Redesigning parks and playgrounds

Adrian Benepe, the former Commissioner of New York’s Parks & Recreation Department (2002 - 2012), shares dramatic changes in how parks are designed and playgrounds are used. And how communities are getting involved.

Hester Street Playground
A successful collaboration design process with the community is the restoration of Hester Street Playground in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The Hester Street Collaborative, a local non-profit organisation, solicited ideas from area residents and involved them in helping to design the new playground. © NYC Parks & Recreation

How is NYC Parks and Recreation supporting the goals set out in PlaNYC?

Adrian Benepe (AB): PlaNYC is the most significant plan initiated in response to challenges arising from changing demographics, growing population and aging infrastructure. It is guided by a strong emphasis on sustainability and long-term planning, set out by Mayor Bloomberg.

As a lead agency helping to implement PlaNYC, the Parks Department is already making considerable progress. Eight new regional parks or facilities have either been completed, are in construction, or are beginning construction this year. More than 280 new green streets have been developed, with more than 550,000 new trees planted. Over 200 schoolyards have been converted to public playgrounds.

How are you developing parks and changing them?

AB: We are fortunate to have an administration that deeply values our parks and open spaces. Parks are critical to New York City’s quality of life. They contribute to the physical, mental, and economic well-being of New Yorkers.

The Bloomberg administration has made significant investments in the park system, overseeing the largest era of park construction and expansion since the 1930s. Over the past decade, more than US$3 billion was invested in capital enhancements and we have another US$1.5 billion in our budget for future works. Parks now offer a whole new level of experience with increased operating budgets and partnerships with the private sector.

We are also changing the paradigm for 21st-century park design and construction. Last year, Parks, in partnership with the non-profit Design Trust for Public Space, published the nation’s first “how-to” manual for 21st-century urban parks.

With a growing population from the current 8.2 million residents, providing quality parks and open spaces will not only make a big difference in enhancing our living environments but also have environmental benefits.

The population of New York City is currently 8.2 million and it is anticipated to grow to 9 million by 2030. Providing quality parks and open spaces will not only make a big difference in enhancing our living environments, it offers an opportunity to provide many environmental benefits, from adaptive re-use of existing infrastructure to save resources, to storm water capture to prevent water from overflowing our sewer system.

How do you involve the community in park planning and usage?

AB: Community involvement is essential in creating designs for new parks and open spaces and gaining community support for both capital reconstructions and ongoing programming. The New York City charter specifically requires that local Community Boards review all park construction projects. We regularly survey park patrons and incorporate public feedback received at community forums, scope of work meetings, and through correspondence and social media, when considering any changes to how a local park is redesigned or operated.

‘Partnerships for Parks’ is an innovative joint programme of the non-profit City Parks Foundation and the Parks Department. Founded in 1995, Partnerships for Parks helps New Yorkers work together to make neighbourhood parks thrive. Ultimately, their work supports a culture of collaboration among people and government that recognises parks as vital centres of community life.

For more than 15 years, our ‘Partnerships for Parks’ division has organised workshops, networking, resource tables and activities with our community partners. While the Parks Department staff includes experts (foresters, landscape architects, project managers, etc.), we rely on expertise from the community. They share considerable insights on how parks are used and connected to local neighbourhoods through advocacy and programming. In 2011, our community volunteers gave more than 530,000 hours of their time to improve our neighbourhood parks.

Tell us more about the MillionTreesNYC initiative and how the community is involved?

AB: Since the City of New York and the non-profit New York Restoration Project launched MillionTreesNYC in October 2007, we have planted more than 550,000 trees. The previous year, we only planted 7,500 trees.

With such large numbers of trees planted, the key challenge was in ensuring their survival and maintenance especially in the early years in a possibly harsh urban environment.
The MillionTreesNYC Stewardship Corps launched in the spring of 2009 saw a meaningful collaboration with the botanical gardens and non-profit organisations to build a community-based network of tree stewards across the city’s five boroughs. The Stewardship Corps engages everyday New Yorkers in urban tree care through workshops, toolkits, training sessions and online space for stewards to network and share resources.

MillionTrees NYC volunteers
MillionTreesNYC volunteers planting trees at Van Cortlandt Park, the Bronx © NYC Parks & Recreation

How successful is the initiative to convert playgrounds in schools to community parks?

AB: One of the ways we’re improving the quality of life in all five boroughs is through our “Schoolyards to Playgrounds” initiative. Across the city, we have schoolyards that are beehives of activity during the course of each school day. But when the school day is over, the yards sit empty,and children in the neighbourhood have to look for other spaces to play. Our “Schoolyards to Playgrounds” initiative helps us achieve one of the central goals of PlaNYC: ensuring that every single city resident lives within a 10-minute walk of a park or playground.

PlaNYC identified 290 public schoolyards that could be opened up to the community year-round – after school, on weekends and holidays, and during the summer – by the year 2013. Nearly all were located in neighbourhoods most in need of parks and playgrounds. When the list was created, 69 of these playgrounds were in good condition for additional use and were opened July 1, 2007. The remaining sites were funded for renovations costing from US$400,000 to US$1.2 million. The Parks Department partnered with the Department of Education and the Trust for Public Land (TPL) to renovate the playgrounds through a unique, participatory design process that facilitates in-depth inter-agency and community coordination. Each renovation reflects the ideas generated at three participatory design meetings held at each school that allow children, teachers, and other community members to become landscape architects. Common amenities include new sports courts and fields, outdoor classrooms, trees, and benches. In total, the Parks Department and its partners have held over 500 participatory design meetings as part of the Schoolyards to Playgrounds initiative.

The 209 schoolyards that have opened as public playgrounds operate just like any other City park – except that the NYC Department of Education and the School Construction Authority still retain control of these properties, and are in charge of maintenance. Since the launch of Schoolyards to Playgrounds, an additional 250,000 New Yorkers have been brought within a ten-minute walk of a park.

School yards to playgrounds
Schoolyards to Playgrounds Design Day at PS 192, Brooklyn © NYC Parks & Recreation

Through public-private partnerships, some of the key parks (e.g. Brooklyn Bridge Park, Central Park) are financed and maintained by community groups or organisations. How effective is this model and how would you respond to critics?

AB: The secret to the success of parks over the last three decades is in large part due to creative management models and extensive community engagement – and these two go hand in hand. Through public-private partnerships, the Parks Department shares the responsibility for parks with individuals and outside organisations. New Yorkers became engaged in the life of the parks by stewarding the park and advocating for the park through changing government administrations and fluctuating budgets.

This idea of the public-private partnership for parks began in the early 1980s and has blossomed over the years as a successful stewardship model. In some ways it was born out of desperation when the City abandoned its parks system in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today, the vast majority of city parks are still maintained by City-funded workers through tax-levy dollars, and this will continue to be the case. However, a significant number of parks are supported by non-profit organisations in varying degrees across the city. Through partnerships, the City shares responsibility for a park or a park facility with an outside organisation such as a conservancy or “friends of” non-profit or community group. In all cases, the City Parks Department retains ultimate authority over the site and activities occurring at the site. In a handful of parks, all or a significant part of the revenue from the park is directed back to the park and its supporting organisation. In some cases, such as Brooklyn Bridge Park, Hudson River Park, and Bryant Park, the parks are completely dependent on earned revenue from the parks for their operating budget. In most cases, revenue generated from park concessions goes directly to the City’s General Fund, which pays for basic city services such as police, fire, and education.

In another small group of parks, such as Central Park, the High Line, Madison Square Park, and the Battery, most of the operating budget is provided through private charitable funds raised by the involved non-profit organisations. Other organisations, such as the Bronx River Alliance, raise most of their non-city funds from other governmental sources and a relatively modest amount of private philanthropy.

However, the majority of our public-private partnerships are much more informal and the groups primarily harness social and human capital – connect people, engage community members, provide programming and help keep the park clean and beautiful. This is achieved by communities taking ownership of their parks and by physically working to paint fences, plant flowers or pick up litter.

The core mission of any public-private partnership is to engage citizens in the life of the park, with larger and more established groups raising funds from individuals and organisations to support government expenditures. O

This article was first published in May 2012. All images contained within this page are used with license and shall not be copied, modified, or reproduced.

Adrian Benepe

Adrian Benepe

Adrian Benepe has worked for over 30 years protecting and enhancing New York City's natural and historic beauty. He has continued this effort as Commissioner of the Department of Parks & Recreation, appointed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in 2002. Benepe now oversees the operation of over 29,000 acres and nearly 5,000 properties including over 1,000 playgrounds, 600 ballfields, 600 tennis courts, 63 swimming pools, 35 recreation centres, 14 miles of beach, and over 2.5 million street and park trees.