Behind a Big Investment in City Parks: A Foundation With Deep Pockets and a Timetable

Buffalo, NY. Photo: Heather Shimmin/shutterstock

Buffalo, NY. Photo: Heather Shimmin/shutterstock

The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation finds itself facing a pretty remarkable question. How much can a philanthropy do for just two distinct regions, giving $1.2 billion in 20 years? (Well, it’s more money than that, given investment returns, and we’re actually down to just 16 years, but you get the picture.)

With such a place-based, spend-down mission, one approach the foundation has chosen—along with so many other regional funders lately—is to create some impressive parks and trails systems.

The foundation recently committed $200 million to create signature parks on the waterfronts of Buffalo and Detroit and their surrounding regions, and to advance regional trail systems. The idea is to deliver community and economic benefits to these cities, both of which have struggled with post-industrial decline, and to provide better connections between parks and neighborhoods. 

It’s one of several new, high-dollar city parks projects powered by private wealth, often intended to elevate a city and its economy, and in some cases, even bring together fractured communities. The Wilson Foundation is also another example of longstanding wealth created in cities that have declined economically, now making grants to support their rebound. 


This is a particularly dramatic example, however, given the foundation’s design. Wilson, who passed away in 2014, first found success running his father’s insurance company, but had a number of business ventures and investments, the most famous being his 54-year ownership of the Buffalo Bills. He had a low-key philanthropic career in life, but when he died, left his foundation with $1.2 billion and a mandate to spend down in 20 years, giving in western New York and southeast Michigan.

Plans to reboot each city’s waterfront and complete connected trail systems have been in the works for years, and the foundation’s backed the project for a while, too. Starting in 2017, it gave planning grants to each project in support of community engagement and design processes, and cut the big checks this month. The amounts are split evenly between the two regions, with $50 million going to each park, and $50 million for each trail system. Both parks will be renamed after Wilson, part of an effort to channel the donor’s legacy into the cities he called home.

“We’ve got 16 years, two months and 21 days,” foundation President and CEO David Egner told USA Today. “We’re a unique animal, with a spend-down of this size in only 16 counties. How many foundations of any size get to do $200 million in one day?”

Despite its spend-down strategy, the foundation is currently worth more than it was when it was founded in 2015, now up to around $1.3 billion thanks to surging investments. So there’s now a troubling elephant in the room, even for promising city philanthropy: that these pools of wealth are ballooning in cities where large swaths of residents struggle to make ends meet. (For more on this, Benjamin Soskis writes about this tension in his hometown of Philadelphia, and some new research explains why city coffers are lagging amid economic boom.)

But as far as parks philanthropy goes, there is a lot to like about these grants. For one, the planning and outreach processes are a good indicator of resident engagement. We’re not seeing the telltale signs of a donor kicking down City Hall’s doors and slapping some blueprints on the table. 

It’s hard to know how effective such outreach is, but the Buffalo process, run by the city and University of Buffalo Regional Institute, engaged with more than 1,100 community members. The Buffalo plan is also incorporating what’s already onsite, as well as two city master plans and current community uses. In Detroit, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy led a community-driven design competition and public meetings, ultimately hiring Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the firm behind several New York parks and Tulsa’s $465 million Gathering Place park.

The even split between these crown jewel parks and the surrounding trails is also a good step. As Detroit’s mayor emphasized in the announcement, improving access to the riverfront will be just as important as the park project itself. 

It’s worth noting that the Wilson Foundation is also helping advance trail and parks project elsewhere. In September, it awarded a $6.5 million grant to expand Western New York’s Empire State Trail to make key connections between the region’s cities and towns. The new commitment will improve upon over 20 miles of bike and pedestrian trails and provide amenities for users who access the trail from Buffalo, Lockport, Tonawanda, and Rochester. These amenities include things like signage, bike racks, and informational kiosks.

In making that gift, the Wilson Foundation also emphasized the civic benefits of projects like this. "Trails allow people to connect on mutual terms,” said David Enger. “Our trail system can be the most diverse place in terms of assets in the region, and in terms of people that are on the trails.”

While grants of this size are impressive on their own, what’s really remarkable is how they can leverage government support that might not otherwise happen. After the Wilson Foundation committed its latest $6.5 million, the state agreed to kick in $16.5 million of its own. The state sees trail systems as a way to drive local economies and bring more tourism dollars to New York.

Governor Andrew Cuomo said: “This significant investment from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation will further enhance our state's picturesque trails, positioning Western New York and our entire state as a leading destination for outdoor recreation.”

The big goal here is to see the Empire State Trail fully connected from New York City to Canada, Buffalo, and Albany by the end of 2020, spanning a continuous route of 750 miles and becoming the longest multi-use trail in America. Many communities are involved in this project, often linking in their own parks plans to the Empire State Trail.

Still, the biggest action on parks by funders—including the Wilson Foundation—continues to be in cities. And as more money has flowed for such grantmaking, discussion of how to do it right has intensified.

We’re in a post-High Line world, and foundations trying to establish these stunning green hubs for their cities have to reckon with the implications of pouring funds into one part of a city. Doing so can surge real estate prices in a particular neighborhood, and leave other neglected areas and their public spaces out in the cold. We are seeing some of the newer philanthropic parks projects trying to spread the wealth, or build connections and access to city resources. 


Even with such a strategy, the Wilson projects in Detroit and Buffalo will still risk unintended consequences. We’re also in a post-Atlanta BeltLine world, after all, and there are clear ripple effects of inequality and affordability associated with such green rejuvenation projects. 

Yes, it’s possible the parks will help lift up the economies of Detroit and Buffalo, and these donations will in all likelihood provide something special and beloved for each city. But the underlying issues of segregation and inequality run deep, and philanthropy has difficulty getting at the core of it. That doesn’t mean parks shouldn’t be funded, but the best parks funding is incorporated into other efforts to support the surrounding community.

Parks and trails are just one focus of the Wilson Foundation, which also supports education and children’s programs, training and other support for low-income adults and families, and other economic development work. Beyond creating great parks, it’s an important and far bigger task to weave such placemaking into greater efforts to reduce poverty and racial and economic disparities in communities they serve. The Wilson Foundation has about 16 more years to take on that challenge.