The fortunate denizens of Grand Rapids have a wonderful new garden to enjoy: The Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden, which opened this summer as an extension of the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.
This new garden—underwritten by Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, Sr. and his wife Helen—is the most recent addition to the list of major gardens and parks that have opened in the last dozen or so years. Some of the biggest new parks include the Millenium Park in Chicago (opened 2004), the High Line in New York (first phase opened 2009), and the Klyde Warren Park in Dallas (opened 2011). Multi-millionaire and billionaire philanthropists played a significant role in underwriting all of these new parks.
Philanthropic support for gardens and parks has a long tradition in American philanthropy. But as philanthropic ventures, gardens and parks are often controversial. Why should that be?
Well, parks and gardens—especially those on a great scale—are generally developed on public land, which makes for tangled relationships in a “public-private partnership.” The philanthropists underwriting the project are often big local businessmen, with interests in businesses near the new park or in the firms involved in building the parks. No surprise, then, that accusations of cronyism are frequently associated with the process of creating a new park—or when philanthropists are accused of dictating that their preferences be incorporated into the park design. “The parks are set up for the plutocrats!” becomes a refrain around many of these big projects.
These kinds of complaints are not new: when New York’s Central Park was built with the support of elite New Yorkers in the 1850s, 1,600 poorer New Yorkers complained about being forced off land to be incorporated into Central Park. Surely these folks didn’t feel that the new park was to be welcomed!
The newest example of such controversies is also—no surprise—from New York. Expedia chair Barry Diller and his wife Diane von Furstenberg (whose tens of millions of gifts were crucial to the completion of the acclaimed High Line) have pledged more than $100 million to the development of a brand-new park, Pier 55, on a platform over the Hudson River. Plans for the new park have been stalled by a lawsuit that charges that the plans ignore environmental concerns. But there are plenty of other critics of the plans: some object to the fact that the plans allow for expensive, ticketed events that will exclude regular New Yorkers, and yet others argue that philanthropists’ money might better be spent rehabilitating run-down parks in poor neighborhoods rather than building new parks on the wealthy side of New York.
There’s a whole other kind of complaint about philanthropic support for parks and gardens too, that goes beyond accusations of cronyism or privileging of philanthropists’ preference to skepticism about the worth of philanthropic support for parks and gardens altogether: these advocates of “effective philanthropy” ask how one could justify spending millions on a beautiful garden—or even rehabilitating parks in poor American neighborhoods—when millions of people in the world lack basic necessities and medical care. Isn’t it superfluous, they ask, to support parks for their beauty when the vast sums spent on parks in America could supply life-saving medical care to tens of thousands in the developing world?
Not all philanthropic support for parks and gardens is met with such complaints. The new Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden—perhaps in part because of its setting in Grand Rapids, where there are less fraught relations between the very wealthy and ordinary people than there is in a place like New York—has been met with enthusiasm and with record-setting crowds at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.
And, for all the perils of major philanthropy in support of parks and gardens, and the complaints about “parks for plutocrats,” these major new parks as well as long-established parks are surely special places to cherish.