Why Public-Private Partnerships are the Key to Building Public Parks

Millenium Park

Blog // Sep. 6, 2023

By: Jeffrey Craft, Principal Urban Designer and Landscape Architect, STUDIO tla

One of the (few) silver linings of the Covid pandemic was our collective realization of just how important public parks are to society. As a result, public demand for access to parks and urban spaces has increased substantially and municipalities across North America—now facing chronic budgetary shortfalls triggered by the pandemic that will take years, perhaps decades, to overcome—face tremendous pressure to deliver.
According to data from the National League of Cities in 2021, local governments across the US projected a $90 billion shortfall because of Covid. In Canada, CBC reported that economists predicted a $20 billion shortfall for municipalities.
If we think of cities as entities made up of independent organism-like parts, we understand that they are intended to function in a connected system supporting common cultural, political, and social goals. Ideally, cities are self-sustaining and grow along with changes in population to provide the necessary civic infrastructure to support meaningful quality of life for its residents–infrastructure that should be delivered with economic efficiency and in a timely manner. But, like most organisms, cities require inputs from outside sources because they are never fully self-sustaining, and they are rarely fully functioning systems because they are at the mercy of competing financial, social, cultural, and political goals.
For its very survival, a city needs money from taxes as its primary resource. If a city cannot tax its citizens in an efficient and sustainable way, it needs to find other sources to feed the system, and in Toronto–where the source is primarily development fees tied to the construction of residential housing. The most basic civic services are dependent on home sales, resulting in an underfunded and diminished public realm and ultimately a reduction in quality of life for its citizens.
Cities don’t build themselves. So, where does a city like Toronto with one of the lowest residential tax rates in the nation and the highest average residential development fee per square foot in 2022 (according to the CHMC) find its alternative funding sources? Other major cities have successfully employed Public Private Partnerships (P3s) to deliver critical infrastructure and public amenities, specifically parks and open space, for growing cities that cannot afford to build and maintain themselves.
P3s have a proven track record of providing capital and the long-term maintenance funds necessary for the construction of the public realm. Think Millenium Park in Chicago where almost half the $490 million project costs were provided by private corporations, private citizens, and foundations, with the rest generated through bond initiatives and tax increment financing. Or the Hudson River Park Trust and their partnership with the Diller-Furstenberg Family Foundation that donated $230 million of its $252 million construction cost for Little Island, one of the most uniquely designed and architecturally significant public park spaces in North America. These world-class public waterfront experiences are only possible when government partners directly with the private sector to secure capital investment and funds for long-term maintenance.
Toronto has already adopted the bones of the P3 process. In 2012, the City of Toronto passed a Council Member Motion to make negotiating with the private sector, specifically residential developers, for the dedication of Privately Owned Publicly Accessible Spaces (POPS) part of the development application and review process. This has resulted in the delivery close to 200 urban park-like, public realm environments across the city. These privately funded and privately maintained public spaces are integral to the city’s urban fabric and proof that the City of Toronto can successfully partner with the private sector.
Other municipalities across Canada and the US would stand to benefit tremendously from a similar model or something even more ambitious that’ cities like Chicago and New York have adopted: a P3 process that involves responsible corporations, cultural foundations and individuals to provide a financially, ecologically, and socially sustainable public realms in municipalities and provinces and states.
This would result in the creation of parks and urban spaces that would bring cities closer to meeting the needs for more parks and urban spaces to serve the growing needs of its citizens.