Park Turf Wars

By Anne Schwarts, July 30, 2001

Early in the morning on a beautiful summer Saturday in Prospect Park, dog owners watch their dogs romp in the meadow, while bicyclists and skaters zip by joggers and walkers. At noon, families gather for picnics and sunbathers sprawl on the grass. By mid-afternoon, there are six volleyball games as well as badminton, soccer, frisbee football, a cricket match, and a dozen kites flying. A group is barbecuing on the lawn, unaware that it is against the rules.

Some version of this scene is repeated in many of the hundreds of parks all over the city. With only 3.8 acres of New York City parkland per 1,000 residents -- and far less in many neighborhoods -- there is heavy competition for what green space there is. Conflicts arise over everyday use: Should dogs be allowed to run free? Why can't people play sports or barbecue wherever they like?

There are conflicts are over larger issues as well. Should some areas be set aside for wildlife? Do cars belong on the park roads? Should public parks be sublet for events open only to ticket-holders? Should they be leased to golf courses? In this city where space is so fiercely contested - apartment space, parking space, sidewalk space - anything that restricts or changes the public's use of open space causes controversy. Dave Lutz, director of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, says he has even gotten complaints that a change as seemingly benign as the "Greenstreets" program, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern's project to plant small gardens in traffic triangles and road medians, deprived people of a place to walk their dogs.

Dog Days

The key to understanding the competition in New York over parkland might begin with a little history of the relationship between the city's dogs (or dog owners) and the city's parks. After the fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s, New York City's parks deteriorated greatly. Dog owners were among the few people who continued to use the parks during a period when they were perceived as dangerous. Rules requiring dogs to stay on leash were not enforced, and dog owners got accustomed to having the run of the parks. At the same time, though, the dogs acted as a catalyst to bring people back to the parks. Gradually, the parks became more and more active, and park conditions began to improve as people who lived near the parks, especially in affluent areas, raised money and lobbied to get them fixed up.

Although dogs had been allowed off-leash at night (between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m.) for years, many owners let their dogs loose during the day as well. Free-running dogs became a problem in the ever more populated parks, knocking down and even biting people, frightening children and the elderly, damaging lawns and plantings, running through picnics and leaving behind their droppings. The increasing popularity of big breeds exacerbated the problem. In 1999 the Parks Department reportedly estimated that it spent $250,000 a year in Central and Riverside Parks to repair damage by dogs.

That year, the Parks department announced that it would step up ticketing for violation of leash regulations and increase fines. This set off an outcry among dog owners.

The issue brought out extremists on both sides. On one side, some people wanted dogs on leashes at all times, saying that dogs ruin parks and terrorize other users. On the other side, some militant dog owners insisted that the rights of dogs took precedence over those of people.

Now though, even in Manhattan, where the dog wars were the fiercest, things seem to have quieted down. The parks department says it has been enforcing the leash laws fairly strictly, and compliance rates have gotten very good. In many small parks, dogs must be on leashes at all times, but certain areas have been designated dog runs. These have helped, though some neighbors complain about the noise and mess. Recently, the department rescinded off-leash use in Stuyvesant Square, after the plantings were destroyed several times and neighbors complained.

But it was Brooklyn's Prospect Park that best set an example of a compromise balancing the needs of dog users with the rights of other park visitors, with both sides benefiting. Tupper Thomas, the park's administrator, says that bringing dogs to the park is a "terrifically important part of the quality of life for people who own dogs."

About three years ago, however, she called a big outside meeting on Sunday morning to say that too many people were not conforming with the rules, and that the park did not have enough staff to keep things under control. Although the meeting was contentious, the dog owners agreed to work with the park. They formed an organization called FIDO (Fellowship in the Interest of Dogs and their Owners) that uses peer pressure to get errant owners to stick to the rules. In exchange, the park allowed dogs to run free after 5 p.m. during the weekday in a field in the middle of the park called the Nethermead. According to Thomas, there has been an unexpected benefit. "It has done this wonderful thing for the whole area. It was never used except on the weekend for events. Now every single weekday evening, there is a mass of people, and there are more people walking to it from other parts of the park," she said. "All of a sudden you start to notice you can go for a walk in the park after 7 p.m. in the summer and never feel isolated."

Keep Off the Grass

One of the biggest challenges for the parks department is balancing the increasing demand for places to play organized sports with the need to keep the parks green. There has been an exponential growth in youth sports in the city, especially in soccer, which was unheard of a generation ago. But the amount of parkland and the number of playing fields have not greatly increased. More adults are playing organized sports as well, including immigrants from countries where soccer is popular.

In the 60s and 70s, the department completely stopped enforcing the rules, hoping to bring people back into the parks. That resulted in the destruction of the lawns. A renewed capital investment of public funds in the last decade, combined with private donations in Central and Prospect Park and a few others, has allowed the restoration of sports fields and lawns. In Central Park, the parks department now enforces the regulations and intensively manages the use of sports fields, allowing only certain sports and rotating fields.

Surveys show that a majority of park users come to the restored athletic fields not for organized sports, but for more passive recreation, like reading a book, having a picnic, or informal games like tossing a frisbee. Nevertheless, some people accuse the department of caring more about "grass museums" than children's sports. Parks department staff say that this viewpoint is uninformed, and that no amount of money or staff will make grass grow where sports are continually played - not even the grounds crew of Yankee Stadium. The choice is between lawns that are monitored and restricted, or dust bowls.

In less crowded (and less well-funded) parks, however, more money could make a difference. More activities could be permitted on the lawns if there were money and staff to re-seed heavily used areas frequently. In Prospect Park, for example, a popular sledding hill has been fenced off to let the grass recover. Some sports, however, like mountain biking, are so destructive that they are completely forbidden.

Rules and Rights

Many other popular park activities impinge on the rights of other visitors. Yet the rules designed to make the park more pleasant for the majority of users restrict the rights of those who need a place for their more intrusive pastimes.

A perennial sore point is amplified music. Loud music compromises the right of people to enjoy peaceful parks - to listen to birdsong or just get away from the noise of the streets. But there are also those who enjoy the music in the parks. In fact, some park musicians have a devoted following, attracting residents and tourists alike. Two rules guide performing in the parks: Anyone who wants to amplify sound - music or speech - is required to get a permit from the police department, and special permits are required for events that attract more than 20 people. The department has recently been cracking down in Washington Square Park, where it confiscated amplifiers being used without a permit.

The parks also serve as public gathering places for people to make political statements. In Dag Hammarskjold Plaza next to the United Nations, there are political events almost every day. The people who live around the parks have been writing a lot of letters recently. The parks department is under pressure to limit the annoyance while respecting the first amendment rights of the protesters.

Then there is barbecuing. The fumes and smells bother park users and neighbors, and improperly set up barbecues can kill grass and trees. But most New York City residents don't have backyards, and there are very few places people can go to enjoy an American summer ritual - and a tradition in just about every culture. Some parks have compromised by allowing barbecues in designated areas.

Squeezing Out Cars

In Central and Prospect Parks, the competition for space extends to the roads that loop around the edges. Bikers, runners, walkers, and skaters share the roads uneasily with vehicles; one bicyclist was killed by a speeding van in Prospect Park in 1997.

Restrictions on car hours have increased over the years. The roads are now open to cars only during weekdays, and in the summer during rush hour, when drivers use the routes to avoid the slower city streets. Bicycle and pedestrian advocates have been trying for more than a decade to have motor vehicles banned completely from these roads. They were encouraged recently when all four Democratic mayoral candidates said that they would support a three-month trial traffic ban from Prospect Park to study the impacts on surrounding areas.

Craig Barnes of Transportation Alternatives, a bicycling and pedestrian advocacy group, said that people should have a chance to relax and exercise away from the annoyance, danger, and pollution of car traffic. "There are precious few spaces in New York City that you could call green spaces or parks. And the two biggest ones have car traffic." Alvin Berk, the chair of Community Board 14, sees it differently. He said in the Daily News that he opposes closing the park to cars, fearing it would clog the streets around the park with traffic.

Natural Areas

The conflict over a proposal to build an asphalt multi-use path through Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge illustrates another way that different interests collide in the parks. With so few natural areas remaining in the city, conservationists are increasingly protective of what little remains. At the same time, the demand for recreational use in these areas is growing.

The wildlife refuge is within an larger area devoted to outdoor recreation, the National Recreation Area, which is managed by the National Park Service. The proposed path, part of a 20-mile "greenway" circling Jamaica Bay, has put conservation groups at odds with biking and greenways organizations with which they might otherwise be allied. "There are hundreds of miles of jogging and rollerblading and cycling paths in the city of New York - you only have one wildlife refuge," said Al Ott, co-founder of the Save our Sanctuary Committee, in a June 2000 article in the Environment News Series.

The path would go through a roughly 120-foot-wide buffer zone between Cross Bay Boulevard and tidal wetlands. It is a strip of brushy vegetation that supports some 30 species of birds and a large population of diamondback terrapin turtles, according to Todd Fiorentino, Executive Director of the New York City Audubon Society. The National Park Service is believed to be close to approving the plan. Conservation groups may take legal action. "We are not against ball fields and bike riding," said Fiorentino, who prefers proposals that would widen and improve an existing bike path along the boulevard. "I refuse to be polarized about the issue - I just want to protect wildlife."

On Staten Island, the quarrel is over ball fields. A local environmental group called Protectors of Pine Oak Woods has been fighting to prevent the city from building soccer and baseball fields in eastern Bloomingdale Park, a forested natural area. Recreation groups are clamoring for more fields for youth sports in rapidly developing south Staten Island. Protectors and other conservation groups say that the site contains wetlands and provides important habitat for forest birds and other wildlife, and that there are several less environmentally sensitive sites where ball fields would cost far less to develop.

Dave Lutz, who is also the program director of Friends of Gateway, sees the defenders of the natural areas as another group of park "possessors" who, in their zeal to protect wildlife, want to keep people out. He believes that greater use of these areas would create a larger constituency for natural areas in the city.

Of the 28,000 acres of city parkland, well over 10,000 acres are natural, according to Marc Matsil, chief of the parks department Natural Resources Group. Commissioner Stern recently declared 7,500 acres as "Forever Wild" lands, with the aim of protecting and preserving them in their natural states. Many of the city's wilder areas are fragments embedded in the concrete urban landscape. But according to Matsil, they support "one of the most diverse biotic inventories on the Eastern seaboard," some 350 species.

There are interests at stake aside from those of ball players, bicyclists and bird watchers. Natural areas, and especially wetlands, also have economic benefits for the neighborhoods that surround them, like absorbing stormwater and preventing flooding. Matsil noted that all of the "ground zero" sites for the mosquitoes that carry the West Nile virus are "coincidentally" filled-in wetlands.

In any case, nature has a way of winning battles over turf. Playing fields built on a floodplain or a wetland do not last long. The city has had to decommission a number of ball fields built in wet areas, including one in Flushing Meadows where there was a muskrat lodge on third base.

Privatizing the Parks

As if the incompatibility between public uses of the parks were not enough, the parks are being increasingly reserved for private uses as well. With more pressure from the city to get revenue from the parks, the department has expanded the number of concessions, and allowed more private events to be staged in the parks for a fee.

Golf courses concessions take up a surprisingly large area of parkland -- there are 18 courses and driving ranges in all five boroughs. A new luxury golf course is being built by a private developer at Ferry Point Park, a former municipal landfill in the Bronx. Several years ago, over community opposition, the city leased out half of the neglected Dreier Offerman Park north of Coney Island to a company that planned to build a driving range, miniature golf course, rollerblading rink, and batting cages, although financial troubles ended that project, at least temporarily.

Dreier Offerman, twice the size of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, was originally purchased in 1962 with state bond act money to create a green oasis in a bleak section of southwest Brooklyn. But the land was left unimproved, except for baseball and soccer fields that are maintained by the groups that use them.

Many question whether golf courses used by relatively few people is the best use of parkland, especially in neighborhoods like those near Ferry Point and Dreier Hofferman where green space is particularly scarce. They also believe that turning over public land to companies that charge fees goes against the purpose of a public park.

Yet others see it as a good solution, given the reality of park budgets. They say it is better to turn over the land to private companies to develop and maintain, rather than leaving the space unused, vulnerable to dumping and other nuisances.

Using parks for private events has also become a sore point among park users, particularly those who frequent the very successful redesigned Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan. Last year, the park's center lawn was sublet for events during much of the fall and holiday season, including a fashion show and month-long circus run. In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times last year, Fred Kent, President of the Project for Public Spaces, wrote, "The whole point of the redesign plan -- which we helped conceive with our mentor, the late William H. Whyte, in 1981 -- was to invite the public in and provide activities everyone could enjoy."


Many of the park conflicts exist because so many parks are better than they have been in decades. People know the importance of parks in their lives and are possessive of the places they go for recreation, socializing, bird watching, walking dogs, or just quiet enjoyment of nature. Is there hope for an end to the turf wars? New Yorkers are contentious in the best of circumstances. Perhaps it is the result of living in close quarters -- in which case a little more breathing room might lead to greater civility. Park users might be willing to declare a truce if the city had more open space -- and the funding to take care of it.