A Year After 9/11: Rediscovery of the City's Parks

by Anne Schwartz, September 9, 2002

Frustrated with the continued low level of public funding for parks in good times and bad, park advocates saw a rare opportunity last year to elect representatives who understood the importance of green space and recreation. The day they looked forward to was September 11, 2001; that was primary day in New York. A coalition called Parks 2001, made up of groups connected to sports, law enforcement, real estate, environmental and community gardens, persuaded most of the candidates, including Michael Bloomberg, to support its goals, including doubling the money allocated to the parks department to one percent of the city's budget.

These hopes were dashed after the destruction of the World Trade Center, and its devastating effect on the city's economy. The budget for parks was cut six percent, and Mayor Bloomberg has asked the parks department (and every other city agency) to shave an additional 7.5 percent from their expenses. There was also a reduction in the four-year capital budget for 2002-2005, which put on hold, perhaps indefinitely, a number of smaller park renovation projects that were already in the works.

Parks Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe testified at a City Council budg et hearing that his number one priority is maintaining safe and clean parks. But New York City's spending on parks and recreation was already among the lowest of 55 major cities in the country. This year's budget cuts and the anticipated fiscal problems over the next few years could reverse recent improvements, unless other ways to support the parks can be found.

This financial blow to the parks comes at a time when the parks are more important than ever to New Yorkers. The candlelight vigils and memorial concerts connected to the anniversary of September 11 are mostly happening -- where else? -- in a large park in each borough: Central Park, Van Cortlandt Park, Flushing Meadows Park, Prospect Park, and Snug Harbor.

The city's public green spaces, from Central Park to the neighborhood community garden, played an essential role in the aftermath of the terror attack on the World Trade Center. On those sunny late summer days, people instinctively sought out natural environments in which to ponder the unfathomable loss. New Yorkers also rediscovered the social function of parks, where strangers can talk to one another, neighbors meet, and community is forged. Along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, in Union Square, and in parks and gardens throughout the city, people left improvised shrines of flowers, flags, candles, photos, and poems. Undoubtedly, this September 11 people will again find their way to the parks.

Gardens, trees, and parks have also been the focus of efforts to remember those who were killed. Last spring, swaths of daffodils bloomed as symbols of remembrance and renewal alongside schools, libraries, firehouses, and highways and in parks. Lynden Miller, co-chair of New Yorkers for Parks, and Adrian Benepe, then Manhattan parks commissioner, came up with the idea for the daffodil planting independently of each other. Hans van Waardenburg of B&K Bulbs in Holland, the city of Rotterdam, and others donated bulbs. The Parks department and a number of park groups worked together to organize ten thousand volunteers to plant the bulbs, which will spread and bloom year after year.

To individuals and communities throughout the metropolitan area, planting trees and flowers has seemed the most fitting memorial. Even small acts of creation - a tree here, a hillside of flowers there -- breathe life into a city that has suffered a terrible loss. Some are at sites where people witnessed the fall of the towers, like a grove planned for a park in Hoboken a mile from Ground Zero. Others are to memorialize members of the community who died.

The Living Memorial Project of the U.S. Forest Service is cataloging these memorials. It now posts 40 projects descriptions on its website and expects to have 100 by the end of the fall.