When Will de Blasio See the Light on Parks?

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Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Like every successful New York hangout, Brooklyn Bridge Park is jammed. Long before it’s finished, before the wavy meadows open on Pier 6 later this summer or Bjarke Ingels’s swooping lookout is built, before a hilly upland stretch has even been contoured and before towers rise on its edge, the park has already started to shape childhood memories. Though the young greenery still has that fragile, uncertain look, every basketball court is in use, every lawn dotted with people irradiating their semi-naked bodies. 

This luxuriant chip of land at the edge of Brooklyn clearly draws its public from well beyond its fringe of affluent streets. The borough’s various ethnic and religious populations seem to have worked out a tacit time-share deal. One midweek afternoon, kids teemed like minnows in the water park and avoided the scalding slides, while their minders, some in chadors, others in sheitels, huddled in the scarce shade. The picnic tables were full, the coastline hazed in the smoke from grilling meat.

All that indolence is hard-won. The process of turning 85 acres of flat, filthy coast into greenswards has been combative and long, and it’s not over. Michael Van Valkenburgh, the Frederick Law Olmsted of Brooklyn Bridge Park, has done wonders with a chopped-up strip of land, but the compromises show. The looping paths are short; the noise-blocking mound that screens off the BQE had to be scooted toward the water. Worst of all, the park shares the shore with several big, clunky buildings that justify themselves by funding its upkeep. The final additions to the waterfront skyline will be a pair of dull towers by ODA that too obviously recycle the area’s industrial muscle. Visible across the harbor, they demand more enterprising designs. But architecture would not mollify the neighbors who condemn what they see as the unholy marriage of real-estate interests and the public realm. That dissent has created the absurd situation of residents’ battling a park that has improved their lives and raised the value of their homes.

Brooklyn Bridge Park is a splendid straggler in the legacy of Michael Bloomberg, one that Bill de Blasio has shown little interest in. Bloomberg added another 830 acres — nearly a whole Central Park’s worth — of new greenery to the city, some in tourist destinations like the High Line, but also in areas like Hunters Point South, and in less celebrated packets like Concrete Plant Park along the Bronx River. De Blasio, on the other hand, thinks small. In the latest round of budget haggles, advocates persuaded the City Council to restore $8.7 million to avoid laying off gardeners and maintenance workers — a minuscule victory. Mark Levine, who chairs the council’s parks committee, calculates that the mayor plans to spend $350 million a year on capital projects, compared with $450 million a year under Bloomberg. The Community Parks Initiative it launched last year sluices $130 million into 35 neglected parks, which is a fine thing — but to trumpet it as a major achievement only underlines the mayor’s odd modesty in this area. His commissioner, Mitchell Silver, must spend his days doing the administrative equivalent of mending his one good suit.

This is crazy. It’s hard to imagine a more obvious progressive cause than parks. Their only purposes are leisure and beauty, freely dispensed. Could there be a better antidote to the relentless pursuit of money, a purer assertion of democratic ideals, than a fabulously valuable square foot of soil given over to growing grass?

What is urban nature for? The answer to this question has both philosophical and economic implications, as Olmsted understood. Living in cities, he said in 1880, can produce such vague but disabling forms of malaise as “ ‘vital exhaustion,’ ‘nervous irritation’ and ‘constitutional depression’ … excessive materialism, [leading] to loss of faith and lowness of spirit, by which life is made, to some, questionably worth the living.” Parks, he proposed, could help mitigate desperation, could make New Yorkers less neurotic. (Ever the practical man, he didn’t stop there: Improving citizens’ mental health was just a means to fiscal well-being, improving cities’ “wealth-producing and tax-bearing capacity” too.) Shabby and unsafe parks undo Olmsted’s virtues: They increase anxiety and infect neighborhoods with the spirit of abandonment.

Living with Bloomberg’s legacy of parks is a bit like inheriting a drafty castle: very nice, but who pays for the upkeep? Bloomberg’s answer was that the deluxe Edens like Brooklyn Bridge Park could finance themselves by getting in bed — excuse me, partnering — with developers and courting philanthropy; less glamorous parks would rely on the city. The trouble is that the wealthy won’t readily fund drainage work and rat control in places they never visit. The gritty stuff of maintenance is a job that for the most part the city has to handle on its own. It can’t be outsourced, and its costs can’t be traded for naming rights. But it is crucial. Here, too, Olmsted had wisdom to offer. Healthy trees last for decades, well-planned green space almost never gets reabsorbed into the weave of streets, and investments in parks pay off over generations. “Makeshift, temporizing, catch-penny work upon them is always extravagant work.”

De Blasio need not sulk that all the sexy projects were taken before he showed up. The city recently reopened High Bridge, an elegant mid-19th-century aqueduct that vaults over the Harlem River between Harlem and the South Bronx, but the 119-acre Highbridge Park below remains a fixable mess, part ravishing wilderness, part diorama of decay. In the Bronx, a nonprofit group called the New York Restoration Project has just floated the Haven Project, a plan to knit the neighborhood’s best qualities together with a network of green spaces. Then there’s the Brooklyn Strand, a plan designed by Claire Weisz of WXY and sponsored by (among others) the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership to link up a set of throwaway public spaces between the waterfront and Borough Hall. Imagine riding your bike over the Brooklyn Bridge and ending up on a landscaped slope rather than in a traffic hellhole, or being able to stroll along a leafy boulevard from Dumbo or the housing projects by the BQE straight to MetroTech and beyond. These are not just environmental sops or do-gooder fantasies; they are varied, imaginative, and practical ways to improve the public realm for all, amplifying assets that the city already has. A wise leader would be trumpeting these projects and, more important, funding them.

Bloomberg’s credo was clear: Plant new parks, leverage private money, and make New York a magnet for visitors, investments, and residents. The de Blasio administration’s approach is … we’ll get back to you. I hope they do. “Bloomberg’s philosophy developed over time,” points out Tupper Thomas, the executive director of the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks. “If you had talked to them a year and a half into the first term, they wouldn’t have had that clarity.” True, but so far, de Blasio is ignoring one of the most cost-effective ways of easing New Yorkers’ lives, irrespective of income. As Thomas points out, painting a bench, clearing some brush, organizing a troupe of volunteer gardeners — these are cheap, immediate measures that can make a park feel less desolate and more like home. “You create a sense that the city cares.”

*This article appears in the July 13, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.