Dena Levitz is a digital strategist and freelance writer in Dublin whose work has appeared in such publications as the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Crime Report.
Thanks to huge budget shortfalls, cities often have no choice but to charge for use of public spaces
Even perpetual problem solver Leslie Knope might be stumped.
For three years now the budgets for city parks and recreation departments have been slashed by double digits, putting them in the most desperate funding predicament of recent memory.
Sure, there are public-private partnerships, grants and corporate giving initiatives helping to make up the difference, but undoubtedly the quickest savior for parks is also the most controversial – levying charges on the very people who use public spaces.
"Of all of those sources, the big daddy is fees," said Rich Dolesh, chief public policy officer for the National Recreation and Park Association and a 30-year parks veteran. "Most everyone agrees that specialized recreation services justify a fee, whether you’re talking about campsites or boat ramps or sports leagues. Where it gets gray, though, is charging for access to public parks and other general-use public places."
Dolesh says the fact that jurisdictions are increasingly considering this tactic makes it "a time of great worry." He equates the practice to the shock of suddenly doing away with a free library system.
Looking across municipalities, the approaches to charging are as different as the places in which the parks reside.
In San Francisco, a firestorm surrounded last year's decision to charge non-residents for parks access, particularly the famous Botanical Gardens within Golden Gate Park. Parks Director Phil Ginsburg said it was a necessary evil to combat multi-year budget deficits.
Dolesh praised Ginsburg for supplementing the increases with creative new funding mechanisms suggested by San Franciscans, such as allowing food trucks to pay to sell their delicacies. Doing so provided new opportunities and services and made fees just a part of the bigger revenue picture.
Other cities, such as London, have targeted individuals who use the parks for business purposes, like dog walkers or fitness trainers. In these jurisdictions access is free up until someone is turning a profit from their use of the park; then they must get a permit. NRPA Research Manager Bill Beckner said at this point it’s becoming "almost common" to consider a similar payment approach.
Out west, the city of Denver is making public facilities charges the norm. But parks are safe for now - their fees apply to indoor facilities.
According to Dolesh, Denver officials recently assessed all community centers to pick out the best-performing units. Those that were judged to be higher quality will stay open under a three-tier pricing approach.
"If you use the centers a few times a year, that’s one price. More regular use is another, and, lastly, for the full boat of services you pay a top tier price," he said.
State parks, just like local parks, are in the midst of dramatic financial hardships and having to hunt for new dollars. The difference with a state park, however, is that access inside the grounds is generally more controlled. That’s why it’s easier to enforce flat fees to physically enter the parks.
Washington State, for one, is trying out annual passes for families. "With local parks, very few are fenced in so it’s much harder to place a fee on a park entrance," said Beckner.
Still he expects to see more cities attempting to charge dog parks and other, less open spaces with clearer entrances. Even though he considers such strides "nibbling at the edges" of the funding woes, to citizens unaccustomed to fees often lash out against the moves.
NRPA last month held a forum revolving around the topic of public park financing and intends to suggest more balanced strategies for municipalities to raise revenue. "One of my fears is that if you privatize public recreation programs so heavily all that matters is the bottom line," Dolesh said. "But with a pay-to-play scenario how can equity be assured so that everyone has access to parks?"
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Moyan Benn Back From Prague.