State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


A New Park Rises From an Old Garbage Dump: Parks as Critical Elements of Urban Infrastructure

Yesterday was a historic day for parks in New York City. While most tourists do not get to see much of Staten Island beyond the ferry terminal, a new urban park is taking shape in that borough on the site of the city’s last garbage dump (I mean “landfill”). Sunday, May 15th was “Discovery Day” at the Freshkills Park. According to the website of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, people were invited to:

“Discover Freshkills Park and explore 700 acres of the otherwise closed site with free tours and recreation. At 2,200 acres, Freshkills Park is almost three times the size of Central Park and the largest park to be developed in New York City in over 100 years. It also has a significant history as the site of the former Fresh Kills Landfill, which was the largest landfill in the world before closing in 2001. Since then, the landfill has been covered with layers of soil and infrastructure, and the site has become a place for wildlife, recreation, science, education, and art. As the park is built in phases, free tours and events provide early access for learning and exploration opportunities. On Discovery Day, eight miles of trails and paths will offer views of the park’s hills, creeks, and wildlife. A 5K course will be mapped out for runners and walkers.”

While this park will probably never have the glamor of the High Line Park in Manhattan, it will become increasingly important as Staten Island continues to develop and become more densely settled and more like New York City’s other outer boroughs. Like Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx and Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, the Freshkills Park will be the site of large scale, borough and citywide events and day trips. The gradual opening of this park, and the importance of urban parks in general, is a quiet part of making our urbanized world a place more fit for human habitation.

In fact, as the weather starts to warm up here in the northeast, people are emerging from their indoor spaces and spending more of their time enjoying the outdoors. In a world that is increasingly urban, we often overlook the importance of city parks as critical pieces of urban infrastructure. When hard-pressed city officials are balancing the demands of public safety, education, transportation, water, sanitation and homeless services with parks, it is easy to see why parks are often seen as a residual budget category. Nevertheless, day in and day out our urban parks are among the most important, utilized and even loved services of city governments.

In PlaNYC 2030’s original 2007 urban sustainability plan, the Bloomberg administration set a goal that every city resident would live within a ten minute walk of a city park. This was a clear, operational and measurable indication of the importance of parks to urban life. There are a great many different types of urban parks and uses of parks. One use is for recreation- ball fields, tennis and basketball courts, pools, skating rinks, boating and sailing. Another use is ecological. Green space absorbs heat and carbon dioxide, assists in controlling storm water runoff, and can help preserve biodiversity. There is also the visual amenity offered by a park. In many cities, homes with a view of a park are more highly valued than identical homes without a park view.

Parks can also provide a commerce-free zone for families. Most public spaces in America feature commercial venues of one sort or another: amusement parks, shopping malls, professional sports facilities, movie theatres and so on. This adds to the financial pressure on a family. Parks are often free of commerce or if there is a restaurant or ice cream vendor in the park, they do not dominate the environment. A family can bring their own food, sports equipment and games, and folks can relax knowing their wallets aren’t being emptied by the hour.

Parks are also a place where friends and families can gather and where neighbors can informally and casually interact with neighbors. They are also a democratizing feature of urban life. There is no VIP line, charge, or special place for the elite in the typical public park. Rich and poor share the same space and facility. In this sense parks can contribute to social understanding and political stability.

Park design can vary by topography, climate, culture, public demand and capital investment. Demand for new or redesigned park space will relate to the capacities provided by existing parks. Some parks are focused on active recreation, while others are simply quiet places to sit outside. Parks can include spaces for apartment dwellers to garden, run their dogs, or take a nap in the sun. Parks are an essential piece of urban infrastructure that enables high density living without diminishing quality of life. In rural areas people have a great deal of outdoor space that they own. Most of the time there are very few humans in those spaces but they provide an outlet for people to enjoy the natural world. There is little social engagement in these rural open spaces. Rural open spaces are critical resources as well, but they are different than urban parks. In cities most of us depend on public space to enjoy the outdoors.

While most people in cities spend most of their time indoors, parks provide actual and implicit outdoor space. The fact is that if everyone indoors suddenly decided to go to their local park, they would be so crowded that it would serve no purpose. But people visit parks for relatively short periods of time and most people do not visit their local park on any given day. But the experience of the park provides a pleasant memory and the potential access may well be more important than actual park use. This means that a relatively small amount of land can meet the outside space needs of a relatively large amount of people. Skilled landscape design can enable a large number of people to use outdoor park space without being aware of the number of people present. Sound effects from waterfalls can mask the sounds of people. Trees, hills, ponds and other design features as well as public plazas surrounded by wooded areas without recreation facilities can be used to concentrate people but also leave natural areas less trafficked.

In addition to publicly owned and operated parks, we see examples like New York’s Central Park which is owned by the City of New York, but operated by the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy under contract to the City. It is also possible for private developers to build and operate public spaces for public use or to build and operate private spaces for the use of their own customers or residents. In some cities a private developer may be given permission to build more densely than the rules allow, in return for the “community benefit” of open space or a public plaza or facility. In some cities, institutions such as museums, botanical gardens, universities and zoos maintain both restricted spaces and spaces that are typically open to the public for events. Columbia University has a stunning central plaza that is open to the public and is a popular stop for tour buses and tourists. These public-private partnerships can help extend the reach of public spaces.

New York’s Freshkills Park may be a tough sell for those of us who remember the huge landfill that used to be there. But anyone born in the 21st century will not associate that space with garbage, and over the next half century it will become of increasing importance to the development of Staten Island and New York City. New York has a long history of park development with an eye toward the future. When Central Park was designed, the land surrounding it was not yet developed. Imagine Manhattan without Central Park. Imagine the Upper West Side of Manhattan without Riverside Park. Someday people will have a hard time imaging Staten Island without Freshkills Park. And parents will say to their children, “Can you believe that long ago there was a garbage dump underneath this park?” And the kids will ask, “What is a garbage dump?”

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