Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



New York As Oasis: OASIS mapping, Bloomingdale W Island Toursoods, Governors

Open Space Research

What would your neighborhood look like if vacant lots and abandoned buildings became green space? What percentage of parks does it have compared to other communities? Are there wetlands or wildlife areas that ought to be protected? For the first time, the comprehensive and detailed information needed to make these determinations is available to anyone with access to the Internet. The New York City Open Space Information System Cooperative (OASIS) has created an interactive mapping and analysis tool of New York City's open space resources. The site builds upon the new aerial photo-images of the five boroughs used in the basemap recently created by the city Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication, as well as detailed land use information on each tax parcel in New York City. It incorporates data from numerous city, state, and federal agencies, as well as community garden sites identified by the Council on the Environment for New York City.

The site,, allows users to create land use maps or aerial photo views by borough, neighborhood, community board or zip code, and to zoom into those maps to see details, such as vacant lots, more closely. Zoning and ownership information can also be obtained for each parcel. The site also provides land use statistics by community board or borough. Overlays show wetlands, as well as population density and income levels from the 1990 census. More informational layers are planned, including environmental problem sites and neighborhood tree data. There are inaccuracies, which is to be expected in a project this large using not always up-to-date information from government agencies, but users can help by providing corrections and updates through a feedback link.

OASIS was created through a collaborative effort of more than 30 government agencies, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions and private companies, led by the U.S. Forest Service. The New York Public Interest Research Group's Community Mapping Assistance Project (CMAP) is the primary architect of the web site.

Bloomingdale Woods: Wetlands or Not?

The effort by environmentalists on Staten Island to stop the construction of ball fields in eastern Bloomingdale Park received another setback. The environmental group, Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, believes the forested natural area has far more extensive wetlands than the state has delineated. In March, however, the group's appeal of the state Department of Environmental Conservation's decision not to map the wetlands in the park was denied by Freshwater Wetlands Appeals Board. Protectors wants to see ball fields located in other less environmentally sensitive areas, locations they also say would be a lot more practical and cost-effective than a forested, hilly park with scattered wet areas that was originally protected for its natural values. There is tremendous pressure from sports groups and local politicians to build the $12 million recreation complex to provide much-needed playing fields for youth sports in south Staten Island. A final Environmental Impact Statement on the project is due to be released in mid-April. Protectors is conducting its own wetlands mapping workshops at the park this spring. For information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Governors Island tours
Free walking tours of the former Coast Guard base in New York harbor are being offered this spring and summer. The tours include the island's two historic forts, which, along with 20 acres of surrounding land, were declared the country's newest national monument by President Clinton just before he left office. Last year, Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki agreed on a plan that would make the island a new public space, with educational facilities, a conference center, and parkland. But the federal General Services Administration is planning to sell the rest of island this year, unless legislation or negotiation by state to purchase the land is successful. The tours run on the following Wednesdays, from 10 a.m. - noon: May 2, July 11, August 1, and September 5. There will be a June 6 tour from 2-4 p.m. To register, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Anne Sounds Off

In a recent Op-ed piece in the New York Times, Kenneth T. Jackson, professor of history at Columbia University, discusses what New York City needs to do to capitalize on the last decade's population increase, reflected in the 2000 census. He credits a sharp decline in crime as well as the excitement and crowds - "bustling sidewalks, outdoor restaurants and funky galleries" - with bringing young professionals back into the city. Yet, he says, "if New to return to the glory of its past, then average men and women must choose to remain in the city after they have children." How to get them to do that? His solution is to improve the schools, which is obviously critical. But then what? Professor Jackson leaves out something that is essential to making the city more livable. What else do people seek when they move to the suburbs? A little bit of nature, lawns and shady streets for kids to play on, ball fields and pools and tennis courts. New York City lags behind most major cities in usable park acreage and recreational facilities per capita. To keep families in the city, we need to make an investment not only in the schools, but also in our parks and playing fields. We need to bring more green into the heart of the city.

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.

Trends Transforming America's Urban Parks


High Line Park photo by David Berkowitz, used under a Creative Commons license.

NEW YORK — The extraordinary greening of New York City over the past decade is part of  — and inspiration for — a nationwide urban parks revival that has been growing over the past two decades.

In a sign of the movement’s strength, some 870 people from 200 cities and 21 countries gathered earlier this month for the Greater & Greener urban parks conference, co-sponsored by the City Parks Alliance and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

“Just about every city has one or more major park projects under way,” said Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at The Trust for Public Land, which researches park best practices and benefits, and maintains a database on U.S. city park systems.

Driving this momentum is an evolution in the way parks are viewed: Once relegated to the sidelines, an amenity that could be dispensed with in tough times, parks are now seen as central to a city’s quality of life by public officials, civic leaders and citizens.

“It feels like parks have come into the public consciousness,” said Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, the conference co-sponsor.
One measure of this, she said, is the diverse roster of people who attended the conference, the fourth presented by the alliance.

The previous events attracted mostly park professionals and advocates. But this year, there were mayors, real estate developers, health care professionals and advocates, corporations, philanthropists and landscape designers and planners.

Further evidence of the reach of the urban parks movement is a new commitment by the National Park Service to better connect inner-city residents with its urban national parks.  

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, in his keynote speech, used the occasion to announce the formalization of a partnership between the National Park Service and the city parks department to manage Jamaica Bay’s 10,000 acres of city and federal parkland.

The concept of a park is broadening, too.

“Parks are less isolated pockets of greenery and more a part of the urban infrastructure,” Nagel said.

Europeans have a much more expansive view of parks “as public spaces between buildings — the green glue that holds a city together,” said Helle Søholt, co-founding partner and managing director of Gehl Architects in Copenhagen.

But you don’t have to look further than Madison Square Park or Times Square, where pedestrian plazas have staked out turf formerly occupied by cars, to get a feel for that idea.

Here are four trends in urban parks from this year's conference:

Parks as part of our health care, educational and social services system

With a growing body of research showing that access to outdoor open space and recreation improves physical and mental health, many sessions focused on ways parks can be designed or managed to fight obesity, improve education, and partner with social service agencies.

“Parks are as fundamental to health and well-being as a clinic or hospital,” said Dr. Daphne Miller, of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Mickey Fearn, National Park Service deputy director for communications and community assistance, said parks are spaces for spontaneous outdoor play, as well as programs that connect young people to the outdoors and nature.

He also said they provide experiences that help young people, especially those living in disadvantaged inner city neighborhoods, succeed and participate in a “powerful way in their communities."

As an example, he cited Rocking the Boat, the South Bronx youth organization that teaches teenagers to build boats and involves them in conservation efforts along the waterfront in “an area where they didn’t even know had water.”

Nontraditional ways of creating parks

Space for new parks is scarce in many cities and neighborhoods. New parks are being built in unlikely places: elevated rail lines, reclaimed brownfields and even long-covered rivers that are “daylighted” and restored.

Conference participants got a look at some of New York City’s solutions for shoehorning parks into a densely built cityscape, including the park-in-progress at Staten Island’s former Fresh Kills landfill, the largest park to be built in New York City in more than 100 years, and one of the scores of schoolyards that have been transformed into student-designed community public space.

Parks as environmental infrastructure

New York City, Philadelphia, and many other cities are making a major investment in designing green roofs, streetside swales, specially engineered tree pits and other natural systems to help address its sewage overflow problems after heavy rainstorms.

This green infrastructure soaks up and slows down runoff before it overwhelms the sewer system, while also adding more green space in the city.

Sessions on sustainable park design for creating parks that serve as buffers for climate change and for preserving biodiversity underscored a new focus on parks as ecological systems.

Funding parks in an era of fiscal constraints

Even in a good economy, funding parks is a challenge. Finding innovative and equitable ways to pay for creating and maintaining parks was a major theme of the conference. Among the ideas explored were the establishment of conservancies and other forms of private funding, the role of developers in creating public space, partnerships with water and highway departments, and voter-approved dedicated funding.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett spoke about his city’s investment of public funds for a multitude of civic and greening projects to breathe new life into a hollowed-out downtown, making it a place that attracts and keeps residents and businesses.

Since 1993, Oklahoma City voters have passed a series of penny sales-tax initiatives, the most recent to fund a new 70-acre central park, riverfront recreation, and biking trails, among other things.

In an interview in The Dirt, the blog of the American Society of Landscape Architects, he said: “We convinced people who live in the suburbs that the quality of life downtown is important….you can’t be a suburb of nothing.”

In his keynote speech, Mayor Bloomberg also stressed the economic growth that flows from investing in urban parks.

Speaking from a stage decorated to look like a pocket park — with the ubiquitous green portable cafĂ© tables and chairs, a bench flanked by greenery, and a bicycle — he noted the attraction of good city parks to everyone from a young person starting a career to a family raising children in the city to a business leader deciding where to locate.

“In a tough economy, we know it’s important to keep investing in what makes a city inviting to businesses and new residents,” he said. “The time to make the investment is tough times. The city walked away from its future during the 70s. We did not do that this time.”

Trying to Create a More Permeable New York

green infrastructure

With his 2007 sustainability blueprint, PlaNYC 2030, Mayor Michael Bloomberg brought New York into the vanguard of American cities in acknowledging the importance of green space to the city's long-term viability. The plan set a goal of putting parkland within a 10-minute walk of every resident, transforming streets into public open space and expanding the amount of "green permeable surface."

Although budget constraints have stalled some of the more ambitious park-building plans, the city has made significant progress toward many of these goals, particularly creating a more permeable city. This represents a sea change in the city's approach to managing stormwater pollution and could well be one of PlaNYC's most lasting effects.


Instead of building more tanks, tunnels and other expensive controls to prevent combined stormwater and sewage from polluting the harbor, the city is investing in green infrastructure. This approach uses advances in urban ecology and state-of-the-art hydrological modeling to create and manage a low-maintenance network of natural lands, plantings and permeable surfaces that can capture rainwater before it enters the sewer system.

The update to PlaNYC released in April details the steps the city has taken so far, as well as a number of new initiatives. A major component is the city Department of Environmental Protection's Green Infrastructure Plan released last fall. It proposes to invest $1.5 billion over the next 20 years in creating and maintaining green infrastructure, and to coordinate it into city road and other construction projects. According to the administration, adopting this approach would reduce overflows from the sewage system by an additional 3.8 billion gallons a year over what traditional controls could accomplish -- at a significantly lower cost.

Unlike the spending on new parks, the investment in sustainable stormwater management — which is funded by water and sewer fees — includes the cost of caring for plantings and other green elements, assuring their lasting effectiveness as well as the many other benefits they bring.

The city is under a consent order negotiated with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to reduce discharges of untreated stormwater and sewage into the harbor. Because the order specifies the construction of specific projects, the state would have to approve any green modifications to the plan. But if the state approves, the new approach could launch a wave of greening that will last long past the Bloomberg administration and make the city a national leader in innovative stormwater management.

The City's Stormwater Problem

Today it is hard to imagine Manhattan as an island of gently rolling hills and forests laced with abundant springs and streams, or to envision bears and wolves roaming Brooklyn, as the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Welikia project has discovered in its quest to understand the city's original landscape and ecology. Except for a swath of forest running through Staten Island, shards of marshland around the harbor and other remnant natural areas, the original landscape of New York City has been largely obliterated.

Buildings and asphalt now cover so much of the land that some 80 percent of the city's surface is impermeable. To replace the natural systems that once absorbed and filtered rainwater, over the decades engineers built a vast infrastructure to collect, store and treat the water that pours off roofs, parking lots, sidewalks and streets. In most parts of the city, this runoff, which picks up pollutants from the streets, goes into the same sewer pipes as the wastewater from toilets, dishwashers, showers and kitchen sinks.

After investing $6 billion since 2002 in upgrading its wastewater storage and treatment plants, the city can, for the first time, handle the 1.1 billon gallons of sewage residents generate daily, and raw sewage is no longer routinely discharged into the waterways. As a result, the harbor is cleaner than it has been in more than 100 years.

This traditional stormwater management moves water as quickly as possible off the land and holds it in tunnels and tanks until it can be treated and discharged into waterways.

But when it rains -- and in some areas of the city all it takes is a tenth of an inch -- the volume of wastewater overwhelms the treatment plants. Every year, around 30 billion gallons of sewage mixed with polluted runoff still flow untreated into city waters in what is known as "combined sewer overflows" or CSOs. Some places along the waterways experience such overflows 40 to 50 times a year. Almost a third of the city’s 274 public access points to the waterfront are within three city blocks of a sewage outflow pipe. Because of this, the city often must shut beaches following heavy rains.

To help address this problem, many cities in the U.S. and other countries, including Philadelphia, Chicago and Portland, Ore., have pioneered an ecological approach that harnesses or replicates nature’s ability to soak up and store rain water.

Greener City, Cleaner Harbor

Even before PlaNYC, New York City was using natural systems to handle stormwater in the 10,000-acre Staten Island Bluebelt. By preserving streams, ponds and wetlands in 16 drainage corridors, all but one in the southern part of the borough, the Bluebelt handles nearly 36 percent of the island's stormwater -- at a savings of tens of millions of dollars compared to the cost of conventional storm sewers.

The task could be more difficult in most other parts of the city. In these densely built areas, capturing stormwater at its source involves hundreds or thousands of small-scale installations. These include green and blue roofs, in which vegetation or flow control devices prevent water from draining off too fast; enhanced tree pits and street plantings that catch and hold runoff underground, allowing it to seep out and water the plants; manmade small wetlands in parks and along roadways; backyard rain barrels; and porous paving that allows water to soak into the earth.

For years, suggestions that the Department of Environmental Protection consider using green infrastructure to address the runoff problem "fell on deaf ears," said Larry Levine, a senior attorney in the Natural Resources Defense Council's water program. "When the original PlaNYC came along, it was the first point at which the city really started to look seriously at these sustainable stormwater management approaches."

PlaNYC spurred the city to make sustainable stormwater management a priority in capital projects for the first time. The plan launched an interagency task force to help agencies share best practices and work together to identify upcoming projects in areas that would benefit from green infrastructure and assess which would be most feasible and cost-effective. Many staff had been waiting a long time for this opportunity and the funding. "Immediately there was an interest from within the agencies to add green elements to their projects," said Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Farrell Sklerov.

The Department of Environmental Protection is collaborating with the parks and transportation departments and other city agencies to build dozens of pilot projects, including green roofs, bioswales (narrow vegetated ditches that capture and filter runoff), and enhanced Greenstreets that capture stormwater runoff in addition to rainfall. Researchers are monitoring representative sites in order to make the designs, materials and plantings more effective.

The updated PlaNYC notes that some of the pilot projects have already led to new standard designs for bioswales and enhanced tree pits that can be used in most Department of Transportation and Department of Design and Construction road reconstruction projects.

The city also is modifying zoning codes and creating financial incentives for incorporating green infrastructure in private development. Zoning amendments require new commercial parking lots to include interior plantings and sidewalk trees, and new developments to plant street trees and, in lower density areas, sidewalk landscaping.

green roof
A tax abatement implemented in 2009 provides incentives for building owners to install green roofs. While praising the idea, Levine said in a recent blog post that the tax break could be structured better to promote a technology that a recent study found to be “the most cost-effective of the stormwater interventions” considered in PlaNYC.

As a next step, the city plans to tighten existing requirements for stormwater management on all new development and redevelopment projects, as well as at construction sites. It will look at ways to charge landowners for runoff, using credits as incentives for them to reduce impervious surfaces.

Other initiatives focus on creating design guidelines for city agencies to set consistent standards for green infrastructure. The parks department has been incorporating stormwater capture into park and playground design for some time, including a wooded wetland complex in Canarsie Park and the 2010 reconstruction of Robert Venable Park in Brooklyn. The department is now developing ways to implement the best practices for designing and constructing sustainable parks that it developed with the Design Trust for Public Space.

"The pendulum has swung, and it's not going to swing back," said parks commissioner Adrian Benepe. "The people who work for us are now part of a generation that sees sustainable design as being part and parcel of landscape design."

PlaNYC 2.0 also promises an updated version of the Street Design Manual, which includes a chapter on using and maintaining green infrastructure, street trees and other plantings.

The Green Infrastructure Plan

Providing the underpinning for much of this is the Department of Environmental Protection's NYC Green Infrastructure Plan. It calls for a combination of green infrastructure, increased capacity from fully cleaning the existing sewer system and the most cost-effective of the traditional controls specified under the consent order.

In addition to incorporating stormwater capture into public construction projects, the plan looks to community participation. For the last two years, the department has providedgrants to private property owners, businesses, and not-for-profit organizations to develop innovative green infrastructure.

treee pit

The plan aims to stop runoff from 10 percent of the city's impervious surfaces in the 13 watersheds with combined sewer overflows. In addition to saving money and reducing pollution, planting vegetation and adding green space will beautify the city and clean and cool the air. The agency estimates that implementing the Green Infrastructure Plan would provide as much as $400 million to New Yorkers in reduced energy costs, improved health and increased property values.

"You get a tremendous bang for your buck with investment in these green infrastructure approaches, beyond what you can get from building concrete holding tanks that serve only one function," said Levine.

In turning to green infrastructure, the Department of Environmental Protectionis challenging long-term orthodoxy about stormwater management, said Commissioner Cas Holloway at a March community presentation in Brooklyn. "It required a huge cultural shift at the DEP," he said. "We have a lot of engineers who like building in concrete and steel and are good at it."

Greening After Bloomberg

It is impossible to predict how many of the initiatives in PlaNYC 2.0 will continue past the Bloomberg administration, especially in today's climate of fiscal constraint.

Already, the city has slowed the timeline for creating the eight new flagship parks announced in the original PlaNYC, raising questions of how many will eventually be built.

Protecting the city's remaining wetlands and natural areas so important for water quality, flood protection and wildlife habitat remains a challenge, given constant development pressures and a lack of funding for land conservation. So far, the city has protected just nine of the 89 properties its Wetlands Transfer Task Force recommended for transfer to the parks department in 2007.

The city has already committed $187 million over the next four years to begin putting the Green Infrastructure Plan into action. The city is now seeking approval to fully implement the plan under its consent order with the state. This will require a great deal of further analysis and refinement, said Levine. "There are a lot of challenges and a lot of work for the city to fully develop this green infrastructure vision in a way that will take root citywide over the long term.”"

The plan offers tremendous potential to codify an ecological approach to planning in the city and make it a much greener place. If the plan is approved, said Sklerov, "it will be part of the fabric of the DEP's efforts going forward."

"Green infrastructure is the wave of the future," said Bram Gunther, chief of forestry, horticulture and natural resources group at the parks department. "That’s how any city that’s interested in sustaining itself and its public health over time has to view its urban planning."

Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.

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