Oh dearie me! The Rose Ftizgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy will get 25% less money from the state next year, leaving it with a budget of just $4.4 million to maintain the Greenway. Have I mentioned that the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) is getting less than $80 million this year to maintain all its parks and forests in the entire commonwealth?  All 450,000 acres?

All right, it may not be fair to compare the maintenance of the lightly trafficked 6,000-acre Mohawk Trail State Forest with a park smack in the middle of Boston. Fortunately, the Trust for Public Land has put together a useful web page comparing park features and spending for the 77 largest U.S. cities as of fiscal year 2008 (FY08). Let’s see how Boston stacks up!

Out of the twelve high-density cities in the survey, Boston has the second-highest number of acres or parkland per 1000 residents (8.3 acres). By comparison, New York has 4.6 acres/1000 residents. Ultra-low-density Anchorage has 1,794 acres per 1000 residents, but that number is substantially lower if your population estimates include moose.

But how is our spending? Judging by the comments on the Greenway’s budget woes, many Bostonians feel that having all this open space around is far too expensive for an efficient 21st-century city, and we ought to just sell off the entire Greenway to developer Don Chiofaro to build a small breeder reactor and have done with it. Are we really so wasteful?

Well, who do you want to compare us to? Overall, Boston spent $61,298,456 on 2200 acres of parks in FY08. The Trust for Public Land ranked Boston number 31 out of 77 cities, spending ca. $101 per resident on parks. That’s more than Baltimore and Philadelphia ($68/person), but less than New York ($142) and far less than San Francisco ($300).

If you’d like to compare the city of Boston to the Greenway Conservancy, though, the numbers look a bit brighter. Boston spent ca. $28,000 per acre on its parks in 2008. This year, the Greenway Conservancy plans to spend $5.5 million in 2010 on 15 acres, for ca. $367,000 per acre. The 2011 austerity program will bring the Conservancy down to a mere $293,000 per acre. A few blocks away, the Friends of Post Office Square Trust is probably spending less than $168,000/ acre for that intensively used, carefully landscaped 1.7 acre park/parking garage.

But what does all this information actually mean? My first impulse is to say “It means that privatizing park maintenance is a big mistake!” – but the issue is larger than that. The Greenway Conservancy got to take over a public park and waste millions of dollars because no one in government wanted to pay to take care of our public land; not the DCR, not the City of Boston, no one. Now, we’re stuck with an inefficient “private, nonprofit corporation” that is prioritizing installing wifi over planting trees and asked that developers be allowed to build skyscrapers that cast shadows across the park.

Today, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is planning to give the Greenway Conservancy $2.2 million for FY11. Boston could maintain more than 78 acres of parks for that sum. We may have saved money in the short run by handing the Greenway to the Conservancy, but we are paying for it, and we will for years to come.