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New York's public parks, brought to their magnificent peak by the legendary Parks Commissioner Robert Moses in the mid-20th-century heyday of direct government activism, were in disarray in a new era of public-sector austerity. As the City's hard-pressed government found itself short of money and manpower the parks from the iconic Central Park to neighborhood playgrounds grew dingy and dangerous. With few other options, park officials began experimenting in the 1980s with a new approach: Shifting responsibilities to the private sector. By 2003 this partnership strategy had become the linchpin of the park system. Private organizations ranging from sophisticated organizations funded by New York's rich and famous to informal networks of neighborhood volunteers had taken on major roles in maintaining, upgrading, and day-to-day management of the City's park system. Commissioner Adrian Benepe, though a veteran Parks Department employee deeply committed to public service, had contributed to the development of the partnership approach throughout his career. But as he was promoted to the top job, he faced the challenge of pursuing a complex mission when much of the essential capacity was subject to his influence but by no means under his control. Attending fundraisers, massaging donors' egos, and motivating volunteers rather than the direct exercise of authority are Benepe's most important management tools.

Learning Objective:
Through the discussion of the intricacies and necessity of public-private partnerships in redeveloping parks in New York City, the case provides a window for students into the world of competing definitions of civic interest and the role of leadership in shaping urban policies.

Other Details

Case Author:
John D. Donahue
Faculty Lead:
John D. Donahue
Pages (incl. exhibits):
United States