ConsultEcon Management & Economic Insight


May 11, 2021
Public-Private Partnerships at Public Gardens
Written by: Monica Leveckis, Research Associate, ConsultEcon, Inc.

The American Public Gardens Association defines a public garden as “an institution that maintains collections of plants for the purposes of public education and enjoyment, in addition to research conservation, and higher learning.” A garden must be fully open to the public and must be staffed by trained expert professionals with an active plant records system to be considered a public garden, but can take many different forms, including botanical gardens, arboreta, sculpture gardens, university campuses, historic homes, and municipal, state, and federal parks.

While many public gardens are operated by government units with the support of a “friends” group; and others are private perhaps with annual local government funding many have adopted a true public-private partnership. Due to the specific operational needs of public gardens, including plant care and operations as well as community programming and outreach, a public-private management partnership can be particularly effective. Municipalities often have the overhead capacity to provide critical support necessary for the proper care of such gardens including landscapers, gardeners, and arborists as well as overhead capacity for other maintenance, security, and janitorial needs. With such baseline operational needs met by local government, the private non-profit partner can focus on other important mission-related activities such as programming and events, education, community outreach, volunteer coordination, retail, and fundraising for capital improvements. With shared operating costs, sources and uses of funding varies widely. Sometimes gate admission revenues and other earned revenues are shared between the public and private partners. Municipal monetary support to the garden ranges from zero to a high percent of total garden revenues. While each partnership has a unique business arrangement, public-private partnerships typically yield a much better garden for the community.

The widespread adoption of the public private partnership governance model across the United States serves as evidence of its benefits. Examples include Seattle Japanese Garden in Seattle, WA, and Springfield Botanical Gardens in Springfield, MO. In a recent study, we evaluated nine specialty gardens operating under such governance structures. Our review indicates that the division of labor and responsibilities between the public and private non-profit partners has aligned remarkably well with their respective strengths and capacities when a clear and mutually beneficial relationship and management structure is established. This is an encouraging record for public gardens considering adopting or expanding a public-private partnership.