Scott Howard
A City Park bridge exemplifies the extraordinary beauty of green space in need of better protection and funding. Credit: Parks For All

New Orleans has a shot at becoming a city of great parks. The City Council’s decision to put a millage on the ballot next May for the financing of four key green spaces is a step in the right direction. But much more needs to be done.

The proposal would adjust the millage rates for Audubon Commission, the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORDC), and Parks and Parkways, and begin for the first time to provide funding for our wonderful City Park.

Audubon deserves credit for initiating this concept by proposing to reduce its own millage to 1.95 mills ($6.59 million) from 3.31 mills ($10.92 million), thereby enabling NORDC’s adjusted millage to increase to 1.95 mills ($6.59 million) and Parks and Parkways’s to 1.8 mills (or $6.08 million), both from 1.5 mills ($4.95 million), and City Park finally to have a millage of .61 of a mill (nearly $2.06 million), from nothing.

Good grief, that’s pretty confusing, so let’s try it again with a chart:

Agencycurrent millage current dollars (MMs)proposed millageproposed dollars (MMs)
Audubon3.31$10.921.95 $6.59
NORDC1.5 $4.951.95 $6.59
Parks and Parkways1.5 $4.951.8 $6.08
City Park0 $0.00 0.61 $2.06

But what’s needed, along with funding, is a much better management structure and the coordination of both funding and policy.  We have some ideas to address those challenges.

Right now, the City’s green space falls under a bewildering patchwork of administrative entities. Most residents would be surprised to learn that nine different organizations or agencies are involved in the improvement, operation and maintenance of Orleans Parish parks and recreation assets.

Each agency has its own identity, mission, board and staff, few of whom are trained open-space design professionals. Moreover, they have divergent open-space priorities, master-planning formats, strategic goals, and equipment. There is little, if any, communication or coordination among these agencies with regard to long-term strategies. This disconnect leads to operational inefficiencies, redundancies, wasted resources, and strategic dysfunction with regard to how public open spaces are funded, governed, managed, and planned.

Audubon, City Park, the New Orleans Recreation Department (with its 107 parks and pools) and Parks & Parkways (with 2,000 acres under management) are crown jewels. But similarly vital tracts of open land operating under different auspices can be found all across the city.

The Moonwalk and Crescent Park on the Mississippi River are managed by the French Market Corporation.

The Downtown Development District has been asked to revamp and manage Duncan Plaza, across from City Hall.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East and the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West own and maintain green spaces and battures along the flood defense that lines Lake Pontchartrain, Bayou St. John, and the Mississippi River waterfronts.

And the megillah of city green space, Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, comprises 23,000 acres of wild land that will be pivotal to the future of Eastern New Orleans and the very survival of the city. It’s under the control of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.

That should take some of the wind out of arguments for increased commercialization of our parks, a process that amounts to privatization of a cherished public resource.

The sometimes clumsy and competitive autonomy of the boards and agencies that manage these public lands is rooted in the different narratives that chronicle their genesis and evolution over time. But while this patchwork of independent entities may appeal to individual board chairs and board members, the perpetuation of a hydra-headed approach to administering a vital resource—green space—is costing New Orleans the breadth and strength of vision that would come with better coordination.

To the Council’s credit, a successful vote on the millage, May 4, will require that in exchange for access to the tax dollars, recipients must enter into a Cooperative Endeavor Agreement with the city administration. Parks For All has prepared an amendment to the current draft of the agreement that we’ve sent to the mayor’s office and to Council members.  A consortium of nonprofits and citizen groups has come together in support of our proposals.

We advocate seven key ideas:

  • A plan. First and foremost, we believe New Orleans must hire a team of professional experts to create a citywide master plan for its green space, all of it, not just our best-known parks. The Parks, Green Space and Recreation Master Plan has been proposed for years and is recommended in the revised city Master Plan that was adopted two years ago. It needs to happen now.
  • Quality updates. The plan should be monitored with periodic assessments of our citywide parks, measuring them against the objectives of the master plan and the evolving desires of the citizenry.
  • Funding. Master Plans don’t come cheap, and so we propose that the four parks slated to receive the new millage must agree to remit 2 percent of their money to cover the cost of the master plan as well as periodic analysis of parks-and-recreation conditions.
  • Broad oversight. We have proposed the formation of a Parks and Recreation Steering Advisory Committee that includes parks administrators, city officials, and parks advocates. We believe that parks planning and decision making should be a more inclusive process. Other green-space advocates must be given seats at the table, including community and neighborhood organizations, such as Coliseum Square Association and Lafayette Square Conservancy and Parks For All. Groups like ours try to represent the desires of ordinary citizens in the care and shaping of our parks system. It is not useful from anyone’s standpoint for private-citizen groups to be scrambling for information and input at the last minute, only then to discover that backroom decisions have already been made.
  • Broader parks coordination. In addition, the leadership of the four agencies that will draw from the millage – Audubon, City Park, Parks & Parkways, and the City’s Recreation Department — should coordinate with other groups that manage significant public acreage, including the French Market Corporation, the Downtown Development District, the levee boards, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • Stop commercialization. We are urging that the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement include language that resists the tendency of our large parks to justify commercializing green space based on the argument that they lack sufficient operating funds.
  • No loss of green space. Finally, the wording we have proposed for the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement goes a step further. It would require the big parks to embrace the idea that there can be no further loss of city greenspace. Period. That’s a principle already set forth in the city Master Plan and adopted by the City Council.

We have been saddened in recent years to see City Park give more and more of itself to event venues and other kinds of commerce. We are concerned, to cite another example, that Crescent Park’s expansion plans might end up including a significant commercial component to help pay for its construction and maintenance.

As with City Park’s Scream Park feature, creeping commercialization of green space has been rationalized as a way to cover operating expenses. Credit: City Park

The ballot measure, if successful, will result in new millage streams that allow use of funds to pay for operating costs—a first. That should take some of the wind out of arguments for increased commercialization of our parks, a process that amounts to privatization of a cherished public resource.

The millage is vital to the preservation of green space and the city itself. It will help park administrators manage our precious and limited green space without having to monetize it commercially or, as critics of this process are in the habit of saying: “paving our parks in order to save them.”

Parks are important to the people of New Orleans. As we promote the seven amendments to the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement, Parks For All is gratified to be joined by volunteer organizations and nonprofits, including Parkway Partners, City Park for Everyone Coalition, Friends of Lafitte Greenway, SOUL, The Urban Conservancy, the Coliseum Square Association and Lafayette Square Conservancy.

It is time to honor this groundswell of energy for positive change and use it to upgrade the ways we fund, manage and program our open spaces. 

Scott Howard is president of Parks For All, an activist nonprofit dedicated to the creation, maintenance and beautification of public parks, playgrounds and green space throughout New Orleans.

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