The Bronx River, in New York, and its adjacent parklands were a mess. Garbage—and worse—lurked in the polluted body of water, and the parks alongside it were rarely used.
A dozen years ago, in a bid to call attention to the area, activists floated a 32-inch golden orb down 10 miles of waterway. The ball was buffeted by boaters while communities on the banks held events celebrating the river.
Today the river boasts a cleaner bill of health, and wildlife—including one popular resident named José the Beaver—live around its shores. The golden ball’s wacky journey still happens annually, partly to celebrate the turnaround.
The area’s transformation started with help from the City Parks Foundation, a 26-year-old nonprofit group that seeks to revitalize and enrich many of New York City’s 1,800 parks so local residents can enjoy them.
“When parks are failing, it’s because people don’t use the park; they don’t feel a connection to it,” says David Rivel, the group’s executive director and a native New Yorker. “We are trying to create a connection between a community and its local park.”
To do that, his group takes an array of approaches, including community organizing, sports, arts, and education programs that get people out to the parks. With a full-time staff of 75 people, which balloons to 350 during the summer, the group offers more than 100 free arts and culture events each year through its SummerStage program, which draws more than 300,000 visitors to parks in all five boroughs.
“It started way back when, when Central Park was not in good shape and people were afraid to go into the park,” says Mr. Rivel. “The idea was, if you had great performances, people would come in and make the park safe, and it worked brilliantly.”
City Parks Foundation also runs free sports programs for children and teenagers in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. The group raised money to build a new indoor golf center that opened in 2008 and is now doing the same to construct an indoor junior tennis center.
The organization’s annual budget is $10-million, 60 percent of which comes from corporations, foundations, and individuals, with a small percentage from government sources. The rest of its budget comes from concession sales at events, rental fees from its outdoor theaters, and other similar money-making efforts.
The group now works in 750 parks and expects to expand to 900 in a few years. It also hopes to create more opportunities for indoor programs so events drawing people to parks can be spread throughout the year, says Mr. Rivel.