Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux imagined Central Park as a model for all parks, but even they’d be impressed by this: the Central Park Conservancy, the not-for-profit organization that manages and maintains the park, has been quietly sharing its expertise on park management, maintenance, and development with more than 50 parks from all over the globe. Now the Conservancy is thinking of going pro, transforming its “park mentoring” program from a possible distraction to a potentially lucrative little sideline, positioned somewhere between landscape architecture and management consulting—like a graduate school for parks. “Central Park is our focus, but our mandate is always to be at the forefront of the parks movement and help other parks as much as we can,” says Doug Blonsky, Conservancy president and Central Park administrator. “We realized we might want to study this and see if there’s actually a business model here.”
The Conservancy has been a paragon of public-private partnership since its founding in 1980, but the mentoring program evolved slowly. Until five years ago the organization dispensed advice ad hoc through informal phone calls, visits, and e-mails with other park officials. But as Central Park increasingly became a symbol of a revitalized New York—indeed of rejuvenated cities everywhere—more and more parks from farther afield have sought its expertise in “public-space management,” as Blonsky terms what he views as effectively a new profession. Today the Conservancy organizes workshops, shares its library of how-to materials, and evaluates other parks’ plans, often charging them a small fee for its services (on a sliding scale).
“Urban parks today talk about collaboration and partnerships,” says Tim Fulton of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, which has consulted Central Park extensively for advice. “The Central Park Conservancy has mastered that, and we’ve all learned from their mistakes.” It’s not something you can study at any university (yet), but in Central Park at least, school is in session.