The Changing Nature of Parks — Interview with Adrian Benepe
December 19, 2016
JTG: Your work at the Trust for Public Land really takes you across the United States. What are some of the inspiring actions you’ve come across that may not get as much media attention as the High Line and other high-profile park projects?
AB: What I’m seeing is a lot of community-based, small-scale, often even pop-up, interventions. Particularly in crowded cities where real estate acquisition costs are high. Maximizing the use of public spaces by creating multiple benefit public spaces.
In many cities, you’re seeing people converting part-time schoolyards into fulltime community playgrounds. And that’s particularly important in cities that are very densely developed, where you don’t have any more open land to develop into parks. In the conventional model, schoolyards were only used by students during the school day and were locked up in the afternoons, weekends, and holidays. In the new model—something the Trust for Public Land has been doing in a number of cities—you upgrade the schoolyard with the proviso that it must be open to the public anytime it’s not used by the school. So that gives you a very quick and inexpensive ability to create more and better public space.
The other thing you’re seeing is the adapted reuse of marginal lands, of brownfields, former factories, abandoned rail lines, abandoned piers. That’s something that’s common across America. And, in fact, as you know, is common in Canada as well.
JTG: One of the things that we’re doing at Park People is building a national city parks network across the country, that connects community members, city staff, non-profits, and other organizations working in the public realm. The Trust for Public Land acts a little bit like a hub of a US city parks network. What do you think is important about creating a network of park enthusiasts across a country?
AB: We are not that [hub] by ourselves. We’re working with the City Parks Alliance, which is a fulltime urban park advocacy group in the United States, and with the National Recreation and Park Association, which is the business affinity group of park professionals. And with the Urban Land Institute, which works with decision-makers, land owners, and developers who care about public space.
We’re engaged in two areas right now. One is developing something called Park Central, which would be a virtual online community of information about parks, park funding, park management structures, financial measures. That’s part of our overall plan to provide information that allows people to help themselves, whether they’re in government or non-profit, citizens, elected officials. We’re working to develop this Park Central portal with the City Parks Alliance and the NRPA.
We have another partnership with ULI and NRPA, running a 10-minute walk campaign. It’s a grass tops campaign that gets mayors and civic leaders to endorse the concept of making sure that every American living in a city has access to parks within a 10-minute walk of their home.
What we’re finding is a really strong response in cities that mayors are making this part of their agenda along with other vital city services and seeing how important parks are. The one thing we’ve been able to do is convey to mayors the multiple benefits that parks engender. Obviously the public health benefits, environmental benefits, the ecosystem services, the increase in property values, community cohesion, and finally, the intangible that people really need in their lives, which is places for beauty and relaxation.
JTG: I know the Trust for Public Land puts out a lot of really interesting research on subjects like you just mentioned, around the state of parks across the country, the economic value of parks, and their social and health impacts. What’s the importance of putting out this research at a national scale?
AB: If you don’t understand the multiple benefits that parks convey, you can sort of put them at the end of the line of city services. But once you start to understand that you can monetize those values, and show the savings in storm water capture, and show the improvement in health, the reduction in use of air conditioners if you can plant lots of trees and cool the air—once you can gather the data and share them, decision-makers and leaders are much more likely to put funding into parks.
The perfect example is that prior to my coming to the Trust for Public Land [when Benepe was the New York City Parks Commissioner], we used a forest service study to show that for every dollar invested in a street tree in New York City there was a five dollar return in terms of environmental and other benefits. And that was the convincing factor that allowed Mayor Bloomberg to fund the Million Trees project.
JTG: There’s a lot of talk right now about the future of cities. I keep reading articles about smart cities and how driverless cars are going to change things. And how we’re going to have embedded sensors measuring everything. What do you see as the emerging future of city parks?
AB: The elusive holy grail for park managers and advocates, is something I’ve been obsessed with for quite a while. When I was running the New York City parks system, I always wanted to know on a given beautiful day in June how many people were out in the parks and on the beaches and swimming pools. We could only get accurate numbers in places where we were forced to count, where you could monitor access like swimming pools. And then every once in a while people would have a very expensive study done like in Central Park where they figured out there’s about 42 million annual visitors a year.
But for the rest, there’s simply no way of counting people. Now there’s a very simple technology that we’re anxious to try out. Pretty much everyone has some kind of smartphone in their pocket sending out a signal. The technology is right there for the taking to figure out how many people are in the parks on a given day. Where are the busy entrances and where are the busy places? That’s enormously important, because if you’re a park advocate and you can say to a mayor: did you know that last Sunday two million of your eight million residents were out enjoying your parks. That’s pretty powerful. Because nothing is more important to elected officials than votes and voters.
JTG: It kind of reminds me of what we have now when we’re looking up directions on Google and we can see which roads are congested, based on information google has from people’s cell phones.
AB: That’s exactly right. So if we can gather it on the roads we can certainly gather it for parks. And you know, some people say what about privacy issues? Those same privacy issues apply to the cars. It can all be done anonymously. It’s tremendously important. I will give a big award to the telephone or technology company that does a pilot project on this.
JTG: Alright well we’ll see if this throwing down the gauntlet leads to any action on that.
AB: Maybe Canada will do it first.
top photo by Seth Sherman
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.