How To Make An Excellent City Park System

by Anne Schwartz, Mar 26, 2004

For years, New York City park supporters have been calling on the city to provide an adequate baseline of funding for parks and recreation. Indeed, having sufficient resources in staffing, land, and equipment - is one of the key factors contributing to an excellent urban park system, according a recent study by the Trust for Public Land. New York spends far less on parks than the cities with the best systems in the country. But the report, The Excellent City Park System, looks beyond funding to identify other measures that make a city park system great.

"If you don’t have other factors like good planning, community involvement, and good access, then throwing money at it won’t solve all of the challenges," said the study’s author, Peter Harnik, who directs the trust’s Green Cities Program. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, which has developed a number of innovative programs in recent years, can benefit from the research in this report as it works to improve the city’s vast network of parks, playgrounds, fields, forests, and recreation facilities.

The Excellent City Park System is based on two days of discussions by 25 experts on urban and park issues, followed by surveys and phone interviews with park directors all over the country. The seven measures of excellence it discusses include:

  • a clear mission
  • an ongoing planning and community involvement process
  • sufficient assets to meet the system’s goals
  • user satisfaction
  • safety from physical hazards and crime
  • equitable access for all residents no matter where they live, how much money they have, or whether they have physical disabilities.

The seventh measure -- "in many respects the most important one," said Harnik -- is having benefits for the city beyond the boundaries of the park.


The report also highlights numerous "excellent practices" from cities all over the country. One of the examples cited is the New York City Parks Inspection Program, which conducts 4,000 park visits a year focusing especially on the safety of grounds and equipment.

Squeezing More Greenery Amidst the Concrete

City park departments are limited by factors beyond their control, like the location of existing parkland. For example, it would be difficult for New York, with little vacant land and high-priced real estate, to have a park within six blocks of nearly every resident, as Denver does. The report mentions New York City’s planting of more than 2,000 concrete traffic triangles and medians under the Greenstreets program as a way to squeeze more greenery into a built-out landscape. Nevertheless, with some areas totally devoid of usable parks, New York could learn from Chicago, which has greatly increased green and open space through a collaborative effort of the city’s planning department, public schools, and two park agencies. The project, called the CitySpace Plan, studied community park needs and every parcel of existing private and public open space. It also worked with other government agencies and numerous civic and business organizations to understand and make use of the economic and regulatory processes that encourage the creation of parkland, as well as to change regulations or laws that discourage it.

A Master Plan

One thing that many of the country’s best park systems have in common is a frequently updated master plan developed with substantive community involvement. An ideal plan, according to the report, would inventory resources, identify needs and goals, and set strategies, timelines, and budgets to implement those goals. Although New York City does not have such a plan, the Department of Parks and Recreation has recognized the need to do more long-term, in-depth planning, according to Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh. The department is in the midst of developing a 10-year capital plan that is looking not only at spending on specific park infrastructure but also at longer-term needs as the city’s population and its use of parks changes.

Citizen Advisory Board

Another hallmark of excellent parks that New York City lacks is a citizen advisory board. Instead, said Kavanagh, the parks department’s advisory mechanism is the 59 community boards. "We agree with the spirit of that recommendation," he said, "but I don’t know if a formal citizen advisory board would work so well in New York. New York is really a collection of neighborhoods, and people feel attached to their neighborhood, more so than their borough or even the city as a whole." Harnik disagreed. "Each community board is only interested in its own community," he said. "It’s hard for any citizen to have a big picture of the New York City park system if it is not constituted as a citizen advisory board to the park system as a whole."

Community Involvement

Over the last couple of decades, community involvement in New York City parks has taken root and grown like a weed. Almost half the parks in the city have affiliated groups, and 12,000 New Yorkers volunteer in their local parks through Partnerships for Parks. The grassroots activists organized by New Yorkers for Parks, a citywide coalition that serves as both watchdog and advocate, held park budget cuts to a minimum during the economic downturn of the last few years. Taking this further, however, involving citizens in a system-wide planning process for the parks can translate into greater public support for funding. In cities that have done this, including Seattle and Nashville, voters or elected officials subsequently approved additional spending on parks.