At Greater & Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, the 4th international urban parks conference organized by the City Parks Alliance, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg told an audience of 900 city parks leaders, landscape architects, and activists from 210 cities and 20 countries that “parks are a vital resource.” Under Bloomberg’s administration, some 730 new acres of parkland have been added to the 29,000 existing acres of green space. Bloomberg thinks NYC’s high-quality parks also have a lot to do with the fact that for the first time ever NYC got more than 50 million tourists last year.
Parks are a “haven” from a busy world but they also make communities more vibrant and attractive. Beyond that, these social green spaces can spur economic growth. With $3 billion in capital investment in parks over the past 10 years, Bloomberg clearly thinks all this money is well-spent: “The investment is paid back multiple times.” As an example of what a park can do, Bloomberg said the High Line, the now world-famous park in Chelsea, has generated $2 billion in private sector investment. “Revitalizing infrastructure can simply mean recasting it in new ways,” he added. Lots more investment will go into “reconnecting New Yorkers to their waterfront.”
New York’s parks mayor outlined three points he said were critical to the city’s recent success with parks:
1) Expand collaboration within city government. Instead of preserving the silo-based approach wherein parks, transportation, and water departments work in their separate domains, Bloomberg forced them to collaborate. One result of this collaboration, PlaNYC, the city’s far-reaching sustainability and climate change plan, has called for every New Yorker to be within a 10 minute walk of a park or playground. While many scoffed that this goal was unrealistic when the plan was first announced, the city has been methodically making this happen through collaborations within city government.
In another example, water, transportation, and parks departments now partner on creating green streets, which are now being rolled out across thousands of sidewalks. These systems, which help with stormwater management, can also make more streets — key public domains — more appealing. The city is so serious about this that they are investing a big chunk of their $1.5 billion green infrastructure budget in swales, mini-street parks, and deep tree pits.
2) Partner with the state and federal government. One example Bloomberg mentioned was the 18,000-acre Jamaica Bay park project, where the city will work with the National Park Service to create a more sustainable park, with a new multimillion dollar research center on urban parks sustainability.
3) Maximize public-private partnerships. Bloomberg said the High Line could never have happened without private sector developers. The same story goes for Brooklyn Bridge Park, which was financed with city, state, and private funds.
He said even NYC’s massive tree planting campaign, Million Trees NYC, is being “spearheaded” by well-endowed non-profits like Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project. To date, more than 600,000 trees have been planted, with some 100,000 trees each year (in comparison with just 7,500 each year prior to the campaign).
In earlier comments, Katherine Nagel, the head of City Parks Alliance, made a similar argument as Bloomberg, saying “parks are more than just fun and games — they are essential urban infrastructure. This infrastructure is part of a larger social, ecological, environmental, and political system.” In parks, she added, “our culture happens. This is where we awaken to the natural world.”
Mickey Fearn, deputy director at the National Park Service (NPS) for communications and community assistance, also made a powerful case for connecting urban youth to parks. He said “we need to prepare our children for the world” by offering creative, nurturing experiences for them in parks, while “preparing our world for our children” by making parks safe and accessible to all. Parks can help kids “build self-esteem, hope, and strengthen relationships.” These spaces help them create a “sense of mastery.” Fearn said, like everyone, kids need “power” but power that is disconnected from violence. He said the real challenge for NYC and many other cities in the 21st century will be creating a “sense of power in multicultural diversity.” Multiculturalism is the real asset.
Given kids will be the future environmental stewards, they also need to feel connected to nature and understand parks as “habitat, ecosystems.” Fearn pointed to one program in the Bronx as a model: Rocking the Boat, a fascinating program that teaches youth how to build watercraft to use on the Bronx River, NYC’s only freshwater river. “Once they learn about shipbuilding, they learn about watersheds, then they learn about careers in conservation.”
Image credit: Central Park / Wikipedia