New York's best investment

When Commissioner Adrian Benepe said he was happy to make some time for The Leisure Review, Jonathan Ives headed for Central Park to
talk to the man in charge of New York City's parks and recreation

Commissioner Adrian Benepe
Adrian Benepe: New York City's commissioner for parks and recreation

Adrian Benepe knows New York. Born upstate, he has lived in New York City since 1959 and now lives with his family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the neighbourhood in which he grew up. He also knows the city’s parks better than most and perhaps better than anyone. His first job as a teenager in the early 1970s was a summer parks placement picking up litter and cleaning locker rooms. In 1979 he joined the city’s parks and recreation department as a member of the first corps of urban park rangers and he spent the next two decades involved in the management and development of the city’s parks and public amenities in a variety of roles. In 2002, almost three decades after his first litter-picking job, he was appointed to the post of New York City commissioner for parks and recreation by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Walking past Grand Central Terminal and north along Fifth Avenue to the commissioner’s office in the Arsenal, the historic building on the edge of Central Park, it is hard to see New York as a particularly green city. Only from up high, perhaps from the public viewing platform on the top of the Rockefeller Centre, does the extent of city’s open space credentials begin to reveal itself. From here the view uptown is dominated by the huge expanse of Central Park as it stretches away from 59th street, dividing the Upper East and Upper West sides to its northern boundary on 110th street in Harlem. The commissioner is pleased to offer a different perspective on the city’s open space.

“In New York City the department of parks and recreation has a vast empire to oversee, bigger than most cities, in terms of actual size and in terms of the scope and diversity of activity,” he said. “This is the result of a lot of history and it builds on two or three great eras of park construction and expansion. There have also been some pretty powerful figures associated with the parks movement. Currently we have almost exactly 29,000 acres of city parkland and there is another 14,000 acres of federal parkland within the five boroughs of New York City, so altogether you have about 40,000 acres of parkland in New York City.”

Add some 350 acres of New York State parkland and 20% of the city is open space. This figure does not include all the open space of the public housing projects, the cemeteries and university campuses but does include 11,000 acres of formal, managed parkland, five major sports stadia (including Shea Stadium, Yankee Stadium and the Billie Jean King tennis centre), 1,000 playgrounds, 53 outdoor swimming pools, 35 recreation centres, 14 miles of public beach and 2.5 million street trees.

“Most people, particularly visitors to Manhattan, would have no idea that it is a number that large,” Benepe said. “Midtown Manhattan is a misrepresentation of the rest of the city. The rest of the city is spread out and quite a bit greener than people have any idea.”

The department’s management plan also reflects its responsibilities as a landlord.

“Through an accident of history we take care of all the city’s monuments and we own 22 historic house museums or collections of historic houses. Also many if not most of the city’s major cultural institutions sit on parklands: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts, all the botanical gardens, all the zoos are technically on parkland. So the operators, which are non-profit organisations, are in effect tenants of the city, running city-owned property. They have non-profit organisations that manage the collections, whether it be wild animals, plants or artworks, but the city is ultimately the landlord who provides significant operating support for these institutions. As a result the parks commissioner sits on the boards of all these museums and institutions so at last count I’m on something like 63 non-profit boards.” 

By way of background Benepe sketched in the history of the city’s parks, telling the story with the detail of the expert and the finesse of the enthusiast. Until the 1850s New York had only town squares, such as Madison Square, Union Square and Washington Square, in the manner of open space in London and other European cities. The prize in the competition to design Central Park was awarded in April 1858 (the original design drawing of The Greensward Plan devised by parks superintendent Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calver Vaux hangs in the Arsenal) and, noting the debt to Birkenhead Park on Merseyside, the concept transformed the city by creating both a vast open space and a model to be replicated in other parts of the city and elsewhere in the USA.  The Homesteadian Age, the City Beautiful movement and the Playground Movement at the turn of the twentieth century all drove and shaped New York’s open spaces until Robert Moses was appointed parks commissioner in 1934. For the next 26 years Moses ruled the city’s parks, unifying the five boroughs’ parks departments into a city-wide operation, trebling the acreage of parks to around 40,000 acres and expanding amenities for the people of the city. It was the age of permanent recreation facilities, outdoor swimming pools, full-time sports fields and skating rinks.

“The period following Moses was a very bad period for the city and for New York City parks,” Benepe explained. “We went through a prolonged economic and social decline and the parks were in some ways the canary in the coalmine. They deteriorated faster and worse than anything else except perhaps the subway system. The parks system that I knew as a teenager in the 1970s was really a disaster, an urban blight. Central Park itself was disgusting: there were burned-out buildings, the lawns were dustbowls and those that weren’t had weeds three feet high; there was graffiti everywhere. And if Central Park, the city’s flagship park, looked terrible the rest of the system was even worse. The recovery did not begin until the late 1970s and we’ve been in a period of recovery ever since. However, we’ve recovered so strongly that we’ve entered the third great period of park construction and expansion within New York City.”

The commissioner is able to point to 25 years of steady, and recently accelerated, growth in the department’s budget and the quality of the city’s parks and facilities. The rate of expansion and construction is, Benepe suggests, rather dramatic.

“Better fiscal conditions all round was the key,” he said. “In the past when you had to cut city services the first thing that would get cut was the parks department because it was not ‘vital’ – in quotes. I would argue that it is absolutely ‘vital’ to any kind of healthy city life and people believe that now. The second thing that happened, and this is very important, was the involvement of the private sector in the life of the public park, specifically the creation of the Central Park Conservancy as a model for civic involvement. Central Park had sunk to such a low point that leading citizens had to say, ‘If the city government won’t do it we have to step into the breach.’ And they did. It was so bad that there was a proposal at the time to turn Central Park over to the federal government, which fortunately didn’t happen because as it turned out the federal government was not exactly a panacea for urban parks.”

The idea of private citizens helping to care for a public facility was not new – the concept had been applied to museums, the performing arts and hospitals for generations – but the involvement with the management of a park was. With the support of the mayor and the parks commissioner but mostly through her own skill and powers of persuasion, Elizabeth Barlow gathered a board of private citizens and in 1980 established the Central Park Conservancy. The Conservancy began with modest tasks such as refurbishing the visitor centre and getting horticulture students involved in planting but gradually took on bigger projects and a more committed role. Within a few years the Conservancy had created a full management and restoration plan for Central Park and were raising $15m a year in funding. When they signed the first management agreement for the park, the Central Park Conservancy effectively became the managing agent of the park on behalf of the city, continuing to raise funds privately but with a management fee from the city. To date the Conservancy has raised and spent some $400m and have close to 300 full-time staff.

Benepe is pleased to celebrate the work of the Conservancy but emphasises that there are clear lines of responsibility drawn between his department and the Conservancy as its agent. The history of the organisations makes it a comfortable relationship but there is also a very thick legal document that codifies the agreement. The president of the Conservancy reports to the Conservancy board but in his role as parks administrator Benepe reports to the commissioner for parks and recreation.

“The Conservancy can’t dictate policy,” he said. “That’s very important because at the end of the day these are public parks; even if you give $17m you don’t get to call the shots. However, it’s a wonderful thing because it enables me as parks commissioner to take the resources I would normally have to put into Central Park and put it in parks in neighbourhoods that are not wealthy. Some people don’t like the idea of private money going to public parks; they say it’s the rich people getting a nice park. I say it’s the rich people subsidising public parks so I can put the money someplace else. Nothing wrong with that.

“You have this agglomeration of wealth around Central Park that makes it sui generis in its ability to raise that kind of money. Remember this is not a tax: these are voluntary contributions. You now have about a dozen major non-profit groups, each raising in excess of $1m a year and some quite a bit more, for specific parks or for city-wide parks programmes.

“To put that in context, the parks department’s expense budget for maintenance and operations and security is about $380m a year. Our capital budget will probably spend about $700m this year. This doesn’t include any of the below-the-line expenditure like the debt service or the capital bond, pension and benefits for city workers. When you add all that it, we probably spend $1.1bn to $1.2bn annually of the tax-payers’ money.”

Benepe offers Bryant Park as an example of how public-private partnerships have transformed the city’s parks. Situated in Midtown just behind the New York Central Library, it had become another example of the city’s problem with drugs, crime and decay. Local commercial property owners agreed the creation of business improvement district with additional taxes worth $750,000 a year with the result that the business improvement district organisation has transformed the park, generating additional revenue from commercial activities such as events and vending in the park.

“In fact they end up spending between three and four million dollars a year on this eight-acre park, which is a lot of money. On the other hand what you have is this tremendously well maintained park in the middle of the city’s busiest commercial district, which is also its busiest tourist district, so on a good day ten or fifteen thousand people will go through that park. It’s absolutely crucial to the quality of life in Midtown and they do a good job. It’s been turned from a scary needle park into one of the most popular parks in the city with cut flowers in the public toilets.

“But these are public parks open to the public and again we have the final say. The business improvement district does not have the final say. I’m on their board and there are other public officials on the board so it is all done with total transparency with the final decision up to the mayor and the parks commissioner. That’s the key to public-private partnerships: the public interest has to have primacy at all times. There’s give and take but the contract is terminable at will. I could end any one of these contracts tomorrow with no cause. I probably wouldn’t but it defends the public right to these parks. If for some reason a group is not taking care of the public interest the parks commissioner can simply say, ‘You know what? It’s over.’”

While perceptions of the role of parks in the city may have changed, and Benepe is sure that they have, the improvement in the quality of the city’s parks is demonstrable. From its beginnings as a small Central Park inspection team, a team now inspects all parks throughout the city, carrying out eight thousand comprehensive inspections a year. The team inspects parks, beaches and recreation centres to specific criteria based on overall conditions and cleanliness, reporting every two weeks on 250 inspections. Twenty years of data shows a prolonged improvement with figures currently running at about 92% for cleanliness and around 86% for overall condition.

“The average New Yorker will tell you what a sea change there has been in the quality of the parks,” Benepe said. “It’s not just that the parks are nicer and that’s a good thing. I would suggest that the resurrection of the parks system across the board has been an essential part of the attraction of New York as a place to live and a place in which to develop and build and buy an apartment.”

Mention of the importance of parks as tools for economic development was included in Mayor Bloomberg’s recent ‘state of the city’ speech and seemed to confirm a different understanding of the value of parks to the life and well-being of New York as a major city. Commissioner Benepe agreed with this suggestion.

“Absolutely. In terms of the reasons the parks have improved, you’ve got the public-private partnerships, the improved economy, improved investment in the parks over the last two decades and much better management but I think the final factor is that you’ve got an understanding at the highest level of city government that parks are not simply a nice thing to do if you have the money. They are not just an amenity that is at the end of the street: they are crucial tools for economic development. That has never been recognised as specifically and deliberately as it is right now.”

But the mayor also predicted a difficult economic landscape ahead, with serious implications for the City of New York and its finances. Does that give the city’s commissioner for parks and recreation cause for concern?

“Yes it does. Not in this administration but in years past it was always tempting to cut the parks first because of the things that are mandated – the police, fire, sanitation, the many city services that are mandated by law or court decisions. There is no legal mandate for parks. The difference is now that we have a cadre of engaged citizens, leading citizens, who will not allow the parks to go down the way they did in the seventies. We have also developed a much wider spread group of people in something called Partnerships for Parks, where we have deliberately targeted the average neighbourhood of New York and sought to bring people into the lives of their parks through the formation of small organisations tied to the parks. We now have several thousand small parks support groups across the city and about 60,000 people who are part of Partnerships for Parks. We have several dozen staff who do nothing but outreach and training for people to become parks supporters.”

The department has already made plans to pare back its spending on planned new projects but Benepe stresses that these are not being seen as cuts, rather a slowing down, a trimming, of rapid expansion and the building of new parks. The mayor’s Plan NYC project, under which New York City will prepare for a sustainable expansion of its population by one million and retain the attributes of a liveable city, includes new parks and the planting of one million trees among its essential elements. It is here that the engaged citizens play their part.

“The idea is that we don’t ever again go into the deep, dark hole that we went into in the seventies because the citizens wouldn’t allow it,” he said. “The people who have bought homes and apartments because there is a nice park down the street just won’t let that happen. They’ll get angry at their council member. In two years from now a new mayor will be elected, there will be a big turnover on the city council, a new city controller, a new public advocate. Who knows what the political situation will be? There could be a mayor that is really indifferent to parks and that is where you really need an engaged constituency. I presume there will be a new parks commissioner who will have to fight for them or not fight for them. I take great pride in the fact that I was able to convince this mayor and the senior staff at City Hall that parks are a necessity not a luxury and that whatever you spend on building and maintaining a park is really a small fraction of the return you get from people investing in the nearby community.”



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“Parks are a necessity not a luxury and whatever you spend on building and maintaining a park is really a small fraction of the return you get from people investing in the nearby community.”

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Adrian Benepe: "We’ve recovered so strongly that we’ve entered the third great period of park construction and expansion within New York City.


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