A meaningful amount of usable outdoor public space is critical for the viability of any community, whether it is an urban metropolis or a suburban hamlet. However, the development of such places—and the maintenance and operations needed to ensure their long-term upkeep—requires a significant amount of capital. This capital frequently cannot be obtained simply from local tax revenue. As the national economy has continued to struggle, funding for the development and upkeep of outdoor public amenities has largely dried up. This financial climate underscores the increasingly pertinent need for communities to use innovative financing mechanisms, particularly through public/private partnerships, in order to remain competitive and ensure their residents a high standard of living.

Indeed, some of the nation’s most significant public outdoor destinations in recent years have been the product of robust public/private collaboration. Two signature examples are Chicago’s Millennium Park and Houston’s Discovery Green, both of which have contributed to local prosperity, drawn scores of enthusiastic daily visitors, and become cherished destinations.

Millennium Park was proposed by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1998 to enhance a 24-acre (9.7-ha) space between Michigan Avenue and the lakefront. It initially was budgeted at $150 million—less than one-third its final cost. In the end, the city contributed $275 million, primarily through the sale of bonds backed by revenue from the park’s underground parking garage; about $200 million was derived from private entities.

Many of the contributors can be identified from a walk through the park—Wrigley Square, McCormick Tribune Plaza, Lurie Garden, Chase Promenade, BP Bridge, McDonald’s Cycle Center, and so on. Sponsors of these park elements enabled the vision to become reality. A stroll through the park will not reveal patrons concerned with the naming rights of their favorite park features, but rather the faces of children and adults at play, full of smiles and laughter. Visitors seem quite happy to simply enjoy a great park experience, no matter who is or is not sponsoring it.

In downtown Houston, Discovery Green resulted from a public/private partnership initiated in 2004, transforming an area of parking lots and minimal green space into a multifaceted public amenity. The popular 12-acre (4.9-ha) park located across from the George R. Brown Convention Center opened in April 2008 to great fanfare and has already had a significant impact on downtown economic growth. The variety of recreational amenities draws both residents and out-of-town visitors who dine and shop locally.

The city donated the land for the park’s creation in return for the inclusion of a below-grade parking garage, which also provides for the city’s annual $750,000 pledge to the park’s operations and maintenance costs. The park was funded mainly by private donations and is operated by the nonprofit Discovery Green Conservancy. The remainder of the park’s annual operating budget is funded by Discovery Green’s two restaurants, fundraising events, occasional paid performances, and the rental of venue spaces for private events. This partnership has resulted in well-maintained public spaces and amenities that will continue to draw patrons, who in turn stimulate the local economy while enjoying a premier urban park and its attractions.

These two signature urban green spaces are prominent examples of the potential for grand public/private partnerships. But this development framework has great potential to effect positive long-term change in suburban environments and smaller communities as well. Throughout Texas, similar partnerships have brought to fruition exceptional public amenities, particularly in. For instance, the city of Sugar Land has partnered with the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the master-planned Telfair community, a Newland Communities development, to transform Telfair’s 1939 Central State Farm Building into the museum’s first satellite facility located outside Houston’s museum district downtown, and Sugar Land’s first museum. A variety of permanent galleries were installed in the 43,000-square-foot (4,000-sq-m) historic building that sits on 5.5 acres (2.2 ha); the galleries reflect the most popular exhibit areas of the main museum campus and teach patrons about science topics required for Texas schools.

Recreational amenities can be funded through bond  financing in Texas. 

Another example of the efficacy of public/private partnerships is the Sienna Plantation Levee Improvement District (LID) parks master plan. A LID, like the similar municipal utility district (MUD), is a special political subdivision authorized by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to provide water, sewage, drainage, and other services within the district’s boundaries. Such entities are common in the Greater Houston area, as well as in other parts of Texas. The Sienna Plantation LID is made up of 10,000 acres (4,000 ha) in the extraterritorial jurisdiction of Missouri City, a suburb southwest of Houston. In November 2009, voters in the Sienna Plantation LID voted to authorize the LID’s board of directors to sell park bonds to finance $49 million in community park projects within its jurisdiction.

The district currently has about 18,000 residents and expects to have more than 60,000 residents in the next 20 years. The proposed projects include a new 160-acre (65-ha) sports complex with baseball, soccer, and multiuse fields. Additional sports complexes of similar size are envisioned, as well as tennis courts, playgrounds, nature parks with bird-watching towers, canoe launches, a skate park, and miles of trails, including hike-and-bike, equestrian, nature, canoe, and kayak trails. Plans are to integrate the projects into a larger, 900-acre (365-ha) regional county park.

These community enhancements were made possible by 2003 Texas legislative changes that gave MUDs and LIDs the ability to fund parks and recreational facilities through bond financing. Under TCEQ rules adopted in 2005, a variety of park-type projects can be financed this way. For instance, in addition to the $49 million in parks and recreation bonds, the voters in the Sienna Plantation LID authorized using part of the revenue from an existing maintenance tax—previously dedicated solely to community maintenance—for the long-term maintenance and upkeep of the new amenities. The beauty of this model is that the district is able to provide these new amenities—and cover their attendant maintenance needs—without raising its tax rate, because the bonds are paid off from the existing tax revenues. This agreement frees up private developers’ money, which can be leveraged for additional amenities, community improvements, and new tax-generating developments for the community that create synergy with the new community park projects.

With 64 percent voter approval for authorizing the sale of the $49 million bond offering, it is readily apparent that Sienna Plantation LID residents recognize the value the parks will add to their community and to the value of their homes.

Beyond enhanced property values, the district has also helped improve the quality of life for residents. Through these partnerships, private developers can enhance existing community parks or develop new parks and recreation facilities not allowed under TCEQ parameters, such as water parks and golf courses. This allows private developers to spend more money on recreational amenities—which many homebuyers now consider essential when choosing where to live—to help enhance the community.

Though this particular public space–financing model is unique to Greater Houston and Texas, the concept can be used in other parts of the country as well. Community development in the realm of outdoor space is crucial to social health and well-being. The challenging financial times make this paradigm even more necessary—and complicated—but through creative cooperation between public and private groups, great outdoor spaces can be created and embraced by the public. The question ultimately is one of place, and a sense of place can be created anywhere—and in particular in communal outdoor spaces.

The message to developers is clear: many opportunities exist to adapt and achieve great progress through unity and partnership, whereas the use of traditional development models might well represent a fast track to stagnation.