The significant difference between designing a park for an enlightened billionaire, rather than a public agency, Mr. Van Valkenburgh said, was the Foundation’s willingness to embrace play structures with moving parts that involve a manageable risk. A water zone invites children to operate dams and pumps, and think like a pint-size Army Corps of Engineers. Children can direct some of the water into a huge sandbox, creating sand castles and tunnels. “It’s really about being able to make a complete mess,” Mr. Urbanski, the firm’s playground czar, said. “It’s going to make control freak mothers crazy.”
For Mr. Kaiser, a lifelong Tulsan, the park — projected at 100 acres, with a children’s museum — is furthering his goal of drawing entrepreneurs and young professionals who could make his city the next Austin. Although, he points out, Austin does not have the Woody Guthrie Center or the Bob Dylan Archive (both Foundation initiatives).
But are cities best served by having parks and other amenities initiated and subsidized by powerful billionaires? To Aaron Dorfman, president of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a Washington-based watchdog group, “private citizens getting to decide which ‘common good’ ideas get funded is a worrisome trend.”
“They are stepping into the holes because of government underfunding,” he said.
This question is likely to arise more frequently as the rich get richer — and as the nation’s parks assume the kind of cachet that museums and performing arts centers have long had, said Adrian Benepe, a former New York City Department of Parks & Recreation commissioner and now a senior vice president of the nonprofit Trust for Public Land.
The watershed moment may have been 2012, when the hedge fund manager John A. Paulson donated $100 million to the Central Park Conservancy. Parks, Mr. Benepe noted, have become “economic development magnets” — Millennium Park in Chicago, for instance, is now one of the city’s most heavily visited attractions. “There is a peacetime arms race as cities compete with each other,” he said. “Having a great public amenity like a park helps draw residents and investors to a city.”
Park construction has typically been financed through municipal bonds.
Mr. Kaiser may be committed to ensuring that Gathering Place is publicly owned in perpetuity, but there is no guarantee the next billionaire in the next city will be. “You’re relying on someone’s good will,” said Galen Cranz, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and author of “The Politics of Park Design.”