An Op-Ed piece on the Mayoral Transition

Laura Starr, Past-President of ASLA-NY, wrote the following essay regarding the upcoming Mayoral Transition and how crucial it is for the new administration to understand the importance of the design and stewardship of our open spaces.

Parks Make the City
It has often been noted that the Bloomberg administration has seen a major expansion of parks and public spaces in New York. Walk the Highline; meander through the new Brooklyn Bridge park; travel along a bikeway and gardens through the Battery and up the West Side; sit in café seating where there used to be street; go to Williamsburg, Hunter’s Point, the Harlem River: one can scarcely avoid encountering new green space. We must not lose this momentum and the structural underpinnings of this progress as we usher in a new administration with different priorities.

Like no mayor before him, Mayor Bloomberg understood how to bring the genius of the cultural capital of the world to bear on its own future. Using regulatory changes, he altered the contract game to favor the best design, not the lowest bid; as a result, we have world-class talent reshaping our city. He mandated that public works be state-of-the-art exemplars of green design. He broke with tradition to hire talented commissioners based on merit rather than patronage, and they in turn broke bureaucratic barriers, making stormwater gardens and bike lanes. In response to Sandy, some of the world’s best minds are channeling a forced adaptation to climate change into a positive aesthetic, economic, and community transformation. The next mayor should continue to enable New York’s brain power to focus on the green challenges of our century.

Green spaces have been called vanity projects by some, but this is a damaging fallacy that rests on a benighted understanding of the relationship of urban design to the economic and physical welfare of our city. The fact is that the green network of parks, plazas, bioswales, bike lanes, and green roofs constitutes infrastructure, with all the economic, social, and public-health implications of that word. Like other infrastructure, the green network creates jobs and raises revenue, directly and indirectly. It fosters the growth of business by creating oases that people want not only to live near but to travel to—to eat, to shop, to decompress. It raises property values by making the city as a whole, as well as specific locales, more desirable. The green network improves the mental and physical health of the citizenry. Trees and parks filter out air pollution, reducing rates of asthma and cancer; people who live near them have lower blood levels of cortisol, linked to many diseases; those who exercise outdoors do so longer and more often than do those who must rely on a gym; walking through a green space improves mental performance on tests. The green network physically protects the city, diverting storm water from the overburdened combined sewer system. Its pleasant spaces will provide barriers against catastrophic storm surges. The green network provides space for social gatherings, summer programs, gardening, sports, and playgrounds, knitting together our communities as surely as does other infrastructure. Increased social cohesion in turn renders the city more resilient in emergencies, as was shown by Eric Klineberg’s famous study of survival rates during the Chicago heat wave of 1995. These functions reinforce each other. The city makes parks, but in the long run parks remake the city.

Our boroughs desperately need green network infrastructure. It is common in city-planning circles to speak of high-performing buildings. We should come to speak of high-performing green spaces as well. Public spaces exist in the all boroughs, but many are so low-performing as to go unnoticed–wasted through want of intelligent design, programming, and policy. Yet the money exists to bring high-performing green spaces to all areas of the city. Fort Tryon Park and Jamaica Bay are not situated in particularly rich zip codes, but public-private partnerships there have created what are in essence mini-Central Park Conservancies, enabling these areas to employ world-class designers and plan to widen the functions of green space. The next mayor can best serve the city by fostering collaborations of interested parties–the city, the educational and cultural establishments, community leaders, developers, transportation planners and environmental authorities–to create high-performing green infrastructure in every borough.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted saw much of this. He created a great park in what was then the “outer borough” of northern Manhattan, and New York flourished around his vision. His first, and still unsurpassed, high-performance green space was the product of a heady collaboration between visionary political leaders and the greatest landscape architect of his century. In our century, too, we have made progress, and it must not stop now: as New York redesigns its shoreline in response to climate change and prepares to absorb a forecast million more residents, we should follow Olmsted’s example, plan intelligently, and lead the world in bringing the benefits of the green network to the people.

Laura Starr is recent past President of the New York Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects and a principal of Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners.