In one of his last major appointments, Mayor Bloomberg chose a parks department insider, Adrian Benepe, for his commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation. Benepe, who has been the Manhattan borough parks commissioner since 1996, first worked for the department during the summer as a teenager. Later, he began his career in the city's first class of urban park rangers, and has since held a broad range of positions at the department -- director of art and antiquities, director of natural resources, operations coordinator, and head of public information. He has also worked at the Municipal Art Society and the New York Botanical Garden.
Benepe is taking over from long-time parks commissioner Henry Stern at a challenging time. The parks department has less than half the fulltime staff it had 15 years ago to maintain 1,700 parks, playgrounds and recreation centers; its operating budget was never restored when the city's finances improved over the last decade. Nevertheless, Commissioner Stern was able to improve conditions in many parks. He made the department more efficient, found a way to use capital funds for maintenance, and raised money for the parks through a controversial policy of charging fees to private groups to use the parks for events. Several thousand part-time workers also supplemented the department's fulltime staff as part of a federally subsidized program to help welfare recipients enter the job market. Many parks are cleaner, safer, and better-appreciated by the public than they have been in years. This was made clear when New Yorkers spontaneously gathered in parks all over the city after September 11.
During last year's election campaign, a coalition of civic groups and park supporters called Parks 2001 secured promises from most of the candidates to increase public funding for parks and to distribute that funding more equitably throughout the five boroughs. But now the city is projecting a $4 billion budget deficit for the next fiscal year, and the parks department, like all city agencies, is instead being asked to make additional cuts. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed budget would reduce parks operating funds by 13 percent and would halve capital funding, which the department uses for smaller maintenance jobs as well as renovations and new projects. The city is also reevaluating the assignment of welfare workers to the parks department. The loss of funding and workers threatens to return the city to the era of dirty and dangerous parks.
To help offset the loss of public funding, Mayor Bloomberg has said that he will ask the private sector to do more. Parks already receive a great deal of financial and volunteer support from nonprofits and individuals. The papers recently reported that Commissioner Benepe is considering having corporations sponsor the maintenance of park facilities in exchange for naming rights. Benepe said that naming rights would be appropriate only in some circumstances, for example, athletic fields, and that the city would pass up opportunities that would over-commercialize the parks. "We are not selling off our parks to the highest bidder. We would rather go without than do something that is inappropriate," he told the New York Times.
New Yorkers for Parks, a new independent advocacy organization formed by the merger of the 100-year-old Parks Council with Parks 2001, supports the idea, as long as there is oversight of where the money goes and how facilities or parks are named, said spokeswoman Rowena Daly. "There needs to be a task force or plan so that the money benefits all five boroughs and every single neighborhood."
In his State of the City address, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city would complete a longstanding plan for a recreational path circling Manhattan. "The success of the Hudson River Park demonstrates the need to make our entire waterfront accessible to walkers and cyclists," he said.
The mayor put his promise for a waterfront greenway in the category of "our livelihood, jobs, and development." This suggests that he will take a broader approach to economic development, and that he understands that investing in parks and recreation is a key factor in making the city a great place to live and do business in the 21st century. His focus on greenways is also pragmatic, because federal funding is available for 80 percent of greenway construction through the TEA-21 legislation that promotes alternate transportation. This is a project that can be done even in bad times.
All over the country, greenways - hybrids of parks, non-motorized travel routes, and recreation trails - have become increasingly popular. They claim a little space from an urban and suburban streetscape ruled by the car (or SUV) and truck. These landscaped pavements provide a safe, relaxing, and aesthetically pleasing way for people to get exercise or to get somewhere on foot or bicycle. Greenways also have the potential to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution, and gas consumption, and to encourage active recreation, all of which benefit the health of a city's citizens and its economy.
A prototype for this type of corridor is in Seattle, where more than a million people a year (three-quarters on bicycles) use the 25-mile Burke-Gilman Trail for both commuting and recreation. Studies have shown that real estate values have increased in areas accessible to the trail, and that the trail also spurred commercial and residential development. Other successful greenways are featured on Urban Parks online, a web site from the Project for Public Spaces, including Chicago's lakeside string of parks and Florida's 47-mile Pinellas Trail. It is easy to imagine how greenways, along with new parks, housing, and businesses, could transform the edge of Manhattan, which already has the built-in allure of great views and proximity to the water.
New York City has had a Greenway Plan for all five boroughs since 1993. The Department of City Planning created it from proposals developed earlier by the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, the Bronx borough president, and others. The proposed greenway runs 350 miles and has links to the East Coast Greenway, which will go from Maine to Florida. About 75 miles are complete, with another 80 in the works. According to David Lutz, director of the open space coalition, the Giuliani administration deserves credit for initiating the plan and moving it along. But until now, no mayor has actively promoted the concept, the way, for example, Mayor Giuliani promoted baseball stadiums. "For 15 years, we've been working on greenways in New York City," says Lutz. "All of a sudden it's no longer some wild-eyed idea."
Soon people should be able to bike, skate, and jog along much of the West Side as the Hudson River Park is completed and parks are linked all the way to the George Washington Bridge. But there are still numerous obstacles to closing the loop around northern Manhattan and down the East Side. And local volunteer groups have been pushing for the completion of paths planned along the downtown Brooklyn waterfront, the Bronx River, and elsewhere in the outer boroughs. One of the things the city could do right away is to review how city-owned waterfront property is used. Right now the city is parking cars, washing buses, and storing road salt on prime waterfront land. New York City Councilmember David Yassky, who heads the council's waterfront committee, plans to introduce legislation requiring the city to inventory its waterfront lots annually and to determine whether the use of each site is related to the waterfront.
New Yorkers are already voting for the concept of greenways with their feet. They are out in force, with cycles, scooters, skates, and strollers, the minute a new section of the Hudson River Park opens. To paraphrase the mantra of the greenway movement: "If you build it, Mayor Bloomberg, we will come."
Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.