Space Institute, and as vice chair of New Yorkers for Parks. She is currently chair of the board of Library of America, nonprofit publisher of significant American writing. Well, that’s a lot going on, Betsy. Welcome. Thank you so much for sharing.
Betsy Smith 01:51
It stresses me out to hear you say all those things.
Josh Schneps 01:53
Right, you don’t have to think about it, you just do it. So Central Park. It goes without saying that it’s really the centerpiece of New York City. And I want to start off by asking you a question. I feel like everybody has a part of the park that’s special to them for one reason or the other, whether it’s a moment in their life, or they just spend a lot of time there or you know, treasure the tranquility—what would you say is your favorite part of the park?
Betsy Smith 02:24
Well, it’s changed actually; you know, I brought up my children in Central Park and lived on the Upper East Side. For many, many years, I’ve said that the Conservatory Water, which is also known as the boat pond, was one of the most beautiful, serene places in the park. But since I’ve taken this job, I’d say there’s no question that my favorite part of the park is the north end of the park. Part of this is the enormous amount of work we’re doing up there on the Harlem Meer, which we can talk about, but it gives life to the purpose of the park as a way to escape the urban grid. The northern part of the park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead basically to be the Adirondacks, [which] he saw many New Yorkers never being in a position to go to. And so there’s the North Woods, the Ravine, the Harlem Meer, all those areas are places where you really can forget you’re in New York, which quite frankly, is the purpose of the park. The purpose of the park is not to be the city. That’s one of our biggest challenges.
Josh Schneps 03:28
[Now] I’m saying to myself, maybe I haven’t been up that far.
Betsy Smith 03:35
A lot of people actually go into the park on their route—they either commute through the park, or they take their children to their favorite playgrounds. One of the great things that happened to me when I took this job is that I got a little golf cart, and I’m now all over the park all the time. The park is huge. It’s 843 acres. So it’s very hard to see everything unless you’re a biker and you do the whole loop, or a runner and you’re training for the marathon. It’s hard to get around the whole park, but it’s a magnificent landscape. And it’s monumental in scale.
Josh Schneps 04:06
I guess when you think about that, you’re running a trillion dollar real estate portfolio.
Betsy Smith 04:10
So many people look at the park and they say—rightly so—it’s a miracle that the park wasn’t eaten into over its history. It was designed in 1858 and finished in 1873. And practically immediately there [were] people who wanted to put things in the park or nibble away at its edges, and we consider that one of the Conservancy’s most important objectives: to protect the park. We’re not fussy preservationists, but we’re protecting the park. It has a tremendous impact on the City of New York, and it’s a work of art. I don’t know if you saw in the Wall Street Journal last week—a full-page article about Central Park as one of the most important works of American art of the 19th century, and protecting that is a core part of our mission.
Josh Schneps 04:58
That’s terrific to hear. Talk through a little bit more of your mission. I described a little bit about your role and responsibilities, but share a little bit more in terms of the Central Park Conservancy’s overall mission.
The Conservancy’s Mission
Betsy Smith 05:11
Our mission, in a word, is to give life to our core purpose. And you accurately said the core purpose of the park is to maintain it as a respite from the pace and pressures of city life.
We have given life to that mission through a 40-year effort to restore the park. The park had been abandoned by the city in the 70s; the city was bankrupt at the time, and the Central Park Conservancy, in 1980, started a 40-year effort to restore this magnificent landscape. I often call it one of the most dramatic rescue stories of a public resource in the country’s history. So that’s the mission of the park, to provide New Yorkers and visitors with a place to escape from the city and to be recreated (in Olmsted’s words) by contact with nature.
Being in green spaces changes the way you feel about yourself. And I’d say that from a mental health point of view, and all the work that’s been done about green spaces and their importance in mental health, the park has really provided that resource to millions and millions of people, particularly during the pandemic—it’s not just that Central Park was the only thing open. The fact is, people felt better in green spaces across the whole city. And Central Park is huge and accommodated millions of millions of people. We had no tourists, but we had just as many visitors.4
Josh Schneps 05:51
That’s amazing. That’s actually a very interesting statistic.
Betsy Smith 06:39
It’s an amazing thing. But the power of the park really came through during the pandemic; it was a central resource to millions and millions of people. That [also] brings its own challenges.
Josh Schneps 06:53
Talk about fundraising, because everyone knows that’s central to any organization. So where do you rely on your fundraising?
The Conservancy’s Public-Private Partnership Model
Betsy Smith 07:02
One of the things that many New Yorkers don’t know about—and we are in the process of having an expansive institutional awareness campaign, quite frankly, Joshua—people don’t realize that we are responsible for the care of the park.
And that includes providing the resources to care for it. We have a $100-million budget. We have been entrusted by the city, after our 40-year relationship with them, for the complete care of the park. And we raise over 80% of that money. We have a fee-for-service contract with the city, so they do contribute to its care, but we go out and we raise the rest of the money.
It’s a big, big challenge, because we have no gate, we have no tickets. We’re free, and we’re open to the public from 6am to 1am. And we have been very, very dependent on annual giving. And we are trying to create a financial structure that’s a little bit more predictable than that. But it’s a big responsibility.
Josh Schneps 08:02
How many people work every day to maintain the park?
Betsy Smith 08:07
We have about 400 people in the Conservancy’s headcount. Three-quarters of those are people who are actually in the park every day: mowing the lawn, pruning the trees, weeding, keeping the place clean, picking up trash, providing the public programming, giving tours—I mean, we are responsible for literally every aspect. We work very closely with the Central Park Precinct; the police department does maintain safety and security in the park. But we handle all of the day-to-day care of the park.
Josh Schneps 08:40
So you’re also a general, you oversee an army. I think it’s really important for younger people to recognize where the park was in the 70s.
Central Park Before the Conservancy
Betsy Smith 09:31
Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you, you make a very, very good point. We’re very proud of our 40-year history. But it is true that many young people today have no idea what the near-bankruptcy of New York City really meant for Central Park. And it’s not an exaggeration to say the park was disappearing.
One of the most evocative things we can do to make our point is to show before and after pictures of the park. The park had no lawns, the trees weren’t pruned, there were no bench slats, the lights were all out—it was a derelict landscape that was literally disappearing. And it’s hard [for people to really understand how fragile the park is], basically because we’ve been so successful, and raising the money, and having this extraordinary standard of care in the park.
The park is a landscape. [With] museums, you might be able to close the door, and a few years later go back and the paintings are still there. But if we took our eye off the park for two weeks, the public would notice the trash, the lawns, the pruning, the weeds—it’s a massive effort. The park is a natural landscape. It needs constant care.
Josh Schneps 10:41
Talk a little bit about what you’re doing to bring a spotlight on the [park’s] history and building equity.
Betsy Smith 10:54
We know that the history of the park is important. And most recently we’ve done a lot of work around Seneca Village. Seneca Village was a black community in the park in the 80s [cross streets], on the west side. We’ve done a tremendous amount of research on that community and what its impact was in America and in the city, and we have created programming around Seneca Village to highlight that community’s contribution to New York City. And we have an expansive program that we would like to put in the public schools to really talk to people about what Seneca Village meant, the issue of equity.
I often say this: one of the first people in New York’s history to have an equity agenda was Frederick Law Olmstead. He designed the park to be a very democratic space for everybody. It was not a Royal Park. It was not a private park like Gramercy Park. It was designed so that people of all classes, from all backgrounds, from all parts of the city could mix together. And so we have had an equity agenda from our founding, but we take the issues of equity very seriously. And one really good example of that—and this predates me, I wasn’t responsible for the early projects in the early 90s, late 80s—was the restoration of the East Harlem landscapes.
And we put a lot of effort into improving that part of the park to give the message to New York that we were interested in the entire park. And we also knew that the communities around Harlem really love the park and need the park, and we want to make sure that [it’s] accessible to everyone there. This massive project we have going on—building a new pool and rink on the Harlem Meer—is a perfect example of that. Really opening up the flow for people and wildlife and water through that area. I think it’s going to be really beautiful.
Josh Schneps 13:15
What kind of wildlife can people see in the park? I know there’s hawks out there.
Betsy Smith 13:21
All I can say is you can talk to our birding community. We have a very, very active birding community. Central Park is on the Atlantic Flyway, which means that we get migrating birds—over 350 varieties of bird stop at Central Park. So our birding community is very active, and has helped us enormously with the management of our woodlands—their bird habitat—and so we’re careful to work with the birding community. But, you know, there’s raccoons, there’s all sorts of little mice, there’s too many rats (we’re not immune).
Josh Schneps 14:11
Talk about some of the [park] events. Obviously a lot of people just go to the park to relax or workout or just spend a day, but I know there’re certain signature events.
Betsy Smith 14:20
We’re really the only ones who give fundraising events in the park, so we feel that’s a real asset; we can give special events in the park for fundraising. They’re always extremely well attended. We just gave lunch for 400 people earlier this week, and an autumn luncheon at four different locations around the park. We have the Frederick Law Olmstead lunch in May up at the Conservatory Garden, which is right near the Harlem Meer; it’s our major fundraiser. It’s always a lot of fun. Over 1,000 people come to that event. And we have a gala every year, which we’re giving in November (our last Gala was our 40th anniversary). And those are [all] basically fundraising events.
But there’s a lot of other wonderful events. I think I mentioned earlier, the Harlem Meer Music Festival. Jazz on the Great Hill is a long term event we’ve had with the Harlem community, in partnership with Jazzmobile. Of course, many people come to the park for concerts at both SummerStage, and, when they’re permitted, on the Great Lawn. And those are fun events. I’d say my two favorite events in the park are [first], the marathon, the finish line of the marathon. It’s one of the great days in New York, and it’s a place for people from around the world to really look at the park, and appreciate its really spectacular position in New York City. And [second] I also love the Philharmonic’s free concert on the Great Lawn. It’s just a laid-back, beautiful evening, where a wonderful institution comes and plays for tens of thousands of New Yorkers for free. It’s cool.
Josh Schneps 16:13
I have to say you have a great job.
Betsy Smith 16:15
I do, I do! [Although] it’s stressful. When I got here, we had finished 40 years of restoration. Our project up on the Harlem Meer was sort of the capstone piece of our restoration efforts in the park. And when I got here we pivoted from restoring to maintaining the park—we’ve restored the park and now we have to care for it.
And we wrote a strategic plan around it. And that’s really what our focus is. It’s complicated, and it’s expensive. And of course, it’s so important that we can think of doing nothing else but trying to make that work.
Josh Schneps 16:57
Betsy Smith 17:05
You know, it’s not easy doing business in the park. It’s complicated getting people in and out of there, it’s complicated getting food in and out of there. The Boathouse is a beloved, beloved location in the park, and it’s been tremendously successful. It’s had the same concessionaire for many, many years, [but he decided to] leave the Boathouse; the city now is negotiating with him to make sure that there is continued service through the holiday season. There’s many, many holiday parties at the Boathouse. And so that’s good news. And I believe the city is negotiating with a new concessionaire to pick up that contract, which would be a great benefit. We don’t want to see the Boathouse close, and I think the city agrees.
Josh Schneps 18:01
How can the public support Central Park and the Conservancy?
Support the Conservancy
Betsy Smith 18:06
The most important thing to me is that all New Yorkers—and I mean, every single one of us—understands that Central Park is a critical resource for the city. It’s a barometer about the way people feel about New York City. It is probably one of the most distinguished landmarks and visited destinations in the country, certainly in the city.
And I want everyone to know that it’s privately managed; it’s managed by a not-for-profit. We are a cultural institution dedicated to the care of the park. And the way people can help is to know that. But there’re many ways to support us, of course.
You can be a donor, we love having members, we love having major donors, we love having people support us financially. But believe me, the park would not look the way it does without volunteers. So we’re expanding our volunteer program; we have thousands of volunteers, and we need every single one of them, and we need more. So volunteering. But most importantly, it’s being an advocate for the park, being an advocate for its purpose, understanding why [that we’re] trying to balance the enormous amount of different uses that go on in the park every day. So people’s appreciation for that. And, as you had mentioned before, the fragility of the park. It’s important for people to know about that.
There’s lots of ways for people to support us but being an advocate, a donor, a volunteer are the main ways.
Josh Schneps 19:36
What website would they go to if they want to learn more?
Betsy Smith 19:39
centralparknyc.org is our website, which we recently redid. It has a lot of information, tells you about us, tells you about our history. Our historian, Sara Cedar Miller, just finished a book called Before Central Park, and it is about what was there on that 843 acres before Central Park.
Betsy Smith 19:56
Well, listen, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. I’ve learned a lot about Central Park that I didn’t know before. Any New Yorker would have to appreciate how magnificent it is. So I take my hat off to you because I know it doesn’t come easy to operate.
Betsy Smith 20:36
I really appreciate the chance to talk about the park. It’s beloved. I happen to be running an institution that does work that I think everyone understands is important, and I really appreciate the chance to talk about it. Thank you so much for your interest.
Josh Schneps 20:49
It’s our absolute pleasure.
As I wrote in Citizens Who Build: “But this essay is not a theoretical exposition on how someone might go about regenerating civic culture, or how “we” (a convenient rhetorical tool often used to mean all of us in aggregate, but practically excusing any reader or writer individually) should encourage the development of these people. This essay explains how I understand the problem, and what I am doing about it. Along with my friends, I’m rebuilding the kind of civic culture in New York City that will result in a government that builds. My hope is that you will join, or do it better.”
Meaning specifically: besides a small fee that the City pays the Central Park Conservancy, the vast bulk of Central Park is funded through private donations collected and managed by the CPC, freeing up tens of millions of dollars in the municipal budget for other things. (This doesn’t even take into account the counterfactual where the City funds and manages the park directly, in which case one could imagine it would spend more money and achieve less than the CPC—but the two wisely work together for the optimal result.)
In the interest of being concrete, it’s also worth noting that the statement “cities can’t build,” or “cities are poorly run” are weasel statements more often than not. Cities are built—by people. Cities are run—by people. So if you observe that cities are not being built or being run well, turn your attention to their people and yourself. Ask why they and you do not build, and why they and you do not maintain. And then solve it, as so many have done before, and so many are doing now. This task is not only achievable, it is the expected product of human agency, which is effectively limitless in its power.
Further: witness the state of Central Park in the 1970s, and marvel at what has been accomplished since then by a handful of dedicated individuals.
I think this is an astonishing statistic—working on getting the exact details.