State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Necessity of New York City’s Parks

Every morning since mid-March, my wife Donna and I walk in Morningside Park, and at the end of the workday, we walk in Riverside Park. It’s been said that living and working in lockdown feels a little like the movie Groundhog Day (waking up to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”), and it’s hard sometimes to remember what day it is. But the parks in springtime have been a miracle of change, life and birth; a sharp contrast to the empty streets and constant reports of illness and death. I have lived on Morningside Drive in New York City since 1990, and my apartment overlooks Morningside Park. When we first moved in, I could hear gunshots in the park more than once a week, and the park was known for drugs and crime. By the time my daughters were in high school, a half-decade into the 21st century, the park had turned around and they were able to walk through the park to take the subway at 125th street: one north to Bronx Science, the other south to Beacon High. Until this spring, Morningside Park for me was a place to walk through, not stroll within. Now it is a part of my neighborhood that I treasure more than ever and will forever appreciate.

When lockdown began in mid-March, the trees were still mostly bare, although some were flowering, and colors and life were returning along the park’s paths. Ducks, geese, turtles and cranes provided entertainment in the Morningside pond; and birds, squirrels and even a raccoon provided a distraction to the scores of dogs walking their owners every morning. The park’s staff were hard at work maintaining the place, and people walked masked, making an effort to stay socially distant but somehow still socially engaged. Park walks have long been one of my favorite hobbies, but over the past two months, these walks have become far more important to me. In both Morningside and Riverside parks, I find myself noticing landscape designs, pathways and views that somehow escaped my attention when my mind had many other images to focus on. But as lockdown reaches two months, I find that most of the diversity in the images I see of the two parks I walk in are now pictures I am taking in my mind and sometimes on my iPhone.

Both Morningside and Riverside parks are built by and on bluffs and so they have paths and staircases that bring you to different levels at different elevations. Riverside offers views of the Hudson and the elegant architecture of Riverside Drive, and Morningside provides views of the Church of St. John the Devine, the original St. Luke’s Hospital to the west, and Harlem and the RKF-Triboro bridge to the east. Morningside offers views of sunrise and Riverside, views of sunset. Both are beautiful spaces that remind us of the inexorable rhythm of changing seasons, and the persistence of life even during this season so characterized by the fear and for some, the reality of disease and death.

The parks are far from typical these days. The saddest part is that the playgrounds are closed. Children can ride scooters and bikes and play ball with their siblings but can’t romp around with strangers and schoolmates due to fear of contagion. My nearly three-year-old granddaughter in Washington Heights misses the playgrounds but seems to have found some other distractions to play with. A recent photo showed her holding what I was told she called “a beautiful stick.” Ever since I received that photo, I’ve been noticing all the branches on the ground after recent storms. The dog parks and picnic areas are also closed as are any amenities that might attract crowds. It all makes sense but only serves to remind me of the essential nature of these park features.  Even with some valued park facilities closed, the open space and nature the parks provide reinforce for me how critical these public spaces are for those of us who live in apartments. We’ve been recognizing healthcare workers and other front-line workers during the pandemic; I want to add my voice in appreciation and recognition of the Parks Department workers who are keeping our parks safe and clean during this pandemic.

In some parts of the city, density and cultural norms have made social distance difficult to maintain in the parks. Last weekend the City had to limit some access to a few parks. I hope that as the weather gets warmer, people remember to be careful to remain masked and distant. If the parks become a source of contagion, and we are not allowed to walk through them, New York will become a grim and sad place. Today, New York is strange, but not grim. Our worlds have gotten smaller and while we are not in the world we wish for, it is the one we have. The diversity, energy and intensity that are New York’s defining characteristics have taken a vacation. But while the city may have changed, its people remain the same. The pandemic will long be remembered and will have its long-term impact. But New York’s resiliency does not come from its built environment, but from its people. All of us, in our own way, are seeking purpose and connection in a world that can sometimes seem purposeless and disconnected.

Which brings me back to the parks. All of our public gathering places — restaurants, bars, museums, galleries, stores and theaters — are closed. The parade of people we normally see on the streets and subways are all in hiding. But the parks remain available to us for walking, jogging, biking, and simply sitting. According to the department’s web site:

“ NYC Parks is the steward of more than 30,000 acres of land — 14 percent of New York City — including more than 5,000 individual properties ranging from Coney Island Beach and Central Park to community gardens  and Greenstreets… We care for 1,200 monuments and 23 historic house museums. We look after 600,000 street trees, and two million more in parks.”

I have long considered parks and open space to be an essential piece of urban infrastructure. During good times, the parks are a democratizing feature of New York life. There is no rope line to view the ducks in Morningside Park’s pond. During times like this, the parks are the city’s respiratory system and place of release and relief. You can exhale and view nature as it was before COVID-19 and as it will be after 2020 is a distant memory. When budget time rolls around and the shut-down economy has eliminated critical revenues, the elected officials who control our budget would be wise to see the parks as the necessity they are, not the luxury some think them to be. The Parks Department budget is less than $500 million in a city budget that is over $90 billion a year. During the city’s financial meltdown in the 1970s, the parks budget was starved, and it took decades to rebuild the system to its current state. Let’s not make that mistake twice within a half-century. As bad as this disease is, the problem of sea-level rise, combined sewage overflow, air pollution, environmental injustice and the urban heat island effect are not going away. A functioning park system helps address a wide variety of sustainability and social problems. The multiplier effect of each dollar spent on parks should be analyzed and understood before cutting this critical city function.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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