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


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.

Comments are closed.

New York Public Library 53rd Street Branch by TEN Arquitectos. Steele's role: Principal in Charge/Project Architect. Photo: TEN Arquitectos.
Featured Member: Andrea Steele, AIA Featured Member
Congratulations to @babkwth for winning our first-ever #ArchtoberSelects Instagram Challenge.
Field Condition Names Winners in Debut #ArchtoberSelects Instagram Challenge Reports from the Field
CLP 2017 Inaugural class: (l-r) Ayodele Yusuf, Jenna Leigh Wandishin, Daniel Horn (back row), Michael Caton, Michaela Metcalfe, Christina Hernandez, A.L. Hu, Shilpa Patel, Jack Dinning, Jessica Morris. Credit: Center for Architecture
Policy Pulse: Announcing 2017 Civic Leadership Program Class Policy Pulse
AIANY Emerging New York Architects Committee Civic Leadership Program (CLP) kick off at the Center for Architecture. Credit: Center for Architecture.
Civic Leadership Program Kicks Off At the Center for Architecture
Nike New York Headquarters by Studios Architecture and Workplace Design + Connectivity. Photos courtesy of Nike.
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
Submit your work to the 2017 AIANY COTE Awards!
New Deadlines New Deadlines
The Bier House by Kaneji Domoto, featured in "Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia,” on view through 08.26.17. Credit: Thad Russell
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
Public Square by FXFOWLE. Image: FXFOWLE/Driverless Future Challenge.
Driverless Future Challenge Names Winner Reports from the Field
Apartment, New York. Photo: Michael Moran.
Featured Member: Leonard Kady, AIA Featured Member
A temporal collage of the historic site by Seher Erdogan Ford.
Announcing the Recipients of the 2017 Arnold W. Brunner Grant for Architectural Research At the Center for Architecture
Hyper-Efficient Building Workshop on 06.14.17 and 06.15.17. Credit: Center for Architecture
Policy Pulse: New Hyper-Efficient Building Training Launches Policy Pulse
From left: Peter Lampen, AIA; Luke Surowiec, LEED AP; Steven Winter, FAIA; John Lee, AIA. Photo: Center for Architecture.
A Closer Look at 80×50 Initiative’s NYC Retrofit Accelerator Program At the Center for Architecture
Bartholomew Voorsanger, FAIA, Principal, Voorsanger Architects, and Alastair Gordon, Contributing Editor, Architecture and Design, Wall Street Journal. Photo: Center for Architecture.
Cocktails and Conversation with Bartholomew Voorsanger, FAIA, and Alastair Gordon At the Center for Architecture
Koray Duman, AIA, LEED AP, Founder, Büro Koray Duman. Photo: Nicholas Calcott/Surface Magazine.
Featured Member: Koray Duman, AIA, LEED AP Featured Member
Hilary Ballon (1956-2017). Courtesy of NYU Abu Dhabi.
In Memoriam: Hilary Ballon (1956-2017) In Memoriam
NYPL Mid-Manhattan Library renovation by Mecanoo and Beyer Blinder Belle.
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
Cast and Place by Team Aesop, winner of the 2017 FIGMENT City of Dreams pavilion competition.
New Deadlines New Deadlines
Harris House site plan by Kaneji Domoto, featured in “Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia,” on view through 08.26.17. Courtesy of the Kaneji Domoto Family Archive.
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
Waterproofing of the facade system and roof at 540 West 26th Street for Savanna. Design Architect: Morris Adjmi. Rendering: Morris Adjmi.
Featured Member: Howard Zimmerman Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
From left: Signe Nielsen, RLA, FASLA; Cynthia Rosenzweig; Susanne Desroches; Jeffrey Raven, FAIA, LEED BD+C; and Jee Mee Kim, AICP. Photo: Center for Architecture.
Climate Change in NYC: Bridging Science and Practice At the Center for Architecture
Courtesy of the Center for Active Design.
Policy Pulse: FitCity 2017 Lands in Queens Policy Pulse
Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Astoria, Queens, NY. Somvanshi’s role: Associate, Project Manager and On-site Supervisor. Firm: Ennead Architects (previously Polshek Partnership). Photo: Jeff Goldberg/Esto.
Featured Member: Kalavati Somvanshi Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
Robert Michael Kliment, FAIA. Courtesy of Kliment Halsband Architects.
Robert Michael Kliment, FAIA (1933 – 2017) In Memoriam
Museum of Modern Art  east section renovation by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler. Credit: Iwan Baan
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
09.17.17: Call for Entries: 2017 AIANY COTE Awards
New Deadlines New Deadlines
Lurie House by Kaneji Domoto, featured in "“Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia,” opening 06.22.17. Credit: Thad Russell
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
New York City Police Academy by Perkins + Will. Photo: Courtesy of Perkins + Will.
Featured Member: Michael Plottel Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
AIANY Opposes Paris Climate Accord Exit From the Desk of the President
Manhattan Districts 1/2/5 Garage and Salt Shed by Dattner Architects and WXY architecture + urban design, 2016 Building of the Day. Credit: Center for Architecture
Call for Archtober Buildings of the Day New Deadlines
Upper East Side residence by Gabellini Sheppard, New York. Photo: Paul Warchol.
Michael Gabellini, FAIA, Delivers AIANY 2017 Gil Oberfield Lecture At the Center for Architecture
AIANY representatives at AIA New York State's "Architects in Albany Advocacy Day." Credit: Center for Architecture
Policy Pulse: 2017 Architects in Albany Advocacy Day Policy Pulse
Families make collages of their dream playgrounds. Credit: Center for Architecture
Draw, Design, Build! NYU Teams Up with the Center for Architecture for Family Programming Learning by Design
Weill Hall at Cornell University, Ithica, NY. Photo: Scott Frances.
Featured Member: Renny Logan Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
The Shed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Rockwell Group.
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
New Deadlines New Deadlines
Siegel House by Kaneji Domoto, featured in “Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia,” opening 06.22.17. Credit: Thad Russell
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
AIANY 2017 President David Piscuskas, FAIA, at the National Summit on Design and Urban Mobility. Credit: Center for Architecture
Are We Ready for Autonomous Vehicles? From the Executive Director
Reflections at Keppel Bay in Keppel Bay, Singapore. Photo: Keppel Bay Pte Ltd.
Featured Member: Daniel Libeskind Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
Join us for FitCity 2017! Hunter's Point South Waterfront Park by Thomas Balsley Associates and WEISS/MANFREDI. Credit: Albert Vecerka/Esto.
Policy Pulse: FitCity 2017 Policy Pulse
Speakers of "Hesitation and Constraints: Barriers to Social Research in Practice." Credit: Center for Architecture
Social Sciences, Good for Your Bottom Line and Society At the Center for Architecture
The Quad Cinema, renovated by Projects Design Associates with rebrand by Pentagram. Credit: Marion Curtis / StarPix.
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News