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John Krinsky et Maud Simonet, Who Cleans the Park? Public Work and Urban Governance in New York City

Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2017, 288 p.
Marion Ernwein
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John Krinsky et Maud Simonet, Who Cleans the Park? Public Work and Urban Governance in New York City, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2017, 288 p.

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1The Big Apple has, to say the least, become an iconic case study of neoliberalism’s urban nature, the business orientation of its planning policies and deep restructuring of its services in the aftermath of the city’s 1970s fiscal crisis serving as inspiration for larger-scale neoliberal reform (Harvey, 2007). Focused on New York City (hereafter NYC), this book places the micropolitics of the workplace at the core of our understanding of such reforms and their continuation in the following four decades. Starting on the ground, alongside the blue-collar labour force that maintains urban public space, it meticulously takes us from NYC’s public bathrooms to mayoral offices and philanthropic organisations. This dense book draws on a rich empirical material collected over almost 10 years of fieldwork in NYC’s parks by sociologist Maud Simonet and political scientist John Krinsky. Between 2007 and 2015, Krinsky and Simonet conducted over 120 interviews with a range of actors involved in governing and maintaining public parks across NYC, and performed in-depth research in three of the city’s parks: Central Park and Bryant Park in Manhattan, and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The resulting book weaves together questions pertaining to urban governance, the changing nature of public work, workfare policies, and urban capitalism, into a complex account of the neoliberal transformations of the local state, which it proposes to read as a moment in the formation of the Gramscian Integral State. The book is broadly organised in two parts. Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 7 provide a fine-grained description of the transformations in working conditions in NYC’s parks since the “moment of NYC’s postcrisis reinvention” in the 1970s (p. 153). The rest of the book (chapters 5, 6, 8) shifts the focus to the broader changing governance of urban parks, leading to discussions of the nature of the state.

2The first half of the book considers parks as workplaces. It examines three features of the neoliberal politics of labour in NYC’s parks and recreation department which emerged in the aftermath of the city’s 1970s fiscal crisis: the production of a more mobile and “flexible” human resource within the department, the use of a privately hired and managed, non-unionised staff provided by non-profits (“conservancies”) taking over park management, and the resort to workfare and welfare-to-work programmes, with their unwaged, feminised, racialised workforce. Through close attention to bodies, uniforms, tasks and contracts, chapters 3, 4 and 7 dig into the moral economy of this segmented workplace, in which waged, unionised work is not the norm anymore. They demonstrate the contribution of the division of labour between municipal workforce and workfare to the reproduction of existing social hierarchies of race and gender (chapter 3), and describe the politics of labour (in)visibility, highlighting the strategies used to make some workers visible as such and others not (chapter 7). Park workers, ultimately, “are divided between those who retain collective bargaining and grievance procedures and those who do not” and “those who are recognised as workers and those are not; those who are paid a wage and those who are not” (p. 7). The isolation of workers of different statuses from one another is, in this respect, key to the production of consent towards this highly unequal division of labour (chapter 4).

3The second half of the book focuses on the governance question by examining the rise of conservancies in the management and governance of NYC’s parks. Initially introduced in order to “raise money for, and bring volunteers into, the parks” (p. 132), private conservancies are playing an increasing role in defining management strategies and hiring (their own) maintenance staff. They are seen to enact three main “repertoires” (chapter 5). Such “repertoires” are defined as “clusters of performances including organisational forms and public claims, which develop in particular historical circumstances but that gain a kind of coherence that allows them to be used as templates for improvisation in new settings” (p. 135). They involve different organisational forms, labour practices and appeals to legitimacy. The Bryant Park Corporation embodies the corporate repertoire. It relies on commercial and events-generated revenue, and has its own, entirely private workforce. Central Park Conservancy embodies the philanthropic repertoire, with wealthy property-owners around the park donating large sums of money for the upkeep of the park and preservation of real estate value. Prospect Park Alliance represents the most “civic” repertoire, with an appeal to volunteers and civic involvement. Far from seeing these repertoires as pure forms, the authors insist on the evolution and hybridisation of their legitimacy claims towards tax-payers and potential donors, including a general emphasis on rent and profit differentials of good maintenance (chapter 8). Regardless of their repertoire, conservancies are seen by the City as promoting a general increase in the resources available to parks, by opening up access to grants and donations otherwise inaccessible to public organisations. The reliance on conservancies to fund and maintain parks, however, reinforces existing socio-spatial inequalities, as those “with a capacity to attract funds from private donations or from concessions are increasingly indispensable to the City”, which in turn, “gives these conservancies more negotiating leverage over the terms of the contract” (p. 155). Furthermore, because of the lack of redistribution of the income generated in a given park across the whole park estate, those with high levels of private money are able to hire their own regular staff and provide high levels of maintenance, while “assets in the worst conditions, with the fewest resources to maintain and improve them” (p. 245) remain under public control, feeding the representation of a failing local state.

4At both levels of the workplace and the city, the authors thus skilfully weave together the politics of labour, welfare, and changing urban governance to produce a critique of the inequality machine that is the neoliberal city.

5The book’s contribution, though, goes beyond these – important – empirical findings. Its main conceptual contribution is certainly its discussion of the Gramscian concept of integral state in chapters 6 and 7. The use of Public-Private-Partnerships for the funding and maintenance of parks is publicly legitimised by the idea that governments and non-profits work in complementary way, with the latter “supplementing” the former. While taking issue with such a view, the authors depart from a reading of the neoliberal state as “shadow state” hollowed out by a parallel corporate and civil society world (such as in Wolch, 1990). Instead, and drawing on Gramsci’s theorisation of the capitalist state, they argue that the development of non-profit governance structure and non-employed workforce marks the state’s integration of the civil society repertoires and discourses within its own mode of functioning, and the creation of new boundaries between what constitutes the state or not. Antonio Gramsci sees the state as made of a dialectical relation between political society (institutions) and civil society; both of whose boundaries, nature and configuration evolve dialectically. The capitalist integral state is built incrementally by integrating civil society dynamics in the political society, through moments that Gramsci calls “passive revolutions”. And indeed the “integral state”, which comprises both institutions and civil society, is rather an “integrating state” in which the “political society” reinforces itself by integrating anew emerging civil society processes (for more see Gramsci, 1971).

6In Krinsky and Simonet’s terms, in New York City’s parks, “civil society and the state work together, not so that one cannot distinguish between the government and nongovernmental organisations, but so that their actual functions mix in the act of governing” (p. 169). As employees of the parks and recreation department who simultaneously serve as the executive director of a non-profit park conservancy, park administrators are the emblematic incarnation of this idea. They “link public and private park agencies at the head. A clear division of labour between the two is thus difficult to achieve” (p. 172). In some parks, work crews are also paid through a mix of private and public sources, which blurs the limits to the point that some workers “d[o] not necessarily know which of their coworkers [are] city workers and which [are] conservancy workers” (ibid.). In chapter 7, the authors examine how consent to this version of the integral state is produced. They look at the “multiple versions of citizenship and civicness (that) can be recruited into the integral state” (p. 243). For example, unpaid labour is extracted from welfare benefiters and volunteers and played down through the rhetoric of “giving back”. But for the former, this is in the sense of repaying a debt (e.g. against benefit, as price of freedom); while from the latter, of contributing to community as a sense of responsibility, and often against the state.

7This book finds its place in an emerging “park politics” literature. While such literature has examined urban parks’ role in reproducing social inequalities (Heynen, Perkins and Roy, 2007) and, in a more Foucauldian vein, in producing subjectivities (Gabriel, 2011; Certoma 2015 Sevilla Buitrago, 2017), workers themselves, and unequal working conditions, have largely remained unscrutinised (though Heynen et al., 2007 mark an exception). Therefore, seeing the parks as workplaces marks an important move, one all the more important in a context of austerity, where parks departments in some countries are being stripped of their resources (Barker, 2017). However, I want to argue here that the focus on maintenance adopted in this book diminishes its ability to consider the ways in which the singular materiality of parks distinguishes them from other urban services. At a time when ecological imaginaries are reshaping urban planning (Gandy, 2015), and when parks across the globe are reframed through the lenses of “green infrastructure” or “nature-based solutions”, park labour has, elsewhere, been shown to shift away from mundane “maintenance” work towards a more ecological skillset (Arpin, Mounet and Geoffroy, 2015). According to Krinsky and Simonet, in 2010 NYC’ Department of Parks and Recreation had 53 gardeners and 98 assistant gardeners; yet these are only little included in this book’s narrative. Therefore, it remains unclear how a shift from horticultural to ecological approaches to managing urban greenery might for instance transform the nature of inequalities within the workforce along the lines of a new division of expertise, or how structural transformations at the institutional level come to shape employees’ ways of integrating more ecological ways of knowing urban parks.

8My second contention pertains to the theorisation of the integral state. Krinsky and Simonet’s story is one which starts with NYC’s 1970s fiscal crisis. While illuminating, their perspective would be strengthened by integrating a discussion of the forms taken by the integral state in NYC before that crisis, so as to better account for its dynamic nature and avoid suggesting that the integral state was born with neoliberalism. Examining the early years of Central Park, Sevilla Buitrago (2017), has shown how much its creation owed to a wave of reformism in late 19th Century New-Yorker upper classes. Central Park was, from its origin, governed through an extra-municipal, supposedly non-partisan board, comprising notable members of civil society – an innovative institutional constellation that from the start “reshaped, prolonged and bypassed traditional state agencies” and “reconfigured the state-civil society divide” (Sevilla Buitrago 2017, p. 173). The possibility of a stronger problematisation of the successive roles played throughout the 20th Century by urban parks in experimenting with various delineations of the state is therefore still there to be produced.

9Lastly, in spite of repeated mentions of the use of parks as laboratories for public service and labour reform, this point remains speculative. The book advances that conservancies were “early forays in New York City’s experimentation with public-private partnerships” (p. 6) and that “the Department of Parks and Recreation has […] been a virtual laboratory for innovations in driving down the costs of public employment” (p. 220). However, how the experience in parks was translated into other public policy domains remains underspecified. The work of Marvin et al. (2018) on the constitution of urban sites as ex-situ laboratories for technological and/or institutional innovation could provide a starting point for examining the translation of park-based experiments to the rest of the public administration, within and beyond NYC.

10In conclusion, this book is an essential read for anyone interested in the new boundaries of work and labour, the neoliberal city, and/or park politics, as well as for those who want to get into Gramsci through a consistent case study. The book’s Gramscian lens furthermore offers a very welcome twist on the dominantly Foucauldian readings of park politics. My provocations at the end of this review by no means should obscure the high quality of the research and its essential contribution to critical urban political economy.

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Arpin, I., Mounet, C. et Geoffroy, D. (2015), « Inventaires naturalistes et rééducation de l’attention. Le cas des jardiniers de Grenoble », Études Rurales, 195, p. 89-108.

Barker, A. (2017), “Parklife: Britain’s beloved urban parks need a funding boost to save them”. The Conversation, 13 July 2017,

Certoma, C. (2015), « Expanding the “dark side of planning”: Biopolitics and governmentality in public garden planning », Planning Theory, 14, 1, p. 23-43.

Gabriel, N. (2011), « The Work That Parks Do: Toward an Urban Environmentality », Social and Cultural Geography, 12, 2, p. 123-141.

Gandy, M. (2015), “« From urban ecology to ecological urbanism: an ambiguous trajectory », Area, 47, p. 150-154.

Gramsci, A. (1971), Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Translated and edited by Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith, New York, International Publishers.

Harvey, D. (2007), A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Heynen, N., Perkins, H.A. and Roy, P. (2007), « Failing to grow “their” own justice? the co-production of racial/gendered labor and Milwaukee's urban forest », Urban Geography, 28, 8, p. 732-754.

Marvin, S., Bulkeley, H., Mai, L., McCormick, K. and Voytenko Palgan, Y. (éd.) (2018), Urban Living Labs: Experimenting with City Futures, London, Routledge.

Sevilla-Buitrago, A. (2017), « Gramsci and Foucault in Central Park: Environmental hegemonies, pedagogical spaces and integral state formations », Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 35, 1, p. 165-183.

Wolch, J. (1990), The Shadow State: Government and Voluntary Sector in Transition, New York, The Foundation Center.

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Marion Ernwein, « John Krinsky et Maud Simonet, Who Cleans the Park? Public Work and Urban Governance in New York City »Métropoles [En ligne], 24 | 2019, mis en ligne le 22 juillet 2019, consulté le 08 avril 2020. URL :

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Marion Ernwein

Departmental Lecturer, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford

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