Behind a Big Investment in City Parks: A Foundation with Deep Pockets and a Timetable

City parks buffalo.

BY TATE WILLIAMS republished from Inside Philanthropy

“We’ve got 16 years, two months and 21 days [to spend the $1.2 billion in 16 counties] ”
David Enger, President and CEO
Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation

Release date: October 29, 2018

The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation finds itself facing a pretty remarkable question. How much can a philanthropy do for just two distinct regions, giving $1.2 billion in 20 years? (Well, it’s more money than that, given investment returns, and we’re actually down to just 16 years, but you get the picture.)

With such a place-based, spend-down mission, one approach the foundation has chosen—along with so many other regional funders lately—is to create some impressive parks and trails systems.

The foundation recently committed $200 million to create signature parks on the waterfronts of Buffalo and Detroit and their surrounding regions, and to advance regional trail systems. The idea is to deliver community and economic benefits to these cities, both of which have struggled with post-industrial decline, and to provide better connections between parks and neighborhoods. 

It’s one of several new, high-dollar city parks projects powered by private wealth, often intended to elevate a city and its economy, and in some cases, even bring together fractured communities. The Wilson Foundation is also another example of longstanding wealth created in cities that have declined economically, now making grants to support their rebound. 

This is a particularly dramatic example, however, given the foundation’s design. Wilson, who passed away in 2014, first found success running his father’s insurance company, but had a number of business ventures and investments, the most famous being his 54-year ownership of the Buffalo Bills. He had a low-key philanthropic career in life, but when he died, left his foundation with $1.2 billion and a mandate to spend down in 20 years, giving in western New York and southeast Michigan.

Plans to reboot each city’s waterfront and complete connected trail systems have been in the works for years, and the foundation’s backed the project for a while, too. Starting in 2017, it gave planning grants to each project in support of community engagement and design processes, and cut the big checks this month. The amounts are split evenly between the two regions, with $50 million going to each park, and $50 million for each trail system. Both parks will be renamed after Wilson, part of an effort to channel the donor’s legacy into the cities he called home.

“We’ve got 16 years, two months and 21 days,” foundation President and CEO David Egner told USA Today. “We’re a unique animal, with a spend-down of this size in only 16 counties. How many foundations of any size get to do $200 million in one day?”

Despite its spend-down strategy, the foundation is currently worth more than it was when it was founded in 2015, now up to around $1.3 billion thanks to surging investments. So there’s now a troubling elephant in the room, even for promising city philanthropy: that these pools of wealth are ballooning in cities where large swaths of residents struggle to make ends meet. (For more on this, Benjamin Soskis writes about this tension in his hometown of Philadelphia, and some new research explains why city coffers are lagging amid economic boom.)

But as far as parks philanthropy goes, there is a lot to like about these grants. For one, the planning and outreach processes are a good indicator of resident engagement. We’re not seeing the telltale signs of a donor kicking down City Hall’s doors and slapping some blueprints on the table. 

It’s hard to know how effective such outreach is, but the Buffalo process, run by the city and University of Buffalo Regional Institute, engaged with more than 1,100 community members. The Buffalo plan is also incorporating what’s already onsite, as well as two city master plans and current community uses. In Detroit, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy led a community-driven design competition and public meetings, ultimately hiring Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the firm behind several New York parks and Tulsa’s $465 million Gathering Place park.

The even split between these crown jewel parks and the surrounding trails is also a good step. As Detroit’s mayor emphasized in the announcement, improving access to the riverfront will be just as important as the park project itself. 

We’re in a post-High Line world, and foundations trying to establish these stunning green hubs for their cities have to reckon with the implications of pouring funds into one part of a city. Doing so can surge real estate prices in a particular neighborhood, and leave other neglected areas and their public spaces out in the cold. We are seeing some of the newer philanthropic parks projects trying to spread the wealth, or build connections and access to city resources. 

Even with such a strategy, the Wilson projects will still risk unintended consequences. We’re also in a post-Atlanta BeltLine world, after all, and there are clear ripple effects of inequality and affordability associated with such green rejuvenation projects. 

Yes, it’s possible the parks will help lift up the economies of Detroit and Buffalo, and these donations will in all likelihood provide something special and beloved for each city. But the underlying issues of segregation and inequality run deep, and philanthropy has difficulty getting at the core of it. That doesn’t mean parks shouldn’t be funded, but the best parks funding is incorporated into other efforts to support the surrounding community.

Parks and trails are just one focus of the Wilson Foundation, which also supports education and children’s programs, training and other support for low-income adults and families, and other economic development work. Beyond creating great parks, it’s an important and far bigger task to weave such placemaking into greater efforts to reduce poverty and racial and economic disparities in communities they serve. The Wilson Foundation has about 16 more years to take on that challenge. 

global goals.

Sustainable Development Goals:

11. Sustainable cities & communities: Developing safe, resilient and sustainable places to live

15. Life on land: Managing forests and terrestrial ecosystems, while combating desertification, land degradation and biodiversity loss in a sustainable way