Improve Your Parks (Part II): A Panel Discussion

by Heather Van De Mark on

Last week, I attended Partnership for Parks’ meeting, How Can I Improve My Park? It was a fantastic panel discussion between city officials and active community volunteers on how people can improve their parks. It was also the launch event for The Center for Urban Pedagogy’s (CUP) newest publication, How Can I Improve My Park?, which I shared in yesterday’s post Improve Your Parks (Part I): An Illustrated Guide.)

On to the panel discussion… The panel was moderated by Allison Tocci, President of the City Parks Foundation. The panelists were:

  • Councilman Mark Levine – Levine is Chair of the Committee on Parks and Recreation in NYC Council, and is the councilman for District 7 in Manhattan.
  • First Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh – Kavanagh oversees efforts to improve the quality and increase the number of well-maintained greenspaces in public parks for the NYC Parks and Recreation Department.
  • Fay D. Hill – Hill is the President of the Friends of Springfield Park group in Queens. The group works to achieve a clean, safe and environmental surrounding for their community.
  • Brad Taylor – Taylor is the President of the Friends of Morningside Park group in Northern Manhattan. Morningside Park blends dramatic landscaping with the pleasures of a community park.

Below is a recap of the discussion. Questions and responses are summarized and shouldn’t be taken as direct quotes unless quoted.

Question: What do you recommend people do about litter?

Kavanagh: Litter’s a pervasive problem that can be hard to keep up with. There are a few things people can do: 1. Call 311. The system works and by calling and logging an issue, 311 can provide the Parks Dept. with information/data to manage the system and to decide what problem areas to focus on; 2. Pick up the litter yourself. A few minutes can make a huge difference; and 3. Talk to the people littering, they’re usually doing so out of carelessness. Give them a friendly reminder that the park is everybody’s and everyone has a stake in it.

Hill: We had a huge dog poop issue in Springfield Park. We actually worked with Partnership for Parks and ended up getting four doggie bag dispensers installed. It’s made a big difference.

Question: Who should a resident talk to about park renovations/capital projects?

Kavanagh: Speak to your Partnership for Parks Outreach Coordinator, who can connect you to the Parks system. [Note: In Brooklyn’s CB1 the Outreach Coordinator is Emily Sherrod: 718-965-8907 or] And remember, it takes time to renovate a park.

Question: How can a resident work with government to raise money?

Levine: Residents should make the case for parks, and speak with their community board, elected officials, local political clubs. In a city with finite resources, getting government money for park projects is a battle. But there’s a great case to be made for improving parks–parks impact public/physical health, improve public safety, build communities and aid in sustainability/resiliency efforts.

Taylor: Residents need to make partners. It’s about bringing consensus to get things done. The community group, Parks department, and the community board all need to be on the same page. And individuals need a lot of perseverance!

Question: How did you get started in improving your park?

Hill: We actually got resistance from other community residents, but we planted flower beds anyway, and slowly started changing people’s minds. I also was always “attacking” my local officials for funds. We also held a family day for outreach, went to the schools to get kids to volunteer, asked local merchants for donations, did letter writing campaigns and worked with our Outreach Coordinator regularly.

Taylor: The “Friends of” group should always be representative of the neighborhood, you want diverse views. Avoid in-fighting as much as possible.

Question: What’s the benefit for the government of working with community coalitions/Friends of groups?

Kavanagh: The benefit to us is that it keeps us directly connected to the community. Communities often experience demographic shifts or activities popularize and decline, and community organizations keep us in touch with that, so we can maintain and build the parks accordingly.

Levine: You have to be assertive for your park and your cause. [He goes on to talk about operating funds, discretionary funds but unfortunately I didn’t catch it.]

Kavanagh: Residents should get involved in their parks. Officials are going to look to their constituents interests to determine how to spend funds.

Levine: And leave your comfort zone. Talk about the park at your PTA meetings, with the environmental committee of your community board, with your local police precinct. Parks are integral to the fabric of the neighborhood.

Question: How can community members help projects move forward when delays occur?

Kavanagh: Unforeseen conditions happen that cause delays, such as having to clean-up a site before building on it. We need better internal activity–more limits and deadlines for projects, additional staff for dispersing funds and moving projects along.

Levine: The City Council is focused on moving these improvements through faster. We’re planning on implementing an online tracking system to track the progress of capital projects to improve accountability and transparency.

Question: Discuss park safety and your experiences and concerns.

Hill: We’re very concerned about safety. We’ve added cameras and requested more patrol. Even though the park closes at night, people still come in and damage the park. [Faye told a story about how they once planted several trees and shrubs near the lake in the park only to arrive the next day and find that many were stolen or thrown in to the lake. “It was devastating.”] As parks improve though, people use the park and that improves safety.

Taylor: We have meetings every months with NYPD and we have cameras. We’ve come along way since the park was known as “Murder-side” park.

Question: Can residents plant in the parks?

Kavanagh: Yes. Not every place, but we do encourage landscaping. Residents can learn what to plant, where, and even get materials from the Borough Horticultural Manager who oversees landscaping in each of the boroughs.

Question: What does a person do if their elected officials/community board isn’t as passionate about parks?

Levine: You’ll have to change their mind. Organize, mobilize. Don’t let them ignore the issue. And elected officials don’t want to be the last on-board to an important community issue. Work with those who do want to help, even if it takes convincing, and others will likely join. Reach out to your councilman, borough president, state senator and congressman.

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The How Can I Improve My Park event was hosted by Partnership for Parks, a joint program of City Parks Foundation & NYC Parks. P4P helps New Yorkers work together to make neighborhood parks thrive.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll be providing contact information for parks-related representatives/friends of groups in North Brooklyn.

Heather Van De Mark

Heather Van De Mark

Heather is a designer/writer specializing in non-profit organizations and social causes. Originally from central NY, Heather settled into the charming Greenpoint neighborhood in 2011. While most of her community activism takes place from behind a computer screen, Heather can often be found at CB1 meetings, the McCarren Park track and any of the parks along the waterfront.