NYC Is Building a Fairer Park System

Community Parks Initiative launch / NYC.gov

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his parks commissioner Mitchell Silver, Hon. ASLA, want the city’s massive park system — which covers 30,000 acres, some 14 percent of the city’s land — to be fairer. For too long, some neighborhoods have had wonderful, high-quality public spaces, while others have had parks that don’t meet contemporary needs and have fallen into disrepair. As Silver said in an interview with The Dirt: “Every neighborhood deserves to have a quality space. We want everyone to be within a ten minute walk to a park. But it’s not just the proximity, we want that park to be a quality park.” The park department’s Community Parks Initiative (CPI) — which rebuilds or significantly improves parks that have not seen any capital investment in 25 years — is one of the central efforts for achieving this goal. At the American Planning Association’s annual conference in New York City, Silver and others explained how the city’s already improving park equity — and setting a new model for other cities to follow.

Exploring all of NYC’s five boroughs, Silver has discovered people want the parks department to “break up all the pavement and add more green. They want more spray showers, dog runs, adult fitness equipment, and colorful places.” Communities also want “multi-generational social seating,” with benches for older residents and playgrounds for kids.

The CPI uses a “data-driven methodology” to identify the parks it will redesign or improve, explained Alyssa Konon, with the NYC parks department. They have identified 215 parks, plazas, and playgrounds in areas with high levels of poverty and inequality that especially need help. Some 56 comprehensive park redos have been started, and 11 more will start this fall. There have been targeted improvements in another 86. To date, some 55 neighborhoods, which are home to half a million NYers, now enjoy improved park space.

Community Parks Initiative project map / NYC Parks

While about $1 billion in capital is needed for all 215 spaces, they also need “support, partnerships, programs, and maintenance.” Konon said NYC Parks is also ramping up programmatic support for these parks, partnering with other city departments and non-profits. NYC residents have already benefited from 130 outdoor exercise classes organized by the parks department. There are 15 staff members who just focus on partnerships, helping to coordinate the 33,000 volunteers who donate their time in hundreds of parks. There are now some 48 parks friends groups.

Shape Up exercise class at West Harlem Piers / NYC Parks

Susannah Drake, FASLA, DLandStudio, a landscape architect who is a consultant with the parks department, believes “every community can have an incredible park.” She is redesigning a few older parks and playgrounds in Staten Island, working with communities to explore the “ecology, history, culture” of these spaces and strike the right balance between “passive and active uses.” She said parks department-led public planning sessions are particularly “humane,” as they schedule them when single parents can attend and also offer good food, so those parents can bring their kids along. “It’s a small thing, but it makes a huge difference.”

LT Petrosino playground proposal, under CPI / DLandStudio

So that communities don’t get “park fatigue” waiting forever for changes to happen, Silver and his team have “transformed the capital development process,” Drake said. “Parks now happen a lot more quickly — in just two years,” instead of the typical four-to-five year cycle. “Whereas before we had five community design meetings, now we have two.” Silver said his goal has been to “streamline the process, because there are just too many regulations.”

New York City Council member Mark Levine explained how many of the city’s parks got into such dire straits in the first place. “In the 70s and 80s, the rough years in the city, the parks budget dropped and never recovered.” Now, parks only get 0.5 percent of the city budget, just $344 million out of $70 billion.

Levine thinks the CPI is a great initiative, but parks overall just need more money, particularly in neighborhoods like East Harlem and the South Bronx, which have been up-zoned and are becoming more dense, and, therefore, need more high-quality public spaces. “Parks need to be considered part of new infrastructure.”

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