An Interview with New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe

New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe talks about his department’s role in PlaNYC, new facilities and park maintenance and addresses an NAC article that questions whether the Department is relying too heavily on private entities and volunteers.

New York City’s Central Park. Henrik Jagels

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During his tenure, New York City Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe he has seen both a major financial expansion and contraction, but has managed to launch many new efforts to expand and improve parks, many under the PlaNYC program spearheaded by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Benepe was appointed by Bloomberg in 2002 after serving in a number of different roles at Parks & Recreation, including as a Central Park ranger, Director of Natural Resources & Horticulture, Director of Art & Antiquities and Director of the Annual Fund & Major Gifts for the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. His department now oversees the operation of about 29,000 acres and nearly 5,000 properties.

The summer 2010 issue of Next American City featured an article by Patrick Arden called “The High Cost of Free Parks,” which posed the question of whether public-private partnerships exploit parks, and whether the Department is overdependent on volunteers, creating a two-tiered parks system. Here, Commissioner Benepe addresses these concerns, and talks about the ongoing efforts of the Department to green streets, engage citizens in exercise and activity and create high-quality parks for all people.

How does the Parks Department fits into PlaNYC and Mayor Bloomberg’s goals for sustainability?

The Parks Department is one of the linchpins of PlaNYC. Many of the early-action aspects of PlaNYC were in parks, so we got out of the gate faster for good reason. For example, there’s the million trees projects, in which we’re 13 percent ahead of schedule – at last count [in early November] we had planted 402,000 in three years against a goal of one million in ten years. We’re in progress on every goal for PlaNYC, including that of having a park or playground within 10 minutes’ walk of every New Yorker. The most important aspect of this was the schoolyards to playgrounds initiative, and so far we’ve transformed 165 part-time schoolyards into full-time playgrounds. There’s been a 16.5 percent increase in number of official playgrounds overall.

The other big aspect is the creation or enhancement of major regional parks in eight neighborhoods across the city. In some cases they’re not parks but facilities: Those include the renovation of the McCarren Park pool in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and the new construction of an indoor track and field facility in Staten Island. The other six are more conventional regional park projects, in that they tend to be the development of previously undeveloped parks. In the 40s and 50s the Department obtained large tracts of land that weren’t ever given the money necessary to develop. In some cases they naturalized, which was pretty great. PlaNYC gives us the opportunity to take some of them and develop them, in areas including South Brooklyn, Rockaway Park in Far Rockaway, Highland Park in Queens and Fort Washington Park. Most of these parks are in poor and working-class neighborhoods. They were not necessarily underserved in the amount of parkland, but they were in terms of the in the development of recreational facilities. That was also where we focused our tree-planting efforts. We’ve filled up some of those neighborhoods with street trees: We’ve maxed out in Far Rockaway and we’re busy filling up East Harlem and a few neighborhoods in the South Bronx. We’re averaging 18,000 to 20,000 street trees a year.

Please tell me about the “recreation” side of Parks & Recreation. Mayor Bloomberg is known for making the health of city residents a priority – how does this inform the work of your department?

What we do best is create facilities where programs get run by other groups after we create the facilities. Mostly it’s Little League, youth soccer, public school athletic leagues, and so on. The vast majority of sports and fitness is provided by volunteer organizations, and the city has created really good facilities. With the advent of hundreds of miles of safe bike paths, suddenly people are biking because it’s safe. Wherever the DOT’s paths connect with parks we try to create seamless connections. Another aspect of plaNYC was converting large asphalt yards into synthetic turf fields — in 40s and 50s, in the Moses era, the Department built these multi-purpose play areas which were basically big sheets of asphalt. In these intensively used areas, grass would never last more than a season. So thanks to technology we can now put turf in instead of asphalt – which uses few resources, no chemicals, and all the things that a so-called natural grass lawn requires. So we’re converting just through PlaNYC 25 large asphalt yards into synthetic turf fields. If you build it, they will come, and a demonstration of this, which predates PlaNYC, is that up in Harlem, near 125th street there was an old asphalt lot next to a school lot that was never used. It went to synthetic turf and is now being used all the time. What I see there now is youth soccer being run by Latino people – so there was no soccer program there, and now there’s a really nice soccer program. That’s a real vindication for the wisdom and the expense. It’s not cheap; each field costs $1.5 to $2 million dollars. But once they’re built the maintenance is very inexpensive.

In the earlier years of your tenure you had an increasing budget, which led to what many called a “boom” in park development. How have you dealt with the cuts that have followed the recession?

Our expense budget has gone down. From 2000 to 2006 or so our expense budget more or less doubled, from about $200 million to about $380 million. Our capital budget has been very healthy. Since Bloomberg took office we’ve spent $3 billion in the capital budget – and we now have a billion and a half in our budget. So we have somewhere around $4.5 billion in capital budget, which had one 30 percent cut. But the budget hasn’t really been cut – the tremendous rate of expansion of the budget has slowed. No city is spending what we’re spending on parks. Capital dollars are funded through bond issues – so they can’t be spent on maintenance, but you can use it to build new parks or rebuild old parks. If you rebuild an old park, chances are it’s going to last a long time. We use sturdy materials. For example you can put in new bench slats, the plastic ones that will last forever. The idea that building new parks is antithetical to well-maintained parks is not true – it’s the opposite. People tend to treat a good-looking a little bit better.

Do you think the Parks department strikes a good balance in terms of its partnerships with nonprofits, private entities and volunteers in the care and management of its parks? Under what circumstances (and in which areas) do these arrangements work best? Is there room for improvement in how these arrangements work?

Like a lot of other cities we have a fiscal problem, so we’re not expanding our full-time staff, but so far we haven’t laid anyone off. We still have a much larger workforce than we did 15-20 years ago. The effects of the three years of fiscal distress are not showing in the parks. In fact our park conditions as monitored through our park inspection program are showing that our parks are doing slightly better this year than they were last year. Even though we’ve lost a few hundred people from attrition, it’s not showing. That may be because of public-private partnerships and volunteers. The main thing I’d like to say about that is that the bogeyman of public-private partnerships is that they’re taking over the world. First of all, there are fewer than 10 significant partnerships in 5,000 park properties. So there’s the Central Park, where the Central Park conservancy runs the park through a longstanding agreement and raises $25 million a year. In Prospect Park they raise maybe $7 million a year, and there’s a few others, such as Madison Square Park, the High Line and Battery Park that have these partnerships. Bryant Park is in a Business Improvement District so they get money from property owners and they keep money from events and food sales. So out of out of 5,000 parks maybe half a dozen have a major public-private partnerships, and we have about 800 relationships with volunteer groups that do things such as organize episodic cleanups, keep an eye on playgrounds, and maybe paint the benches and such. But the misimpression that private sector is taking over public parks and has pushed everybody out is a fiction. The central fiction is that this is a tale of two cities that this is a tale of two cities – that there is a handful of rich-people parks and a lot of poor people parks.

So perhaps the problem is that people look at Central Park and think that this is a Parks Department-run park and wonder why all parks don’t look like it. How would you define your responsibility to parks that are really troubled? For example, the Report Card on Parks Project by New Yorkers for Parks report lists a number of parks receiving low and “F” grades.

If you look at our park inspection program, the average park is in good shape, and the average park is in better than the other parks in other cities.

But what about these “F” parks?

First of all I disagree with their methodology – these inspections are episodic. We have a much more sophisticated way of rating our parks. Our rating system, which has stood up to several audits, is much more sophisticated. Largely speaking, four out of every five parks are in very good shape. Sometimes you have conditions that need some work. We are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on parks all across the city to fix them up. If you go to parks and playgrounds throughout the Bronx, there are spectacular parks. The fact is that there are a few parks that still need a lot of work, and a few parks that were acquired in an unthinking way. So if you have a park underneath a highway between two exit ramps. It will never be a great park just because of where it is. You can’t get rid of a park once you have them, so we have a small handful of parks that are inhospitable. We’ll keep investing in them and making them as nice as possible. But somebody ripped a freeway through them, they’ll never be great. But the point is, every neighborhood deserves good parks, and every neighborhood has good parks. We have one standard for parks across the city and we apply it rigorously. The condition of parks is not necessarily a reflection of staffing and money put into it – because if you say that, then the borough with the fewest staff and most parkland should have the worst parks. Staten Island has the fewest staff and the most parkland, but they have the highest ratings. So it’s not a question of resources – it’s often a question of how heavily used the park is. Do people come in seven days a week and leave a lot of litter, so when the inspector comes in on a Tuesday there may be litter in that park compared to a park that’s used once a week?

Do you have a system of prioritization for intervention in parks?

Absolutely. Each borough has a borough commissioner, and they meet every two weeks to go over the most recent round of public inspections, in which 250 park sites get inspected every two weeks by a central inspection team, which carries handheld computers and cameras that instantly document conditions with computers. When something is instantly dangerous it gets fixed right away. We have a very sophisticated inspection program, which we now sell to other municipalities. We’ve been perfecting this since the 1980s – it’s similar to what the police department does with CompStat. It features a rigorous use of statistics and inspections to hold people and supervisors accountable for the condition of parks. And then all of the results are posted online – so you can see how your park did. Why did it fail? Maybe some idiot broke a bottle in the middle of the night and our crews didn’t get there fast enough.

Why would you say that public-private partnerships are a good idea for the parks department?

I guess you could ask, why are so many other cities coming to New York City to study public-private partnerships and trying to imitate them in their cities? The big secret of PPPs – which some people who are against them or don’t understand them argue is that it’s not all about the money that people may raise — which is great. The fact that private citizens will dig into their own pockets and donate $90 million a year for public parks is terrific. There’s a long tradition of new Yorkers helping public and semi-public entities, and since 1980 that has applied to public private parks as well. The idea that government should do everything on its own with a virtual monopoly on how to care for parks and how to program them is an antiquated notion. The city was doing everything on its own in the 1970s, and the result was some of the very worst parks in the world. The city’s parks descended into an abyss that it looked like we could never recover from. Part of the recovery was spurred by citizens saying to government, “We’ve got to help you find a better way to do this.” The great virtue of private citizens getting involved is that it breaks the government monopoly.

Right now we have a mayor who loves parks. Mike Bloomberg and his senior cabinet believe that parks are linchpins of healthy neighborhoods. But mayors come and go, and unfortunately there have been mayors who don’t care about parks. Their other priorities are fine; you can’t argue with providing housing, emergency medical care, police, fire protection – these are all important things but unfortunately in precious administrations parks would be the first thing cut and the last funded. But if you have tens of thousands of volunteers and citizens and donors engaged in parks, as volunteers of donors they’re not going to let the next mayor abandon the parks, because they’re personally engaged in the life of parks. That’s the great virtue of public-private partnerships. The myth is that the parks are being privatized by some evil corporate entities. But the reality is that the parks are being made more public by the active participation of public citizens in the lives of parks.

That’s why people come from all over the world to study what we’re doing here. What we tell them is that there’s no one model that works. Public-private partnerships are not a panacea – they work in just a handful of circumstances. Engaging volunteers works in almost every circumstance, but they can’t do everything – the city is, was and will always be the major provider, but in a handful of cases where private sector can step in and citizens can step in, the great thing about that is that it frees up the city money to be spent elsewhere. If the city were paying for central park, that would be $25 million for the city, but instead it can go to parks that don’t have donors. We need to disabuse the myth that public-private partnerships are only helping so-called wealthy parks. It’s simply not true. They are creating great parks that everybody gets to use, and freeing up resources to be spent on parks that don’t have private assets coming in.

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Tags: new york cityurban planningparksbuilt environment

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