Listening to Tim Tompkins describe his job, it can be hard to tell if you're in a graduate sociology seminar or at a community activist meeting. Tompkins is the creator and director of New York City's five-year-old Partnerships for Parks, a joint public-private initiative run out of the Parks and Recreation Department, but partly underwritten by the non-profit City Parks Foundation. Partnerships uses community outreach to get New Yorkers involved in their neighborhood parks, with the ultimate goal of creating a lasting political constituency to demand increased parks funding from the city.
Tompkins knows how to speak wonk. Discussing Partnerships at a recent Halloween weekend festival at Brooklyn's Fort Greene Park -- near an array of outdoor tables where costumed neighborhood kids painted mini-pumpkins -- he invoked Robert Putnam's notion of "social capital," James Q. Wilson's and George L. Kelling's "broken windows" theory of crime prevention, and Malcolm Gladwell's "tipping point" hypothesis. But its policy-heavy reading list notwithstanding, there's nothing geeky about Partnerships. Himself a 36-year old business school graduate, Tompkins has stuffed the program with fresh-faced, fresh-out-of-college enthusiasts, who pursue their government jobs with the ardor of activists -- which, of course, they are.
At the Fort Greene Halloween celebration, there was certainly much to be ardent about. Besides sack races and a space walk, a main attraction was the second annual Fort Greene PUPS (Park Users and Pets Society) Halloween dog costume parade, featuring a canine Xena and Hercules duo, a Rottweiler Tinkerbell, and several bride and groom pairs. But as we waited for the procession to get underway, Tompkins made sure the sights -- a Dachshund dressed as a devil, a Wolfhound dressed as Wonder Woman -- didn't distract me from the underlying theoretical framework that drives Partnerships. "So," he began, in an I-know-what-you're-thinking sort of way, "what does dressing your dog up on Halloween have to do with revitalizing communities or parks?"
The answer to this ties together the work of Robert Putnam, James Q. Wilson, Malcolm Gladwell, and parks activists across New York's five boroughs. To Putnam, "social capital" refers to the value inherent in contacts and networks among individuals. The higher the level of social capital in a community, the more people will be likely to cooperate and harbor civic values. The exuberant scholar also claims that more social ties lead people to be happier, healthier, and wealthier. As public meeting places, parks are perfect places to foster social ties. The Partnerships' philosophy is that fostering such ties will help improve the parks; the parks will improve the ties; and attractive parks and the ties combined will rejuvenate the neighborhood.
Implicit in this outlook is the belief that little differences in community makeup and social behavior can snowball into big results. Here's where Partnerships invokes Wilson's "broken windows" theory and Gladwell's idea of the "tipping point." "Broken windows" is based on research indicating that seemingly miniscule environmental factors -- in a park, things like graffiti, broken benches, and pit bull-chewed swings -- give off the aura of neglect that makes serious crimes more likely to occur. But the same emphasis on minutiae suggests that by cleaning up parks and mobilizing community interest in their well being, it's possible to reach a Gladwellian "tipping point," at which positive change snowballs.
All of this may sound highly theoretical -- but it can also be inspirational. If Putnam, Wilson, and Gladwell are right, there's a clear formula for making a difference -- the exact formula that Partnerships pursues. Step one: Work actively to bring people together for positive social endeavors, like cleaning up a park. Step two: Sit back and watch them turn around their lives and communities.
Of course, Partnerships' approach must also be understood in the context of the checkered history of New York City's parks. During the city's fiscal crisis of the 1970s, parks funding was rolled back, and both Central Park and its lesser-known satellites suffered, becoming widely regarded as centers of crime and drugs. Indeed, by the late 1970s, things had gotten so bad that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan threatened then-Parks commissioner Gordon Davis with a federal takeover of Central Park unless something was done about the "national disgrace."
In 1980, the Central Park Conservancy was formed, a highbrow foundation that has since collected hundreds of millions of dollars from donors living in the rich zip codes near the park. The Conservancy's massive funding helped clean up Central Park, and today shields it from fluctuations in city funding of parks. However, no comparable remedy exists for the vast majority of New York's 1,700 urban parks and playgrounds, which aren't lucky enough to be rimmed by the penthouses of millionaires.
Enter Partnerships for Parks. The program aims to apply the innovations of the Central Park Conservancy -- especially the practice of drawing upon the generosity of the private sector as much as possible -- to New York's other urban parks, particularly those in low-income areas. Where the Conservancy threw gobs of financial capital at one vast urban parks problem, Partnerships attempts to channel social capital into hundreds of smaller ones.
The method is grassroots based. Partnerships outreach coordinators work with local parks groups to plan events and aid in the logistics of running an activist organization. Partnerships also sponsors park improvement workshops on topics ranging from forming alliances with local businesses to dealing with crime, holds several city-wide clean-up days per year, and offers community groups small grants for specific improvements, programs, or creative ideas. The ultimate goal is to create a groundswell of public interest, essentially putting the issue of parks back on the New York City political map. In the long run, Tompkins says, he hopes for widespread recognition that "a park is not just a frill, like a nice window box. It's an essential part of a democratic functioning society in a city."
But the Partnerships program has not yet clearly made its mark, and even describes itself as "vulnerable." And there's no reason to assume achieving its grand mission will be easy. Watching kids throw the football around at the Fort Greene celebration, I asked Tompkins and parks organizer Ruth Goldstein whether holiday celebrations really translate into greater political participation. Might there be a fundamental distinction between having 3,000 people show up for a neighborhood block party and actually creating an army of activists who're in it for the long haul? "If we can get three volunteers out of this, that's fabulous," replied Goldstein. Tompkins added that when it comes to political change, "Ten people can make a huge difference." Over five years, Partnerships has built up a mailing list of 50,000.
"Before I was just like, 'okay, I want more money for parks,'" says Tompkins. But he says his conception of Partnerships' mission has broadened. Now, it's about nothing less than changing the character and spirit of the Parks Department, so that the agency views "retail relationships between people in government and people who are using the parks" as essential to its work.
Herein lies the true idealism of Partnerships for Parks. At base, it is an attempt to transform a government agency into a noble-intentioned, proud-hearted public interest advocacy group -- and then get that group increased public funding. On the national level, an analogy might be turning the Justice Department into something more like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Indeed, Partnerships says its outreach-based approach could help turn around federal agencies like the Department of Education. For liberals who believe government should be the solution rather than the problem, these are enticing prospects. But is such a vision realistic?
Before I leave Fort Green Park, Tompkins loads me down with two Partnerships for Parks "Essential Reading" packets: A chapter from Jane Jacobs' classic work of urbanology, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and a Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker article titled "Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg." As a general rule, it's probably risky to give reporters homework. But it turns out the Gladwell piece speaks volumes about the program that photocopies and distributes it.
Lois Weisberg, in Gladwell's account, is a Chicagoan "social connector" extraordinaire, a friend of rich and poor alike, acquainted with artists and flea market vendors as well as celebrities ranging from Arthur C. Clarke to the mayor. She is also the creator of a children's arts program called Gallery 37, a creative public-private hybrid that sounds a lot like Partnerships. Tompkins says he draws inspiration from Gladwell's discussion of how social ties can have a leveling effect due to the opportunities they create. "Poverty is not deprivation. It is isolation," Tompkins quotes to me, while costumed children, black and white, but mostly black, swirl around us.
As the Gladwell article makes clear, Tompkins is advocating a fairly radical democratic ideal. The idea is that by inspiring neighborhood groups to clean up inner city parks and bring people back into them, Partnerships can not only strengthen neighborhoods, but help create a more egalitarian New York. It's a disarmingly ambitious notion for a public agency.
Nowadays, though, one expects government to think much smaller. That's the challenge for Partnerships. If there's anything that's certain about the road ahead for the program, it's that using government to rediscover our communitarian purpose will require far more than just dressing your dog up on Halloween. But all the necessary ingredients for social transformation are at the parade: individual initiative, creativity, and the willingness to be part of a larger public gathering. If Partnerships can channel these energies, they may just have what it takes to bring New York's parks past the "tipping point" and provide a powerful sociology lesson for the rest of us.