Destination: Park

Van Cortland Park subway

Van Cortland Park: Yes, you can get there by subway. But do you want to travel so far?

At the end of this year, Mike Bloomberg, the three-term mayor of New York, will step down to make way for his successor. Many New Yorkers agree that Bloomberg has made a huge impact on the city – for better or for worse – and there is no shortage of evaluations and analyses of the 12 years of his command of the city’s executive branch. It would take a whole series of blog posts to do justice to the entirety of his legacy, so we will focus here on a particular aspect of transportation: traveling to and from his famous new parks.

Clearly, Bloomberg will go down in history as a builder of parks. From the “return to the waterfront” program such as the Williamsburg waterfront redevelopment and the Brooklyn Bridge Park project, to the Fresh Kills Park megaproject, on paper this mayoralty looks like a great benefactor of greening the city and improving its recreational opportunities and open spaces. But we have to ask: which residents stand to benefit, and what do these projects tell us about our government’s planning strategy?

Luxury residences, such as those rising on the Williamsburg waterfront, naturally attract a certain type of clientele who like the exclusivity and slight separation from the great masses of the “real city.” Parks that come with those spaces are more democratic than the residences, open to people of all incomes and creeds – at least nominally. However, they were made possible only by the presence of the new luxury buildings. This is best formalized in Battery Park City, for example, where local park maintenance is paid for from a special assessment on property in the development.

There are also new or newly improved parks that are not subsidized by new real estate. They tend to be run by non-profits that take donations (Central Park, the High Line) or special government fund allocations (Fresh Kills, Governor’s Island). Even federal transportation money is sometimes used for park construction, as is the case with the renewal of Battery Park, which is currently closed north of Castle Clinton. The parking and plaza project at the tail end of the South Beach Boardwalk, here on Staten Island, is an example of a bona fide city-funded project (as far as we know) that represents a run-of-the-mill park “improvement.” (It is in fact of only marginal use and probably isn’t a good investment of public funds).

What is the common thread between all these park projects? With the exceptions of traditional and extremely popular “old” parks like Central Park, all of these projects are waterfront developments, and are located away from population centers. They are often hard to get to, because they either require a car (as will clearly be the case with Fresh Kills) or are located on the edge of the transit network, and therefore favor local residents (of the new luxury developments, if any) over regular folks from regular neighborhoods.

In contrast to the wave of spending on new waterfront parks, there is an attitude of neglect towards ordinary neighborhood parks, of which there is already a great shortage. Even well-tended spaces like the small botanical garden at the southern end of the Bay Ridge Promenade have had no improvements, like that possible by narrowing the underused Belt Parkway section north of the Verrazano, and exist only due to the work of local benefactors and volunteers.

Even more generally, there appears to be a trend towards destination parks, a pattern of thinking that follows the outdated “separation of uses” planning dogma from 50 years ago. It is considered appropriate for the park to be only a temporary destination. One gets in one’s car (or a bus) with bags, golf clubs, swimming gear, etc – and travels a considerable distance to spend hours, or possibly a whole day, “recreating.” This activity is rigidly separated from everyday life, and physical activity is thus curtailed and regimented. It has to be planned for; it doesn’t occur spontaneously.

Staten Island faces a unique version of this problem, in that – unlike the other boroughs – it does not have a shortage of green space, but a shortage of useful green space that can function in some recreational or commuting capacity. Our Green Belt system lacks key connections to neighborhoods, and despite its size remains a world unto itself. That’s why so many of us drive to bike in the park – instead of just riding the bike to the park!

A neighborhood park is used differently, and often much more extensively, from a destination park. A neighborhood park is used every day, not just on weekends. It is used for what people in a big city need most – a momentary respite from the dust, the noise, and the hurried pace of urbanity. A really good neighborhood park, as Jane Jacobs writes in the Death and Life of Great American Cities, works differently for different people at different times of day. Taken to the logical extreme, as is done in certain cities, for example – Washington, D.C., Montreal, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Paris, some parts of Athens – whole neighborhoods are parks. Not in the Le Corbusier sense that buildings there stand among tree groves, but in the sense that many of the activities the NYC government believes should be done far away from home are done close to home – a bike lane through residential neighborhoods, a canal allowing for kayaking and small motorboats, green belts with multi-use paths. These are the things that make cities livable. They also happen to contribute to a city’s transportation system, by both absorbing the pollution from cars and by providing alternatives to driving.

This is not to say there are no success stories in our city, but they are limited exceptions that prove what is possible, not what is normally done. McCarren Park in Brooklyn is a revitalized inland park, but it is too small for the amount of users, because it is the only “normal” park for miles around. Special programming, like movies in the parks and kayaking on the Hudson and East Rivers, increase park usability and spontaneity, but is done in locations difficult to get to except for those working in Manhattan or nearby.

A major argument for waterfront development is that it is low hanging fruit – it is the conversion of former industrial or other underused areas into something better. But we have seen the success of the NYC Department of Transportation with converting even the smallest pieces of land in the densest parts of the city – Midtown and Downtown Manhattan – into pedestrian plazas and other amenities that instantly become people magnets. Ironically, the Department of Parks and Recreation, as well as the Department of City Planning, have done virtually nothing under this mayor to follow the current trends towards sustainability, livability, and inner city redevelopment. If anything they have been obstacles to progress.

Clearly, we need to do better. The agencies mentioned, as well as the MTA and the NYC Economic Development Corporation, need to start working together towards greening and improving the myriad of underused spaces around the city, while simultaneously creating the conditions for more people to live and work where the infrastructure is underused. Those spaces identified as transportation nodes, such as Naturally Occurring Transportation Developments, should be allowed to have residential, commercial, and industrial spaces developed at the appropriate density that will allow for full use of the new parks and transportation facilities. Sustainable transportation planning must be central to this, which means thinking in terms of corridors, connections, and raising the comfort level for non-drivers.

We hope the next mayor, whoever it may be, can bring about a coalition to make the whole city a pleasant place to live, work, and play – and not require a regular escape into some hard-to-get-to vanity project. One way to do it is to go back to good ideas proposed years ago but never acted on, such as the 1993 Greenway Plan, finish the build-out of the bike network, and take a serious new look at revitalizing and expanding inland parks.

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