The Value of Doing Nothing

Reports from the Field by • 10/14

Event: Parks, Play and People
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.06.09
Speakers: Adrian Benepe — Commissioner, NYC Department of Parks and Recreation
Organizers: Center for Architecture as part of Architecture Week 2009
Sponsors: Kohler; Kramer Levin; Solco

NYCWaterfront_2886

The NYC waterfront will be developed for people to use, rather than commerce or industry.

Jessica Sheridan

From the 17th-century Dutch plein to postindustrial reclamation projects, says Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, parks have given New Yorkers something we have always needed: the essential practice of far niente (Italian for “doing nothing”). They are more than undeveloped green areas in an otherwise human-centered environment, he explained; they exist in political contexts, expressing conscious choices to dedicate urban territory to democratic uses. Since his teenage years as a park volunteer and ranger, Benepe has studied what he calls the “pleasure grounds for the common man” that reconnect urbanites with simulacra of a more complete ecosystem. No urban park should be confused with capital-N Nature; they have always been constructed places, in the literal and interpretive sense, and they benefit from conscious public and private action. Benepe’s discussion combined a historical overview, a salute to the many professionals responsible for the department’s recent successes, and some projections about how this critical component of PlaNYC 2030 can evolve to accommodate the demographic, ecological, and economic demands of the coming years.

Every parks commissioner since Robert Moses has operated in his shadow, but Benepe identifies the Moses era as one of three major phases of expansion in the history of New York’s parks. Before Moses, there was the Greensward Plan of 1858, which gave us Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park through a public competition, ushering in a new model of what an urban park could be. The City Beautiful era, with its fixation on Greco-Roman style, actually produced more monuments than parks, though public municipal playgrounds began arising in that period, largely through the work of social reformers. Benepe embraces the Moses-era complexity and clears certain misconceptions about that pivotal figure, particularly the charge of promulgating cookie-cutter design. While many of the playgrounds built rapidly in the WPA era were generic, the pools and parks reflected the commissioner’s love of eclecticism as well as the less publicized visions of Moses Men like Aymar Embury II (Benepe’s distant relative) and Moses Women among his landscape architects, then known as landscape gardeners, such as Betty Sprout and Marguerite Haynes Embury. Few describe the overall Moses legacy as an unmixed benefit, but Benepe makes a case that his work on parks brought out the best in him.

Even the period of neglect and despair in the 1970s had its bright spots, Benepe noted, such as Richard Dattner, FAIA, and M. Paul Friedberg’s Adventure Playground in Central Park. Both private nonprofit conservancies and government action have spurred a dramatic revival over the past 30 years, despite legal and bureaucratic constraints that Moses never had to face. The city is now in a third great era of parks expansion, Benepe contends, eschewing false modesty about the current administration’s achievements. Having spent $3 billion in capital projects over the past eight years, with another $2 billion in the budget over the next four even amid a fiscal crisis, Parks has far more work than it can handle in-house and is keeping both architects and landscape architects busier than at any time since the 1930s. The Carmine Carro Community Center in Marine Park, Brooklyn, points toward the future: it will be the department’s first LEED Silver building.

Policy directions for the coming years include adapting the city’s heritage, including working creatively within the postindustrial environment, as in the High Line and the Bronx River’s new Barretto Point Park; opening up the waterfront for people’s use after a long history of commercial and industrial uses; designing and building recreational structures such as bike trails, skate parks, Icahn Stadium’s running track, facilities for newly popular worldwide sports such as cricket fields, and even a surfing beach in Queens; and ensuring that children have spaces to play in new ways, as in the Rockwell Group’s Imagination Playground, offering loose objects for unstructured play rather than fixed equipment. While recognizing the risks of profit-driven privatization, Benepe defended expanded concessions to both augment income from nonprofit fundraising, and to help bring 24-hour life into these spaces. Indoor facilities, he said, were one area where the city could improve, particularly pools, despite their high cost; with drowning the second leading cause of death among kids, and even more prevalent in minority communities, he finds swimming lessons a strong priority.

“We often underestimate the intelligence of park users,” he observed, making an investment in beauty not a frill but a public commitment to civility. The horticultural program Greenstreets, initiated by his predecessor Henry Stern, offers a case in point: “I expected a very jaded, cynical response.” But he’s found that people really do respond to beauty: “I’ve never seen a fistfight in front of a flower bed.”

To watch a short video about Benepe, shown at the Heritage Ball, go to the Podcasts website.

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