What's Olmstead Got to Do With It? Meet a Wealthy Family Working to Bolster Urban Green Spaces

Olmstead's masterpiece, central park

Olmstead's masterpiece, central park

In this new golden age of parks philanthropy, we keep coming across more donors who are putting this issue front and center in their giving. Some are reimagining the ways in which cities are designed; others are thinking up new strategies for acquiring or financing greenspace. Michael and Jenny Messner are doing a bit of both. 

"Maybe we should follow the plans of the 19th century, instead of the 20th-century growth plans... 19th-century growth plans were built around urban parks," Mike Messner of Seminole Capital Partners, an equity investment fund he co-founded in 1995, has said. A few years ago, the Messners funded Olmstead and America's Urban Parks, a documentary by their daughter Rebecca, who wears one hat as an independent film producer. The film aired on PBS.

Of course, by "Olmstead" we're referring to pioneering 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, who developed celebrated green spaces like Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City, and Boston's Emerald Necklace. In a TEDx Charleston talk, Messner extolled the virtues of Olmstead and the importance of parks in cities.

This isn't the only Olmstead project the Messners have funded, either. At his alma mater Georgia Tech, the couple created the Frederick Law Olmstead Chair in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Georgia Tech has also served as a site for Redfields to Greenfields, a research effort to assess the effects of acquiring financially distressed properties in U.S. cities and turning them into green spaces. The couple's Speedwell Foundation formed a partnership with the City Parks Alliance and Georgia Tech Research Institute to study how the plan would work in U.S. cities. (The concept of redfields plays off of brownfields, which refers to environmentally contaminated former industrial or commercial sites.)

Before we address Redfields to Greenfields, and the couple's other philanthropy through their foundation, one question readers might be asking is how a finance guy like Messner got so involved in parks in the first place. Of course, Messner isn't the only Wall Streeter interested in parks and civic space. We've written before about hedge funder John Paulson's controversial $100 million gift to the Central Park Conservancy, for instance. Other New York-based finance couples are steady donors to the outfit, as well as places like Friends of the High Line.

Related: Meet the Controversial Hedge Fund Billionaire Who Made an Unprecedented $100 Million Gift to Central Park

What we don't see as often, however, is a finance couple like Mike and Jenny Messner who are laser-focused on the issue. What's the story here? Well, after graduating from Georgia Tech with a degree in civil engineering in 1976, Messner found his way to the finance world, and in 1995, co-founded Seminole Capital Partners with Scott Kapnick. He also turned to philanthropy with Jenny and formed the Speedwell Foundation, whose sole initial focus was education. Speedwell still runs a study abroad scholarship program, but now also focuses on civic space issues.

Messner has explained that he got involved with parks during the financial crisis of 2008, a recession that had a lot to do with bad real estate investments—"really bad" investments, Messner said. He told the Wall Street Journal, "I've been investing for 25 years, and realized that our country was substantially over-invested in real estate and that we desperately needed to find a way to disinvest." Converting redfields to greenfields is a way to do exactly that, and the trend is gaining steam in various places.

Thus far, the Messners have set their sights on Atlanta, where Messner grew up, and Charleston, where the couple resides. Other cities of interest include Phoenix, Los Angeles, Detroit and Denver.

In recent years, their Speedwell Foundation has also directed grants to Charleston Park Conservancy, East Cooper Land Trust, San Francisco Parks Alliance, the Trust for Public Land, and Charleston County Park Recreation Commission, where a recent seven-figure grant supported Limehouse Point Park, now called Stono River County Park. The foundation also recently funded the Conservation Carousel at the National Zoo, one of the first solar-powered carousels in the world.

For a complete look at this funder, read our profile of Mike Messner linked below.

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