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Rebuilding NYC

A Year After 911: The Rediscovery Of The City's Parks

Frustrated with the continued low level of public funding for parks in good times and bad, park advocates saw a rare opportunity last year to elect representatives who understood the importance of green space and recreation. The day they looked forward to was September 11, 2001; that was primary day in New York. A coalition called Parks 2001, made up of groups connected to sports, law enforcement, real estate, environmental and community gardens, persuaded most of the candidates, including Michael Bloomberg, to support its goals, including doubling the money allocated to the parks department to one percent of the city's budget.

These hopes were dashed after the destruction of the World Trade Center, and its devastating effect on the city's economy. The budget for parks was cut six percent, and Mayor Bloomberg has asked the parks department (and every other city agency) to shave an additional 7.5 percent from their expenses. There was also a reduction in the four-year capital budget for 2002-2005, which put on hold, perhaps indefinitely, a number of smaller park renovation projects that were already in the works.

Parks Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe testified at a City Council budg et hearing that his number one priority is maintaining safe and clean parks. But New York City's spending on parks and recreation was already among the lowest of 55 major cities in the country. This year's budget cuts and the anticipated fiscal problems over the next few years could reverse recent improvements, unless other ways to support the parks can be found.

This financial blow to the parks comes at a time when the parks are more important than ever to New Yorkers. The candlelight vigils and memorial concerts connected to the anniversary of September 11 are mostly happening -- where else? -- in a large park in each borough: Central Park, Van Cortlandt Park, Flushing Meadows Park, Prospect Park, and Snug Harbor.

The city's public green spaces, from Central Park to the neighborhood community garden, played an essential role in the aftermath of the terror attack on the World Trade Center. On those sunny late summer days, people instinctively sought out natural environments in which to ponder the unfathomable loss. New Yorkers also rediscovered the social function of parks, where strangers can talk to one another, neighbors meet, and community is forged. Along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, in Union Square, and in parks and gardens throughout the city, people left improvised shrines of flowers, flags, candles, photos, and poems. Undoubtedly, this September 11 people will again find their way to the parks.

Gardens, trees, and parks have also been the focus of efforts to remember those who were killed. Last spring, swaths of daffodils bloomed as symbols of remembrance and renewal alongside schools, libraries, firehouses, and highways and in parks. Lynden Miller, co-chair of New Yorkers for Parks, and Adrian Benepe, then Manhattan parks commissioner, came up with the idea for the daffodil planting independently of each other. Hans van Waardenburg of B&K Bulbs in Holland, the city of Rotterdam, and others donated bulbs. The Parks department and a number of park groups worked together to organize ten thousand volunteers to plant the bulbs, which will spread and bloom year after year.

To individuals and communities throughout the metropolitan area, planting trees and flowers has seemed the most fitting memorial. Even small acts of creation - a tree here, a hillside of flowers there -- breathe life into a city that has suffered a terrible loss. Some are at sites where people witnessed the fall of the towers, like a grove planned for a park in Hoboken a mile from Ground Zero. Others are to memorialize members of the community who died.

The Living Memorial Project of the U.S. Forest Service is cataloging these memorials. It now posts 40 projects descriptions on its website and expects to have 100 by the end of the fall.

Sites For Beginners:

  • Neighborhood Open Space Coalition's Treebranch Network -- Among the areas covered by this longtime advocate for New York City open space are greenways, community gardens, parks, the waterfront, and Gateway National Park. Subscribe here free to the electronic version of Urban Outdoors Bulletin, an excellent source of news about parks and related issues.
  • NYC Department of Parks and Recreation -- It's easy to look up any park location, facility, program, or event at this site. You can also take a "virtual tour" (actually, more words than pictures) of several important parks in each borough, or design your own park by playing the NYC planner game. The "Daily Plant," circulated within the department, offers an inside look at park programs and events. Various park permits and applications, including a request for a street tree, can be printed and submitted through the site.
  • OASIS -- An interactive site that lets you view NYC land use maps or aerial photos by borough, neighborhood, community board, or zip code, then zoom in on details like parks, community gardens, or vacant lots and obtain zoning and ownership information. There are some inaccuracies, but users can help update the information.
  • Partnership for Parks -- A joint initiative of the City Parks Foundation and the NYC parks department. Under "What We Do," there is information about the Bronx River and other projects, citywide volunteer events, small grants programs, and many other efforts that help communities support and build constituencies for their parks.
  • Trust for Public Land -- This national open space group has increased its focus on urban areas in recent years. It has helped save community gardens and negotiated the purchase of several new state parks in the city recently. The site provides frequently updated information on the trust's projects and open space issues nationwide. Look under "Research Room" for urban land conservation and federal and state funding.
  • Urban Parks online -- An electronic toolbox for people working on city parks issues, from the Urban Parks Institute (part of the Project for Public Spaces, a NYC non-profit that aims to build community life through public spaces). The site brings together ideas from all over for creating, funding, and maintaining urban parks, and highlights park places and park news from around the country.

Other Recommendations:

  • Americans for Our Heritage and Recreation -- AHR is dedicated to strengthening the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, an important source of funding for urban parks and recreation. The site also has links to the House and Senate web sites, and a listing of all the projects, by state and by county, that have received money from the fund.
  • Brooklyn Alliance of Neighborhood Gardens -- Information on community garden issues, but not recently updated.
  • Brooklyn Botanic Garden -- Visiting this site is the next best thing to visiting the garden: Exhaustive but well organized, it offers virtual tours and everything you would ever want to know about the garden, as well as gardening information and access to the resource center and library.
  • Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation -- The organization that is creating the Brooklyn Bridge Park posts the park's master plan, as well as an overview of the planning process and a trove of background material.
  • Brooklyn Bridge Park Coalition -- More information from a coalition of community groups that is working to create a Brooklyn waterfront park. The list of links is an excellent resource.
  • Car-Free Central Park Campaign -- This site for a campaign by the pedestrian and bicyclist advocate Transportation Alternatives lays out arguments for banning cars from Central Park's loop drive and provides the latest news on the issue.
  • Central Park Conservancy -- The official web site of Central Park, with news, events, tours, programs, and more.
  • Green Guerillas -- An organizer of grassroots activism to protect community gardens, this group also offers generous hands-on help: plants, supplies, advice, and volunteers.
  • GreenThumb -- New York City's GreenThumb program has been supporting community gardens for more than 20 years with information, technical assistance, materials, and funding. Check the site for grants, events, information, and links to gardening organization and individual community garden web sites.
  • More Gardens! Coalition -- This organization is active in the efforts to protect community gardens.
  • New York City Audubon -- Focuses on the city's wilder open spaces: Look here for wetlands and wildlife habitat protection, volunteering, and, of course, birding.
  • New York City Environmental Justice Alliance -- A network of grassroots groups working for healthier environments in low-income areas and in communities of color. Its Open Space Equity Campaign helps community-based groups with land use planning, organizing and advocacy to green their neighborhoods. Download a draft of its Green Cities proposal for a state urban environmental investment program.
  • New York Restoration Project -- A lively site from Bette Midler's group, which has been restoring parks in upper Manhattan and has helped save community gardens.
  • Prospect Park Alliance -- Park visitors can look here for park history, destinations, and recreation information.
  • Take a walk, New York -- Sign up here for free one-hour guided walks in some of the city's great and far-flung parks and greenways, sponsored by the New York City Department of Health and the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition.
  • Waterfront Park Coalition -- A project of the New York Conservation Education Fund, the coalition has created an inventory of waterfront park opportunities, assists local groups, and develops funding strategies.

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