Gotham Gazette

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Replacing Parking with Parks

Someone looking for a parking spot on a sunny Saturday last June in Park Slope, Brooklyn, might have been annoyed to that discover two spots in a prime location were blocked by a plywood cutout of a car and filled with lawn chairs where people could stop and hang out. From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., members of a neighborhood organization called Park Slope Neighbors fed the meters and invited passersby to sit and enjoy the space.

This parking spot squat, a brief re-imagining of what could be done with a couple hundred square feet of public space, elicited a lot of nasty posts on Curbed, the New York City real estate blog. One of the milder comments was, "I would have loved to see these pedestrian pansies blocking a spot I wanted to park my Ram Pickup in. I would just pull up reeaaal close and BLARE the horn."

On the street, however, "once people started coming out and seeing it, they were very excited about what was going on," recalled Geoff Zink, one of the organizers. People were able to "viscerally experience this alternative use for parking space and how it can improve their quality of life," he said. At the nexus of the Slope’s shopping district and across from the local elementary school — where parents with strollers, twenty-somethings and other locals already overflow the outdoor benches provided by the muffin shop on the corner — it was even possible, for a moment, to envision a permanent public space.

Parks for a Day

Zink and his compatriots will set up a more formal version of their "park" on Saturday, September 22, this time as part of National Park(ing) Day (officially September 21), sponsored by the Trust for Public Land and the San Francisco arts collective REBAR. In a dozen American cities, and around the world, metered parking spots will be turned temporarily into public spaces to call attention to the need for urban parks.

"We want to inspire people to think of creative ways to make New York City more livable, starting with our neighborhood," said Julie Raskin, a Columbia University senior who organized a group creating a mini-quad with Astroturf and lawn chairs — complete with Frisbees, books and free cider — to highlight the university’s shortage of outdoor space for studying and socializing.

About two dozen such "parks" are planned in at least four boroughs. The New York City pedestrian and bicycle advocate Transportation Alternatives is coordinating the effort. There will be greenery and benches in several midtown spots courtesy of New Yorkers for Parks and the Trust for Public Land; a scene of the city before the automobile staged by the Lower Eastside Girls Club; and shade, chairs, lemonade, a volunteer bike mechanic and musical entertainment in the West Village from Time's Up! and Green Map.

" We take for granted that a street has so much space for pedestrians, so much space for vehicles, and so much space for parking. It hasn’t always been that way," said Wiley Norvell, communications director for Transportation Alternatives. "Is the best use of the space to park one person’s private vehicle when nobody is in it, or to have children playing or seniors sitting or have a little bit of green space in an otherwise concrete area?"

What seems like another crazy art installation or a novel form of street theater may actually lead to a valuable discussion about the most efficient and productive use of a major piece of the city’s public real estate. About a quarter to a third of most city roadways are dedicated to curbside parking, while in parts of the city, sidewalks are jammed during peak hours. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s blueprint for the next quarter century focuses on keeping the city sustainable as it adds an expected one million new residents, in part by creating new public plazas in every neighborhood and reducing traffic congestion and pollution. Reconfiguring some curbside space – in the context of a citywide parking policy -- could help meet these goals.

Parking’s Toll

Urban policy makers are looking more closely at how parking availability and pricing affects traffic congestion, pollution and energy use. Anyone who has ever driven in the city knows that even one perfectly placed double-parked car can snarl the traffic for blocks. Several recent studies have found that drivers searching for parking generate a significant percentage of traffic in the city. A survey by Transportation Alternatives conducted on four days in January and February found that 45 percent of the people driving on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope were cruising for a parking spot. In another study, by transportation expert Bruce Schaller, who is now a deputy commissioner at the Department of Transportation, 28 percent of drivers surveyed while waiting at traffic lights in Soho were looking for curbside parking.

Other studies have found that many New Yorkers drive because they want to – not because they have to – and that available and sometimes free parking offers a powerful incentive for them to use their cars instead of mass transit.

Any plan to reallocate parking spots would, of course, have to be part of a comprehensive plan for managing and pricing parking, something the city does not yet have. Other cities, particularly in Europe, have found many ways to provide parking for those who need it while discouraging unnecessary driving. These include charging market prices for metered parking, allowing only neighborhood residents to park on local streets and creating new space-efficient garages that stack cars on moving platforms.

New Uses for Asphalt Spaces

If some of the city’s parking spots were eliminated, that square footage could be used to make sidewalks wider and safer, add bike lanes, create little parks and plazas in areas that lack public space and provide more public seating for seniors and others who would venture out more readily if they knew there was a place to rest. Imagine wider sidewalks on Prince Street, greenery around Penn Station or benches every few blocks on the commercial streets of residential neighborhoods.

The idea of replacing parking spots for other uses might be starting to catch on. In July, for the first time ever, the New York City Department of Transportation removed car parking spots for bicycle parking, adding racks for 30 more bikes at the Bedford Avenue stop on the L train, a very popular bike-and-ride destination. Then, in August, the department turned a small triangular parking lot in Dumbo into a pocket park.

Transportation Alternatives is developing proposals for the city and community groups as part of a more extensive effort to swap parking spots for little parks and other community space. "In order to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are limits to what you can put in on sidewalks in terms of amenities, like bus shelters, benches, or trees," said Norvell . "Only through increasing sidewalk space can these amenities be provided. We think this is a tradeoff a lot of New Yorkers would be willing to make."

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

Reopening the 19th Century High Bridge

At one time, the High Bridge was known far and wide. Built in 1848 in the style of a Roman aqueduct, it carried water across the Harlem River. It was the most visible symbol of the city’s first water system, an engineering masterpiece that supplied abundant, clean water to a population previously dependent on fouled wells and subject to the twin scourges of disease and fire. Today, however, most New Yorkers have never heard of the High Bridge. Connecting Washington Heights Heights to the Bronx neighborhood of High Bridge, north of Yankee Stadium, it has been closed for decades, a forgotten historical footnote and a missing link between two communities

So it is fitting that the bridge, which helped New York City prosper into the 20th century, should play a role in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s blueprint for making the city sustainable into the 21st. One of the specific environmental and infrastructure goals of PlaNYC 2030 (and one that doesn’t need the approval of the state legislature) is reopening the bridge. The city has allocated $60 million for the project, in addition to an expected $12 million in federal funding. When complete, the reopened High Bridge will be an asset not only for the neighborhoods at both ends of the structure but for the entire city.

The Rise And Fall Of The High Bridge

With its 100-foot-high stone arches crossing from cliff to cliff over the Harlem River Valley, the High Bridge quickly became a popular attraction. The pipes were decked over, and a walkway was added. People flocked to what was then the countryside to spend the day along the river and promenade across the bridge dressed in their finest clothes. A tourist industry sprung up with a ferry landing, beer gardens and inns. Boathouses, marinas and rowing clubs lined the river.

The city eventually expanded up both sides of the Harlem River, but parks were created where the bridge landed. The Manhattan side features the 116-acre Highbridge Park, which has a swimming pool on the site of an old reservoir and a recreation center. In the Bronx, a one-acre park of the same name overlooks the bridge and the wooded hillside across the river. When the water pipes were taken out of service in 1958, then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses had the bridge itself transferred to the parks department.

The neighborhoods around the bridge declined and sometime around 1970, the city closed the High Bridge because of safety and maintenance concerns. (There is no evidence, however, to support the story that it was closed because kids threw rocks onto the Circle Line.) No one seems to have noted the date that a parks employee padlocked the gates for good.

Keeping The Dream Alive

Practically from the moment the bridge closed, Bronx and Upper Manhattan residents started trying to get back their river crossing. Around the city and within the parks department, too, people worked to promote the idea of reopening the bridge.

Ellen Macnow, coordinator of interagency planning at the parks department, has been one of the bridge’s most persistent advocates. “It happens to be, when you see it, a really fabulous place,” she said. “It reeks of history.” Macnow said that the effort to reopen the bridge first got traction with the 1993 New York City Greenway Plan, a proposed 350-mile network of pedestrian and bicycle trails that included the High Bridge.

Discussions between the parks department and the Department of Environmental Protection, which owns the now defunct water pipes inside the bridge, eventually led to a study by the Department of Transportation to determine the cost of restoring the bridge. Word spread, and more groups became involved. In 2001, the parks and environmental agencies and a number of nonprofit organizations working to improve the parks and trails in the area, including New York Restoration Project, Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, and the City Parks Foundation formed the High Bridge Coalition.

A key to the effort was getting the residents of the two neighborhoods involved. In 2003, Partnerships for Parks, a joint program of the City Parks Foundation and the parks department, chose the High Bridge area as one of its Catalyst for Neighborhood Parks sites. This effort, focusing on neighborhoods with problematic parks, provides private funding for activities and events that in turn build community involvement in the parks and so help them attract additional public and private resources.

Joseph Sanchez, the Highbridge project coordinator, grew up in Washington Heights and recalls that, even as a child, he saw the potential and beauty in the local parks, “as ugly and dirty as they were.” To get people into the parks, he organized hikes, clean-ups and other activities, and brought in community groups to run sports and education programs. He also spread the word about the High Bridge and urged residents to join the effort to reopen it. “We began to hear stories from residents about how they once used the bridge, how they still want to use it,” said Macnow. Community members joined the coalition and began pushing to get the bridge restored.

In November 2006, the parks department announced that it would take the first steps toward opening the bridge, with a $5 million allocation of federal transportation money from U.S. Representative JosĂ© Serrano and $1.5 million in city funding. But before the project was included in PlaNYC, coalition members thought it would take years to complete the repairs. “We are on our way to reopening the bridge much faster than we had ever thought,” said David Rivel, executive director of the City Parks Foundation. “It really just captured the imagination.”

The restoration will include repairing the bridge’s patterned brick walkway, its remaining stone arches and the steel span that replaced four of the stone arches in 1928 to allow boats to navigate the full width of the river. The bridge will also be safer than it was in its heyday with wheelchair ramps and higher fencing.

A Green Future For The Harlem River

Opening the High Bridge will bring multiple benefits. To begin with, it will make Highbridge Park, with its enormous pool and improved recreation center, more accessible to residents of the High Bridge neighborhood in the Bronx, who have few nearby recreational options. Even now, many Bronx kids climb over the bridge’s locked fences to get to the Manhattan side.

The bridge could also become the focal point of a revival of the Harlem River as a recreational destination, said Drew Becher, executive director of the New York Restoration Project, a private-public partnership founded in 1995 by Bette Midler to reclaim neglected parks in upper Manhattan and the Bronx. “It will make people look down and see what a great Harlem River Valley we have,” he said.

New York Restoration Project has contributed to the resurgence of boating on the river through its Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse, the first new community boathouse in New York City almost a 100 years. The organization recently planted 200 of an eventual 3,000 cherry trees along the river, which, they hope, will rival Washington, D.C.’s cherry blossoms in the spring.

Reopening the bridge also will promote the greenest and healthiest way to get around the city. It will become a vital link in city’s partially completed system of bike and pedestrian trails, including greenways being built on both sides of the Harlem River. It will also fill a gap in the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, the 41-mile trail following the route of the city’s first water system.

And not least, the High Bridge is a unique recreational space in itself, a place that belongs only to pedestrians and cyclists, with magnificent views of the river and the cityscape. “A stroll on the bridge is just such an incredible thing,” said Joseph Sanchez. “You feel like you’re in the middle of the world.”

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




















Grading Neighborhood Parks 2007

Conditions in New York’s small, neighborhood parks vary widely across the city. And despite some areas of improvement, overall the parks are in worse shape than last year, according to the recently released 2007 Report Card on Parks, from the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks.

For five years, the non-profit advocacy group has been evaluating conditions in local parks, from one to 20 acres in size. Trained surveyors assess eight different "service areas" used by park visitors, like conditions of sports field, benches, and bathrooms. They rate each feature following criteria developed from a park user's point of view.

As in previous reports from the group, parks with access to private funding earned the highest grades. Bryant Park, which is maintained by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, got a near-perfect 99. But the report also found that maintenance levels vary widely among parks relying only on public funds, that maintenance can be inconsistent even in the same park from one year to the next. A number of parks have chronically poor conditions.

In this year's report, the average citywide grade dropped to 70 percent, down from a rating of 80 percent in 2005.

"We don't get consistent maintenance year to year, month to month, or even day to day," said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. "And that's because the system has been underfunded.”

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, however, called the report card a case of "grade deflation" and said that ratings for many parks were lower than the department's own inspection data indicate. "It flies in the face of reality, which is that parks continue to get better."


In addition to rating individual parks, the New Yorkers for Parks report looked at how the different elements fare citywide.

Among the areas that performed poorly this year were the "green" features: lawns, natural areas, and trees. The report recommended a greater investment in horticulture and forestry, areas that have received little funding in recent decades. At present, for example, park trees are pruned only on an emergency basis.

Once again, surveyors also found a litany of problems with drinking fountains, including lack of water pressure, leaks, mold, and basins filled with trash or broken glass. The average grade for all the drinking fountains surveyed was 40 percent.

Careless workmanship - sloppy paint jobs, poorly done repairs, and chipping or peeling paint - gave more than half of playgrounds, courts, fields, and sitting areas an unacceptable score for maintenance work.

The report also noted an upsurge in graffiti, which Commissioner Benepe confirmed. He suspects the increase is tied to a recent court ruling voiding the city's prohibition on selling spray paint to minors. The department has been working with the police and its Parks Enforcement Patrol to reverse the problem.

"Another thing we found is that playground conditions are starting to slip," said DiPalermo.

Ten years ago, the parks department made significant capital improvements to many playgrounds, he said, but wear and tear is starting to show because of insufficient maintenance.


Parks do get some positive marks. Higher scoring park features included pathways and sitting areas, similar to previous years.

And despite the use of a more rigorous standard this year, the average grade for bathrooms held steady from 2005, a result of the parks department's focus on improving bathrooms through Operation Relief. More than 90 percent of the bathrooms inspected were open, compared with 50 percent four years ago.

Also this year, for the first time, the mayor's proposed budget for parks maintains last year's funding for areas like playground associates, tree pruning, and other maintenance, items that are usually eliminated and then restored during negotiations with the City Council.

As part of Mayor Bloomberg's ambitious greening blueprint, PlaNYC, the city is beginning to commit more funds to care for the city's trees and natural spaces.

Park advocates are lobbying for an additional $10 million for 250 to 300 new playground associates for parks that currently have no staff assigned. They are also asking $5 million more for forestry and $3 million to hire 60 full-time gardeners for specific parks.


The parks department does its own ratings of green spaces through its Parks Inspection Program, which conducts 5,000 formal and 10,000 informal inspections a year.

Parks Commissioner Adriane Benepe said that the program, which allows the department to identify and fix unsafe conditions and other problems, has documented an upward trend in park conditions. Inspection reports can be found by park on the department's web site.

Commissioner Benepe agreed that some of the playground equipment was reaching its natural lifespan, but said that the department's inspection and repair program addresses problems quickly. He noted that a recent budget increase has allowed the department to hire 40 workers specifically to care for playgrounds.

"Contrary to the assertion that there is poor maintenance resulting from a declining workforce, the workforce is growing dramatically," he said. "By the next fiscal year, we will have added 1,000 full-time staff since Mayor Bloomberg took office, a 25 to 30 percent increase."

And although he disputes specifics, Benepe still sees value in the New Yorkers for Parks' annual report card.

"Although we feel we are doing better than the report card would indicate, it's good to have an organization that fights for parks and for better standards," said Commissioner Benepe. "We don't take umbrage at the overall message, which is that parks should be getting better and better."

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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