On August 7 this year, the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park began to charge admission for the first time since it opened to the public seventy years ago. Nobody likes to have to pay for something that was formerly free of charge, so it’s no surprise that there has been some grumbling. But actually, maybe it’s even more surprising that the botanical garden remained open to the public free of charge for so long?
Other special gardens in the park have been charging admission for some time. When the botanical garden in Golden Gate Park first opened to the public in 1940, it joined the Japanese Tea Garden and the Conservatory of Flowers as special gardens within the larger park, but all were open to the public free of charge. A friend who grew up in San Francisco fondly remembers playing in both the Japanese Tea Garden and the Conservatory as a child, while the adults played tennis at the nearby courts. The Tea Garden only began to charge admission sometime in the mid to late 1980s. The Conservatory of Flowers instituted an admission fee in 2003, when it reopened to the public after undergoing extensive renovation.
Because these fees have been adopted gradually over a period of years, it’s easy to overlook the fact that such changes signal a shift in thinking about public parks and how they should be maintained and managed for public use. In the nineteenth century public parks were part of a great social experiment, the hypothesis being that exposure to Nature was morally and socially beneficial to the society at large. Parks were designed to be free of charge to people across the social spectrum, but especially those “less favored by fortune.” Parks were also frequently home to cultural institutions such as art and natural science museums, zoos and botanical gardens, which were products of the same era.
In fact, the great nineteenth-century social reform movement produced many public cultural institutions that we now take for granted: parks, libraries, museums, theaters. The thinking was that the society as a whole would benefit from the exposure to Nature and Culture that such institutions offered. Of course, the seeds of public-private partnerships to support these cultural institutions were also sown in the nineteenth century, with New York City leading the way. In the last quarter of the century legislation was passed in New York incorporating many cultural institutions and authorizing the city to build new facilities and to lease them and the parkland on which they often sat back to the newly formed private entities. These public-private agreements usually stipulated that the city would provide the land, facilities and funds for maintenance and security and in return the new private institutions would develop cultural services and collections that would be made available to the public.
The public-private partnership model did not apply to public parks until fairly recently; again New York City led the way with the establishment of the Central Park Conservancy in the last quarter of the twentieth century. This nonprofit organization entered into a public-private agreement with the city and rescued Central Park from near ruin following years of diminishing public funding. This model has been followed in San Francisco in the Presidio Trust and the Friends of the San Francisco Botanical Garden. But there is no umbrella nonprofit for Golden Gate Park, our most venerable public park. Why is that?