Five Ways San José Can Sustain Park Maintenance and Improvement: Lessons from Around the Country

Photo of Guadalupe River flowing under a highway viaduct, with trees and greenery on its banks

San José can look to a variety of “place governance” models for sustainably maintaining and improving public green spaces like The Guadalupe River Trail. Photo by Sergio Ruiz for SPUR.

Central Park, Griffith Park, Golden Gate Park. These and other iconic public green spaces positively contribute to their cities’ identity and vibrancy because they are collectively managed and their programming is context specific. Not least of all, they are prioritized by city leadership.

SPUR believes that investing in public green spaces, improving them, and increasing access to them can strengthen social cohesion and drive economic opportunity. We also believe that realizing these objectives requires re-examining local approaches to “place governance” — how people and organizations across many sectors collaborate to make decisions that shape a place’s economic, physical, and social dynamics.

Several cities offer place governance models for the City of San José as it considers how to deliver on the promise of its public green spaces.

The city’s Parks, Recreation, and Neighborhood Services Department manages 206 parks and more than 61 miles of trails. In November 2000, San José voters approved a bond that delivered $228 million in funding. With the guidance of an oversight committee, the city improved or constructed 69 neighborhood parks, seven regional park projects, nine community centers, and five major trail projects. The city focused primarily on capital projects, and when it faced budget shortfalls during the Great Recession, its ability to sustainably resource parks operations and maintenance was undermined. Today, city staff, downtown association staff, conservancies, and volunteer/friends groups work independently to provide programming and daily service for the city’s public green spaces and to make capital improvements to them. As the city grapples with the challenges of sustainably operating and improving these spaces, new takes on place governance merit consideration.

In many other cities, partnerships are programming, maintaining, and improving municipal parks and other public green spaces. The most successful of these partnerships take one or more of the following five approaches for organizing the functions of place governance:

  1. Business improvement districts. These organizations care for parks within their defined borders, usually through a partnership with the municipal parks and recreation department.
  2. BIDs with a separate parks foundation or conservancy. BIDs obtain funds primarily through special assessments, and parks foundations raise funds through membership, grants, sponsorship, and earned income. Think of these coordinating organizations, each with its own board of directors, as a downtown association.
  3. Nonaffiliated BIDs and park conservancies. In these partnerships, each partner provides a set of services to the other partners. The partners share staff but are separate entities with separate boards of directors and management staff.
  4. Traditional park conservancies/foundations. These organizations program, operate, maintain, and improve specific parks, or collections of parks, subject to an operating agreement/lease agreement with the city’s parks and recreation department. They raise funds primarily through membership, grants, sponsorship, and earned income.
  5. Cultural or programming organizations. These organizations operate and manage outdoor (and indoor) performance spaces not affiliated with a nonprofit within a downtown area.

This article explores the five approaches as possible paths for San José.

Approach 1. Business Improvement Districts

A growing number of business improvement districts (BIDs) are undertaking public parks design and development as well as programming, operation, maintenance, and capital improvement. To do so, they may merge with a park development corporation, develop a separate parks conservancy or foundation to create and operate parks, partner with the local parks and recreation department, or develop a BID as a funding mechanism for an existing parks conservancy.

Several of the more traditional BIDs that operate city parks within their boundaries work through fairly formal lease agreements or multiyear services agreements (through larger downtown development corporations and cities). These agreements lay out the roles and responsibilities in programming, operating, and improving parks under their care.

Outside California, BIDs are generally defined as property owners and local business owners within a specific area (usually a downtown or other retail business district). The property owners are assessed a special property tax assessment on an annual basis to fund the bulk of operations. A BID is authorized by the city council for a specific area of the downtown or business district and a majority of property owners must opt in. BID authorizations expire after a period (5 to 10 years, on average) and must be renewed by the city council and the BID membership.

In California, BIDs are more complicated, with several forms of improvement districts that can fund the operations of what is more commonly called a downtown association. In California cities, BIDs take three forms — business, property, and tourism — all of which can assess annual forms of payment for different reasons and purposes. San José has business and property-based improvement districts, each of which has a separate board of directors and bylaws, but both of which are managed by the San José Downtown Association.

Like BIDs outside California, BIDs inside California are authorized by city council legislation, followed by approval of a majority (usually 51% or more) of the affected group, be it real property owners or business owners inside the designated district. BIDs are subject to reauthorization at an interval set by state enabling legislation.

BID boards are largely made up of property owners, key business owners, and key community advocates, depending on the type of BID. In the case of multiple California BIDs, the downtown association can have a separate board of directors or can serve the boards of separate BIDs.

Many U.S. cities have one or more BIDs. The organizations began to gain favor in the late 1980s, when economic upswings and downswings became more frequent. Initially, they focused on cleanliness and safety services for streets, sidewalks, and public spaces. In addition, they provided rangers and ambassadors to suss out emerging issues and provide support for BID-developed programming.

BIDs have long struggled with how to respond to the issue of homelessness in downtowns. Initially, based on pressure from BID members, they sought to move people who were unhoused or “loitering” out of public spaces. Rather than solving the problem, this tactic simply forced unhoused individuals to move around the downtown area during the day. In the 1990s, BIDs started working closely with other nonprofits and city departments to provide unhoused people with connections to services. That said, economic downturns and the COVID-19 pandemic have brought fresh challenges, especially in cities seeing dramatic increases in their unhoused population.

Today, BIDs provide a wide range of services and programming, bolstering the efforts of city officials and working with a range of social services as well as arts and cultural organizations. Some of the most well-known examples include

  • City Center District in Philadelphia. Operating since the 1980s, it provides a range of services, programming, and improvements for downtown public spaces and five parks. The district holds separate lease agreements with the City of Philadelphia for each of the parks, which serve different audiences and have different amenities. The best known is Dilworth Plaza, located in front of Philadelphia City Hall, which has gardens, a café, interactive fountains, and entrances to the underground subway system.
  • Downtown Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (aka 3CDC). These affiliated organizations work closely with the City of Cincinnati and the city’s parks and recreation departments as well as with other civic, merchant, and residence groups to operate and improve three parks and to program hundreds of events annually. Working with the Cincinnati Parks Board, 3CDC added two acres to downtown’s Washington Park, including a 450-space underground parking garage.
  • Downtown Detroit Partnership (DDP). This partnership was formed when a BID merged with the Detroit 300 Conservancy. The parks team is a part of the BID, but it funds its operations primarily through sponsorships and earned income. DDP operates six parks in the downtown district and hosts more than 1,600 events a year. Two of the parks have restaurants; one park has a combination ice rink and lawn. DDP Parks+Public Spaces funds expansion of spaces for additional programming (events, festivals, craft markets, food and beverage offerings). DDP has a long-term operating agreement with the City of Detroit and is actively funding additional improvements to parks.

Approach 2. BIDs With a Separate Parks Foundation

A BID with an affiliated but separate parks foundation has become a popular choice for programming, operation, and maintenance of urban parks. Generally, the parks are constructed by others (the city, a BID, private developers), and the parks foundation takes on operations. The BID and the foundation share programming, operation, and maintenance resources (staff, offices, and equipment), and their level of coordination is high. But the organizations are separate nonprofit corporations with separate boards of directors, leaders, revenues, and expense models.

Washington, D.C., is home to three BIDs with affiliated but separate parks foundations:

  • The Downtown DC BID created the Downtown DC Foundation to develop programs and services in parks and programs and support for unhoused residents. The largest project is revitalization of Franklin Park on a five-acre plot owned by the National Park Service. Upon completion of the renovations, the Downtown DC BID will operate and maintain the park, and the foundation will continue to raise funds for the park.
  • The NoMA BID created the NoMA Parks Foundation to build and operate parks in the NoMA area and to create pocket and corridor parks and public spaces in underpasses with artistic light displays. The foundation handles capital, programming, operations, and maintenance work, spending $2.36 million its most recent fiscal year.
  • The Capitol Riverfront BID operates 10 acres of parks in the Navy Yard area of southeast Washington, along the Anacostia River. This rapidly growing area features two larger parks, Yards Park and Canal Park. Both are public and were built with a combination of public and private funds. The BID, through a license agreement, operates and programs both parks. Several of the BID staff are dedicated to parks management and programming. Capitol Riverfront is in the early stages of starting up a separate parks foundation that would expand to program and operate additional parks and trails as well as connect with the forthcoming 11th Street Bridge Project and the Anacostia parklands, operated by the National Park Service.

A variant of these examples is found in Boston, where a park nonprofit worked with local and state officials to form a BID. The Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy was created by state legislation in 2006 to help operate and manage an under-construction greenway atop a six-lane underground highway running through the heart of Boston. The state initially provided 50% of funding for the greenway through the state department of transportation. Revision of a lease agreement in 2017 led to creation of the Greenway Business Improvement District. As a result, the surrounding commercial properties along the 1.5 miles of the greenway replaced most of state funding.

Approximately 60% of the funding for the conservancy is now obtained through donations and earned income, with the balance coming from the BID, along with smaller amounts (mostly in-kind) from the state and the City of Boston. In its most recent fiscal year, the conservancy spent $3.5 million on programming, operations, and maintenance on the 17-acre, 1.5-mile-long park. The BID contributes approximately $1.5 million annually for park operations and maintenance as well as capital replacement/improvements.

Approach 3. BIDs Working in Partnership With Separate Parks Nonprofits

In some cities, BIDs and parks nonprofits with overlapping territories or the desire to leverage expertise are working together.

One example: the Waterloo Greenway and the Downtown Austin Alliance in Austin, Texas. To maintain the 15-acre redeveloped portion of the 35-acre Waterloo Greenway, Waterloo Greenway staff provide horticultural care, enhanced maintenance, and small repairs as well as an overnight security person. The Alliance supplies a six-member team from a separate partner, Block by Block, to provide daily service (trash, cleaning, basic maintenance). The team is trained to compassionately engage with the greenway’s unhoused population. Many team members have themselves experienced homelessness or other hardships.

Another example: the Providence Downtown Parks Network in Providence, Rhode Island. In 2022, the Providence Foundation, the Mayor’s Office, and local business leaders created the network. These organizers had been working separately for some time to fund improvements for nine parks. The network now has several programming and improvement coordination staff and just hired its first executive director.

Approach 4. Traditional and Not-So-traditional Parks Conservancies or Partnerships

What started in New York City and spread to cities such as Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Boston, Dallas, and Detroit is the more traditional public–nonprofit partnership for an individual park or system of parks. For context, at least 226 parks nonprofits, half of them created since 2000, are operating in 63 of the 100 largest U.S. cities. These 226 nonprofits spend $806 million annually to program, operate, maintain, and improve the parks they have taken on, largely through agreements with the cities, counties, or states in which they are located. That $806 million is just 6% of the $9.7 billion total annual parks and recreation spending in the 100 largest cities.

In Philadelphia, nonprofits operate several parks and the City Center District focuses on specific parks within the district’s boundaries. The nonprofits include the Philadelphia Parks Foundation (advocacy/public funding), the Friends of Rittenhouse Square, and the Fairmount Parks Conservancy, all of which program, operate, and improve some downtown parks and squares as well as the larger Fairmount Park, located just north and west of downtown Philadelphia.

In Houston, Discovery Green embodies the traditional park conservancy approach to park management and programming. The Discovery Green Conservancy has a large independent board of directors and several advisory committees, which include some community members. A programming committee and operations community appear to be dominated by board members (who are key donors as well). Discovery Green Conservancy spends between $6.5 million and $7.5 million annually on park programming and maintenance. It brings in a similar amount from events, programming, concessions (parking, plus food and drink) and related activities.

Elsewhere in Houston, several parks’ nonprofits, namely Buffalo Bayou Partnership and the Houston Parks Board, have been investing in expanding linear park and trail networks into and out of downtown. Separately, Memorial Park Conservancy, through agreements with city agencies, philanthropic funders, and even public tax increment funding, has embarked on an ambitious restoration of its 1,466-acre city park.

Houston has a long history of matching public and privately raised/donated funds to tackle complicated capital projects in parks and trails.

In New York City, Brooklyn Bridge Park, a parks development corporation, partners with the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy on the 85-acre waterfront park. The corporation operates and maintains the park, while the conservancy provides programming, including education. The corporation and the conservancy share a website and office space and have joint programs (such as their volunteer programs), but they remain separate nonprofits.

Funding for the park’s initial construction was provided by a mix of state development funds. The park is maintained through revenue from long-term leases from a variety of buildings (including cultural spaces, offices, a hotel, and residences) that have been developed or redeveloped along the park’s street edges.

The park, on former shipping wharves, offers a variety of recreation amenities (courts, fields, playscapes) as well as gardens with native trees and plants.

Approach 5. Cultural and Other Programming Organizations

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust works with performing and visual arts organizations to support and program a variety of indoor and outdoor venues in downtown Pittsburgh. Advisory committees focus on ensuring these organizations’ effective relationships. The number and scope of these advisory communities has grown as the trust has assumed responsibility for several annual events including First Night Pittsburgh and the Three Rivers Arts Festival, a 10-day summertime festival in the state-owned Point Place Park in downtown Pittsburgh. Each of those events has an advisory committee.

The trust also has a programming advisory committee, made up of representatives from the many arts organizations with which the Trust works as well as a Strategic Partnerships & Community Engagement Advisory Committee, which represents a cross-section of Pittsburgh residents and organizations. The trust’s method for organizing and managing these advisory committees is instructive:

  • Each committee has a board member who serves as chair and provides updates from the organization/board during scheduled meetings. The trust’s board chair attends one meeting of each advisory committee per year.
  • Each advisory committee meets three times a year.
  • The committees focus on free programming, especially at the festivals (for example, free performances in theatres on First Night) and in both the trust’s outdoor venues and in public parks.
  • The committees serve, in part, as a sounding board and input mechanism for the many advisory board members representing community groups and arts organizations.

The trust has working relationships with the city (which provides funding through an amusement tax and a parking district tax), the Parks and Recreation Department, and the nonprofit Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy through use of venues, funding improvements, and programming.

The Power of Place Governance

Parks and other public green spaces showcase municipal identity and signify municipal vitality. But political leaders sometimes view them as niceties instead of essential amenities and services, particularly in times of economic downturn. Reforming or employing new models of place governance can make parks improvement and expansion sustainable.

San José can benefit from other cities’ approaches to place governance. By re-examining how public spaces are built and governed, city leadership can enable environments where public-private partnerships can flourish and innovate solutions can be found to fully deliver on well maintained and programmed common spaces.


Thank you to the Knight Foundation for its generous ongoing support and to the staff of the City of San José Parks, Recreation, and Neighborhood Services Department, the San Jose Downtown Association, the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy, and the Reimagining Civic Commons network for their invaluable thought partnership in creating and supporting inclusive and thriving public spaces.