The State of the Parks

By Adrian Benepe

15 July 02

When I was 15, I got my first official job in parks -- a summer job mopping up the locker room at the Szold Pool on East 10th Street and picking up beer cans in East River Park. I came back full time as a park ranger in 1979 when I was out of college. Today, as parks commissioner, I oversee the largest urban park system in the nation and also, I believe, the most complex.

When you add together the city, state and federal parkland, almost 27 percent of New York City is green space. The 28,600 acres that we manage is more than the parks in Los Angeles, Chicago and Denver put together.

There are 614 ball fields. 991 playgrounds, 550 tennis courts, 52 outdoor swimming pools, 10 indoor swimming pools, 35 indoor recreation centers,14 miles of public beach, 13 municipal golf courses, 12 nature centers and six ice skating rinks.

Four botanical gardens. Four zoos. Four major stadiums: Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium, the United States Tennis Association Stadium in Flushing and the new Keyspan Stadium in Coney Island The botanical gardens, the zoos and the stadiums are operated by other organizations but they belong to the city and are under the aegis of the Parks Department.

In addition to developed parkland, there are 11,000 acres of nature preserve citywide: forests, woodlands, freshwater wetlands and salt marsh ecosystems. These are protected from encroachment, degradation, development and other human impacts.

THE HISTORY OF GREEN NY

The city's first park was Bowling Green. It has been a park since the 1600s when it was set aside as a public space and sold to the city of New York I believe for the price of three peppercorns. But the modern park movement really started in the 19th century with Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux. They had a pastoral vision of urban parks as lushly and naturalistically landscaped retreats and as democratic and social experiments to bring people from all classes together in one place. There was minimal athletic use, and the natural and native flora and fauna were only preserved if they fit into the overall plan.

Olmstead and Vaux designed Central Park, Prospect Park, Riverside Park and Morningside Park. These parks were not always appreciated, but have stood the test of time and are now as, if not more, appealing to visitors than when they were first built 130, 140 years ago.

The next major area of park building and construction is the Works Progress Administration era with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointing Robert Moses as the first commissioner of a unified Parks Department. Though Moses has taken a lot of heat, particularly over his highway building, there is very little you can point to in the parks domain that isn't good.

He served as parks commissioner from 1934 to 1960. During that tenure, Moses created, renovated or expanded nearly every park in the city. When he started in 1934, there were 14,000 acres of parkland. By 1960 there were 34,000. (Since then, we turned 6,000 acres over to the federal government for Gateway National Recreation Area.)

What's left over from that era includes some of the greatest architecture of the 20th century done with the simplest of materials -- cement and brick and steel -- because you weren't allowed to use fancy materials. Great architects who were unemployed were put to work.

As we go into the 21st century, it's not easy to point to a Vaux or Olmstead whose vision we can implement. However urban parks and park systems are moving in a new direction that will have far-reaching implications in design and use. As municipal budgets shrink for parks, the demand for accessibility and public programming expands, so we have no choice but to develop innovative responses in management and planning.

During his tenure as parks commissioner in the 1970s, Gordon Davis created the position of park administrator, to have one person taking care of all aspects of the management of each large flagship park, and he appointed commissioners for each borough. He also founded the nation's first urban park ranger program.

PUBLIC/PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS

As Davis helped parks reach out to the public, private citizens began to reach back, and a number of civic minded citizens, notably Richard Gilder and Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, helped found the Central Park Conservancy.

Before the Central Park Conservancy, the idea that a private voluntary group should play a leading role in the management of a park did not exist. This experiment in the private, non-profit management of a public park became the crucible for such initiatives throughout the city, including the Prospect Park Alliance, the Riverside Park Fund, the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, the Greenbelt Conservancy, and many others.

Together, these groups raise and spend somewhere between $30 million and $40 million a year on direct services and physical improvements to the parks. That's cash, not volunteer services

Some people say that only helps the wealthy parks, that it plugs holes in the city budget and is the wrong thing to do. But having watched these partnerships grow over 20 years we understand their value goes well beyond the pecuniary. Even if we had all the money in the world, there would still be a need for private sector and private citizen involvement.

Private, nonprofit management has proved to be for the public good. It has increased efficiency. It has enabled expanded community outreach. It has allowed a lot of innovative practices to become standard.

The public interest has to always be paramount. That is why as parks commissioner, I have all of these groups reporting to me. You do not simply turn over a public park to a non-profit group, no matter how good.

VOLUNTEERS AND STAFF DOING GOD'S WORK

Every year tens of thousands of people come out to help in parks. From people working in community gardens to ecologists in conservation projects with the Urban Park Rangers to the person who comes out every day and picks up litter, we had 70,000 volunteers giving over 1 million hours of service in the parks last year. Based on a very conservative calculation, this represents $10 million worth of labor.

But we need paid staff as well. We have about 3,000 full-time, year-round staff. We have another 3,000 seasonal workers. We also have something new called the Parks Opportunity Program, a welfare transition program.

The Work Experience Program, or workfare, is not going to go away because federal regulations are very clear about it. If you are able-bodied and unable to find work, the federal and state government will give you a welfare check but you have to do some work. The numbers of workfare people in the parks has gone down from about 6,500 to about 1,500 for reasons that are still not clear to me.

But now people who have lost their welfare benefits because of the five-year eligibility limit are being sent to us. We give them six month jobs, train them and try to place them in other jobs. Over this past year, we've placed over 400 people in full-time jobs. Next year, our goal is 600.

The Parks Department is one of the few places where people with no skills can be put to gainful employment. Our work is very simple. We rake leaves. We cut grass. We paint benches. We make playgrounds safe. It does not require a doctorate to do this work. And we're not ashamed of that. Planting flowers is God's work. So the Parks Department is a very good place to send people who need jobs.

GREENING THE CITY

A lot of other new things are going on. One of the mayor's big priorities is greenways. We ultimately hope for 350 miles of greenways through neighborhoods and along waterfronts. We're getting near to the point where you'll be able to go most of the way around Manhattan. On the West Side, it's almost there.

The state and city are getting ready to spend $300 million for Hudson River Park, from 59th Street down to Chambers Street along the waterfront Much of that will be on the piers. It will include exciting architecture and all kinds of passive and active recreational facilities.

And we're trying to make the city greener. Where two avenues meet at an angle, there's a little piece of land left over in the middle or the side. We've greened 2,000 of those with a program called Greenstreets.

We're also going to try to green up a lot of gray playgrounds -- plant a lot of flowers at the entrances. After the attacks of September 11, we wanted to do something where people could help participate in the recovery of the city. Volunteers planted a million and a half daffodils across the city as a living memorial.

Last year, we planted 12,000 street trees around the city. This year we'll plant another 8,000 trees.

And we want all of our park employees to have horticultural training, to know something about gardening.

We have a lot of asphalt play yards in the school. There is a new technology that creates an artificial turf field that look just like grass. It's soft, You can play on it 12 months a year. You don't have to cut the grass. We've done nine fields so far, with another 16 in the pipeline. It's not as nice as grass but is a lot better in terms of maintenance.

In playgrounds, we have spray sprinklers that use drinking-quality water. It goes up in the air and comes down into the drains. We're going to start recycling that water to use for watering the landscape nearby. The water is 95 percent clean, we'll purify it and then send it out to the landscapes in irrigation system.

KIDS FIRST

But with all these new programs, what is our priority?

Kids, youth, teenagers. Nothing is more important.

The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that 25 to 30 percent of American children are obese. After an obese child reaches six years of age, the probability that obesity will persist exceeds 50 percent. Obese children may suffer lifelong physical and emotional consequences, and adult obesity is associated with significant health risks.

In a recent interview in the Sunday New York Times magazine, Ralph Nader spoke of the commercialization of childhood. He said that companies marketing to children offer, "Bad diets, fat and sugar, teaching them to be addicts" by getting them to watch 30, 40 hours a week of screens -- video, television, computer screens. This, he said, amounted to, "a pervasive form of child molestation."

That's extreme, but not far from the truth. It is a form not of child molestation but of child abuse to allow children to sit in front of screens 30 or 40 hours a week. It contributes to a loss of literacy and perhaps more dangerously to poor health.

A kid cannot go to the gym by herself. A child cannot go out for a run. A child cannot go to a pickup basketball game in most neighborhoods. Coupled with the explosion of electronic media, the need for children to be in a structured safe environment means that kids are prone to becoming both physically inactive and socially isolated.

So organized recreation programs are essential, not just nice. Otherwise children get no exercise.

We offer young people a range of activities. They're life savers. because the difference between learning good health habits and fitness habits and not learning them often means the difference between a healthy, safe life and an unhealthy one.

Sports can also mean the difference between turning to drugs and destructive behaviors and not doing so. I grew up in New York City. My friends who turned to sports did not turn to drugs or did so only briefly. Some of the ones who did not have sports and went to drugs are no longer alive to tell why this happened. This is a reality in all economic groups and classes.

A hallmark of this administration will be taking care of children particularly the "tweens," those between Little League and varsity high school sports. We will do everything we can to take care of young people and make sure they learn life long habits of fitness and exercise.

CUTS AND FEES

Public space is a necessity for children and adults. In this budget situation, we must make the most of our assets. We have made up for some of the cuts with the imposition of fees. Money from fees and from concessions, including Tavern on the Green, used to go to the city's general fund. For the first time, city hall is letting us keep the money so it will go back to the recreation programs .

You will not see impacts from the budget cuts we have. Based on the ratings and numbers, the parks are cleaner and better this year than they have been in 30 or 40 years.

In this budget climate, our priorities are clear: to strengthen the public/private partnerships, make the city greener, enhance training for employes and, most importantly, expand the recreational and educational opportunities for children and teens.

Adrian Benepe is New York City commissioner of parks and recreation.

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