A crucial role for volunteers in NYC’s underfunded parks

Unequal city parks

A huge gap exists in conditions between the city’s premier parks and others, such as Saratoga Ballfields in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Photo credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times.

If you doubt that New Yorkers love their parks, consider this past Saturday. On what was the nicest day of the spring so far, more than 300 park advocates chose to sit inside NYU classrooms learning how to make their parks better places. Oh, and did we say they were volunteers?

They were an amazing slice of New York, with seemingly every segment of our diverse city, including all five boroughs, represented. The event was sponsored by Partnership for Parks, a program of the City Parks Foundation. P4P serves as the essential connective tissue between an understaffed Department of Parks and Recreation and a public that craves parks and is willing to labor to improve them.

An army of volunteers keep city parks in shape

These volunteers are a determined and practical group. They clean, plant and paint their neighborhood parks, all the while knowing that there is no shortage of money from wealthy donors to lavish these services, and far more, on New York City’s premiere parks.

commissioner

City Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver is calling for a more equal park system.

But after decades of a growing divide in the city’s park system that picture may be changing. City government seems to recognize the problem; Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver speaks openly of the need for equity in a system that numbers more than 1,700 parks, 1,000 playgrounds and covers 29,000 acres.

In his talk to the volunteers, Silver cited some shocking statistics; 215 city parks had received less than $250,000 in improvements over the last 20 years. That figure is especially disturbing when you realize how little $250,000 gets you in park improvements: new playground equipment, sprinklers, new surfacing and benches can cost several million dollars.

To overhaul all 215 parks would cost $1 billion, something not possible without a dramatic infusion of money. As a first step, however, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Silver last October announced that 35 of these parks would divide $130 million for renovations. And because the work isn’t expected to be completed until December 2017  Silver said Saturday that the department carry out some smaller improvement more quickly.

Parks get a smaller share of budget

Clearly this should be the start of bigger changes. The fact is, when it comes to parks, New York City aims to be world class, but lags behind when it comes to investing in our parks. As someone who has volunteered in parks for more than two decades, it’s clear the fault is not with the Department of Parks and Recreation. The blame goes to our elected officials and ultimately us – the people who elect them.

Central Park

A massive restoration of Central Park, including Bethesda Fountain, was carried out in recent decades by donations from wealthy New Yorkers. Photo credit: Central Park Conservancy

New York City spends less per person than many other American cities. What’s more park expenditures have declined as a New York City government priority through the decades. Our parks get 0.56 percent of the city’s budget, less than half the figure of 50 years ago, Heather Lubov, City Park Foundation executive director, told the assembled park volunteers Saturday.

In recent years, many park advocates and some elected officials have called for a more spending to close the gaps between parks in wealthy neighborhoods and the rest of the city. It’s been a long time coming. The last concerted effort to increase park spending was in a 2001, a campaign to increase city spending on parks to one percent of New York’s budget. The effort seemed to be gaining ground until September 11, when the city’s priorities suddenly changed.

Park spending in Mayor de Blasio recently proposed city budget would increase 3.6 percent, the same amount as the overall spending plan. The Gotham Gazette reported, however, that the budget would cut the number of the department’s park enforcement patrol officers, gardeners, urban park rangers, and maintenance workers. This is clearly a first draft and subject to change before the city’s overall budget for the coming year is approved. We will keep you posted on park spending and how you can have your say.

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Building transit for NYC’s future and cutting congestion, too

Fair Plan

A mix of new tolls and lower tolls would produce much needed money to improve New York’s transit system.
KARSTEN BIDSTRUP/GETTY IMAGES/LONELY PLANET IMAGE

It’s not often we point to the New York Post for a socially and environmentally progressive idea, but in all fairness this op-ed article is that.

It supports the Move New York Fair Plan, which through a mix of new tolls on some bridges, lower tolls on others and tolls remaining unchanged elsewhere, would pump much needed money into New York’s transit system.

And if there was any doubt that the system needs improvement, this past winter full of subway breakdowns and delays should erase them. The Fair Plan is the brainchild of transportation engineer Sam Schwartz, a former NYC  Trafffic Commissioner and the man behind the Gridlock Sam column in the Daily News.

Planet NYC wrote about the proposal a year ago. If you missed it, the plan is worth reading about now. More important, it’s worth doing.

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BRT finally coming to Queens; Express to the beach and more

By Len Maniace

For too long Queens has been the city’s stepchild when it comes to rapid transit; The borough is New York’s second most populous, but ranks fourth in how well it’s served. Improvements seem likely, however, and soon.

A new bus rapid transit line, basically trolleys on rubber wheels, is moving forward in the form of a line from Woodside and Jackson Heights in the north to the Rockaways in the south.

BRT comes to Queens

The city’s most ambitious bus rapid transit line would run from Woodside in the north to the Rockaways in the south, transforming Woodhaven Boulevard (above) and Cross Bay Boulevard. Graphic by NYC Department of Transportation

As described in the Daily News, the buses would have their own dedicated lanes to reduce traffic delays; be equipped with devices to change traffic signals and speed travel; and be setup for curbside fare payment that allows for much faster bus boarding. The idea is to mimic the features of subways that make them faster than standard buses.

A speedier, greener travel option

While the line will provide express service to the Rockaways – a summer-time treat –  even more important is the promise of greatly improved service for a transit-starved corridor of central and south Queens. Many would be able to get to work and other other destinations without relying on snail-like buses or cars. That would be a big win for the environment and the city: fewer cars, cleaner air, less greenhouse gases, less congestion and big safety improvements on some dangerous roads.

BRT chart

The 14-mile BRT line would serve an area starved for rapid transit, a corridor that relies on slow local buses. Graphic by NYC Department of Transportation.

The project moved a big step closer to reality earlier this week when the city’s Department of Transportation picked one of several versions that had been under consideration.

Queens is the last of the boroughs to get its own BRT line; probably the best known are those that run down Second Avenue and across 34th Street in Manhattan.

Though this type of service is known around the world generically as bus rapid transit, the New York City brand is called Select Bus Service.

This line would be the city’s most ambitious BRT  project. Unlike construction of subways, which can take a decade or more to complete, Select Bus Service can be built fast – and cheap. City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said construction is expected to start in 2017 and be completed in about a year. It should cost $200 million.

A model for other transit-starved areas

The DOT’s pick, Concept 2, includes additional big changes along Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevards,  “separate lanes for local and through traffic, turning restrictions and wide, landscaped pedestrian islands for riders getting on and off buses,” according to the Daily News.

About the only thing missing from the plan are bike lanes, a point that some advocates have noticed. The addition of bike lanes would put the plan in a category that city transportation officials refer to as a complete street, roads that include transit, bikes, and and pedestrian amenities, such as those landscaped pedestrian islands – in addition to cars and trucks.

So maybe it’s now time time to consider BRT for two other major Queens destinations: Queens College and St. John’s University, institutions that generate huge numbers of auto trips which are served now only by pokey buses.

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DC has cherry trees, but plastic-bag trees bloom in NYC

By Len Maniace

Let some sing about April in Paris, but give me springtime in New York. The glaciers have melted, revealing months of litter, cigarette butts and dog excrement on sidewalks. And the plastic-bag trees are in full bloom.

Plastic bag trees

Legislation requiring customers to pay 10 cents for plastic and paper bags could mean a future with fewer plastic bag trees in bloom.

Spring –  just before trees leaf out forming a barrier that discourages bags from getting tangled in branches – is the peak of plastic bags in New York trees.

It’s astonishing just how many plastic bags end up in trees along the city’s neighborhood shopping streets. Walking along 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights, plenty of trees displayed one, two or three bags, but then we came across the rare specimen that accompanies this post.

A solution from City Hall?

Plastic-bag trees may become an endangered species in New York City, however. The City Council is considering a law that would require stores to charge 10 cents for each bag, plastic or paper. The idea is once bags have a financial value, shoppers will hold onto them for reuse. Or else won’t purchase them.

It’s a good market solution to an environmental problem, something that generally works better than relying on the public always doing the right thing. When one has to pay to pollute, that pollution magically is greatly diminished. In a market-oriented country, it would be nice – and more important – quite effective if the price of coal, petroleum  and other carbon fuels included the cost of their environmental damage.

Instead that cost is spread around to the general public in higher costs. That basically amounts to a hidden subsidy for pollution-causing products, compared with products that don’t produce similar damage.

Plastic bags’ damage

Along with finding homes in trees, plastic bags float in waterways have been eaten by all manner of sea life, usually to ill effect. And there is the direct cost of disposing of the bags, which supporters say, costs the city $12 million annually.

Councilman Brad Lander, D-Brooklyn, who is backing the bill, told CBS News that New Yorkers use 9 billion plastic bags each year, a figure which if correct works out to a shocking 1,000 bags for every city resident.

In any case, whatever the number, just by walking down the street and looking at trees, it quickly becomes clear that too many plastic bags are loose in our environment. And that is not good.

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NYC’s big count: one, two, tree

Street trees

Street trees provide many environmental benefits besides beauty. New York City plans to count each one by fall. Photo by Rodrigo Salazar

By Len Maniace

This May’s census in New York City won’t be as historic as the one ordered by Caesar Augustus and later recounted in the Bible, nor as vast as the U.S. government’s decennial census.

Still, it would be a formidable challenge – counting every street tree from the northern tip of the Bronx to the southern tip of Staten Island, and from the eastern end of Queens to the westernmost point of, again, Staten Island.

From mid-May through the end of September and perhaps beyond, an army of citizen volunteers and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation will be counting each honey locust and London plane; every Ginkgo and sweet gum; in all, an estimated 170 tree species.

Tree planting

As part of its Million Trees project, New York City has planted 143,00 street trees. The rest are in parks, schools, other institutions and on private property. Photo by Len Maniace

The mission is to document New York’s urban forest, specifically its hardiest and most-abused segment – street trees. With that information in hand, the city hopes to better care for and manage all these trees, as well as develop polices to make our city a more livable and environmentally friendly place.

NYC’s ambitious census 

The 2005 Street Tree Census counted 592,130 trees. Based on a growing body of research, the city estimated those trees produced $122 million in annual environmental benefits, such things as cleaner air and water, cooler streets and homes, and the capture of carbon that otherwise would have contributed to global warming.

Armed with that data, Mayor Bloomberg launched the city’s Million Trees program, begun in 2007 and expected to be completed this fall. That census found 19 percent more street trees than the 498,470 counted in the 1995-1996 census.

The earlier census uncovered a hazardous situation on city streets, 10,000 dead trees, which led to an effort by the city to remove dead trees and prune street trees on regular basis.

Volunteers do most of the counting

The city is now recruiting community groups and individuals to volunteer for the census and will soon begin training them. Among the lessons to be taught: how to identify the tree species they are counting.

Tree species is one of 16 pieces of information to be gathered for each tree. Others include tree condition: is the tree dead, alive, are roots overgrown, is there evidence that trees are being care for? That last point makes a difference in the long-term survival of a street tree, said Katerli Bounds, the Parks Department’s Director of Stewardship; trees with three or more signs that they are regularly being cared generally will live longer.

“The fact that people are paying attention and know that the trees are there really does have an impact,” Bounds said

Street trees

Street trees provide green spaces that absorb stormwater and provide habitats for butterflies and bees. Photo by Len Maniace

Parks expects anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 volunteers, many more than 10 years ago. The census will also benefit from digital communications improvements; it will rely on a smart phone app to provide satellite images of tree locations and to record tree data.

“In 2005 there weren’t smart phones,“ Bounds said. “It was all paper data collection, which meant we got Xeroxed copies of data sheets back at the end.”

How many more trees?

This year’s Census is expected to find another increase in street trees, largely because of the Million Trees program. That effort has planted 143,000 street trees to date; the rest going to parks, around schools and other institutions and on private property.

Perhaps out of caution officials are predicting only a modest, a total of somewhere between 600,000 and 650,000. Along with the natural loss as trees dying due to age, New York City was hit with unusually severe storms in recent years that upended a huge number of trees, Bounds said.

A tough life on the streets

“Hurricanes Irene and Sandy; there were tornadoes a few years ago; a couple of microbursts,” Bounds said. “There’s been all these extreme weather events so we know we’ve lost a significant number of trees.”

Those storm losses have not made the city less enthusiastic about street trees, however. When it comes to environmental benefits – as well as aesthetic and others that are hard to quantify – trees have a unique place in making cities livable, Bounds said.

“They are incredibly important pieces of the city’s infrastructure and it is very important for us to replace them,” Bounds said. “They cannot be replaced by any known technology.”

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In the News: Why prescription drugs are bankrupting us

Screen shot 2015-01-15 at 3.57.34 PM

Photo by Mark Pernice

Few dispute the notion that prices for pharmaceutical drugs in the U.S. are too high – especially when compared to those of other nations. An op-ed piece in today’s New York Times looks at that issue and finds several reasons.

Among the factors cited by the report, which is based in part on an article in the New England Journal of Medicine,  insurance companies’ coverage of drugs regardless of price or whether they are much better than existing, less costly drugs. Also cited: some pharmaceutical companies buying up the rights to cheap generic drugs so they can then jack up prices.

The high cost of pharmaceuticals – Amgen’s new leukemia drug Blincyto is expected to cost $64,000 a month – clearly needs attention if health care costs are to be prevented from soaking up more of the nation’s wealth, crowding out other essential spending.

The op-ed piece was written by Dr. Peter Boch, director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

– Len Maniace

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Written off by some, the natural world rebounds in NYC

By Len Maniace

To paraphrase Mark Twain –  reports of nature’s death in New York City have been much exaggerated. And given some help, nature can thrive in our city. That’s what leading experts from government and nonprofit groups told a City Council committee this week.

Natural areas in New York City include Alley Pond Park in Queens.

Natural areas in the New York City park system include Alley Pond Park in Queens.

Of the 30,000 acres of city parkland, 10,000 acres are considered natural areas: forests, meadows, freshwater wetlands and salt marshes. Within those natural areas, 51 sites  are designated “forever wild” nature preserves.

“New York City is portrayed as a city of brick and concrete, commerce and culture, a place that is beyond nature. But that’s not true. It’s a city of wild nature and snaking waterways, too. A place like no other along the East Coast,” said Bram Gunther, city Park’s chief of forestry, horticulture, and its Natural Resources Group. He’s also  president of the Natural Areas Conservancy, a nonprofit that assists in studying and restoring the city’s natural areas.

There are few signs of the city in many of New York City’s natural areas. Photo credit: Natural Areas Conservancy

There are few signs of the city in many of New York City’s natural areas. Photo credit: Natural Areas Conservancy

Those natural areas are accommodate 2,000 species of plants and 350 species of birds. Across the city’s five boroughs there are more than 220 species of native bees, Gunther told a hearing the City Council’s Park Committee Tuesday.

That natural bounty exists here despite centuries of neglect; 85 percent of the city’s saltwater marshes have been filled in since the arrival of Europeans. And the 10,000 acres of natural areas are not pristine. In cleaning up the Bronx River, an astonishing  77,000 tires were removed. The cost of restoring natural areas is high, about $1 million per acre, but those efforts are paying off. In 2009, the alewife, a type of herring, returned to the Bronx River for the first time since the late 1600s; beavers have been spotted there, too, in recent years.

Once the city’s natural areas were victims of widespread dumping; now the number-one threat to natural areas are invasive species, Gunther said. These are usually non-native plants that run rampant because they have no natural predators, crowding out native species, upon which a network of beneficial insects, birds and other animals depend.

Phragmites is an invasive species that dominates many saltmarshes in our city and along the East Coast..

Phragmites is an invasive species that dominates many salt marshes in New York City and along the East Coast.

To get a better handle on the health of its parks, the city just completed what officials are calling the world’s largest ecological and sociological assessment, a huge data set that will help with continuing restoration and also provide a baseline for studying the effects of climate change. The study provides insights on the prevalence of invasives versus native plants. In Van Cortland Park in the Bronx, 67 percent of the understory plants – shrubs and small plants – are native, while the figure is only 40 percent at Marine Park in Brooklyn, said Sarah Charlop-Powers, Executive Director of  the Natural Areas Conservancy.

Getting rid of invasives is not easy. Typically it takes two years of stripping invasive plants from a site before the area can be restored with native plants. That typically involves heavy equipment and human labor ,which are expensive. But not always. At Staten Island’s Freshkills Park a herd of goats are helping to keep invasives under control. “They eat an enormous amount of vegetation,” Gunther said.

Officials plan to release the entire study online in 2015.

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Wiring a city park to monitor a changing Mother Nature

The U.S. Forest Service installed instruments in Alley Pond Park to precisely document weather conditions that could provide a window on how climate change is affecting nature.

The U.S. Forest Service installed instruments in Alley Pond Park to precisely document weather conditions that could provide a window on how climate change is affecting nature. Photo by NY Times

Planet NYC visited Alley Pond Park in Queens this year, documenting the sights and sounds of the changing seasons. It was a fascinating series of visits that showed just how much nature exists in parks that some dismiss as too urban.

Though some are skeptical, the significance of Alley Pond Park and similar city parks is not lost on the U.S. Forest Service. In fact, through it’s Smart Forest program, the federal agency wired Alley Pond Park with instruments that record temperature, humidity, sun light and other weather conditions that go far beyond our casual observations since early spring.

Adding that data to Smart Forest images recorded in the park, researchers hope to have a window on how climate change is affecting park plants, as in when buds burst open, trees leaf out and then change colors, according to a New York Times story earlier this month.

The story, which is well worth checking out, comes at a time of greater appreciation for New York City’s natural areas, some 10,000 acres across all five boroughs. In fact, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation discusses its ongoing research on these natural areas at a City Council Committee on Parks and Recreation hearing tomorrow. We hope to be there and fill you in on what we learn.

Posted in Alley Pond Park, climate change | Leave a comment

Not busy Thursday and Friday? Why not plan NYC’s future

By Len Maniace

A legendary basketball coach may be this nation’s foremost advocate for planning.  Though others have been credited with saying it first, UCLA basketball coach John Wooden is the one most often associated with the sage advice: Failing to plan is planning to fail. Though the coach was talking about the need for his Bruins to prepare for their games, the words apply to environmental and urban planning.

Last year’s Municipal Art Society Summit for New York City was held in Jazz at Lincoln Center overlooking Columbus Circle

Last year’s Municipal Art Society Summit for New York City overlooked Columbus Circle in Jazz at Lincoln Center overlooking Columbus Circle. This year’s will feature 140 speakers at the New York Times headquarters.

Some might say that lack of planning is why we are in the mess we’re in when it comes to our environment, sustainable transportation, climate change and health issues.

One major nonprofit organization is wrestling with the issue. Thursday and Friday of this week the Municipal Art Society holds another of its Summit for New York City conferences, this time at the headquarters of The New York Times, at 242 West 41st St, off 8th Avenue.

Among roughly 40 scheduled programs are sessions on making our communities more resilient in the face of emergencies such Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy; the value in preserving old buildings, including architecturally significant post offices; the competitiveness of cities, and what it means to be both a just and a green city.

Though the Municipal Art Society is no longer selling tickets on its website a limited number of tickets are available at the door.

 

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Ebola – and the new era of infectious disease

By Len Maniace

Unlike other world-changing events, the first reports of the current Ebola epidemic are not stamped into memories. For the record, the World Health Organization issued its first public announcement on March 23rd of this year, reporting that a total of 49 people were stricken with Ebola virus disease in Guinea and 29 had died. That was months before the outbreak registered with many in the U.S.

Ebola Virus

A colorized image of an Ebola virus particle (green) taken by a scanning electron. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Even more muted was the public introduction of an earlier and profoundly world-changing disease that has killed 36 million people. AIDS was first reported on June 5, 1981, in a publication of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It described five previously healthy young men in Los Angeles who were mysteriously stricken with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, an ailment that occurs almost exclusively in people with severely suppressed immune systems. Two had died.

That is the nature of such outbreaks. They start small, sometimes in far away places. Most times they are brought under control before threatening people too far from where they started. Ebola outbreaks were like that once. The first killed 280 people during a 1976 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The toll taken in any of the next 23 never matched that figure number. The current outbreak is different though. By mid-October it killed nearly 4,500, according to WHO, and the epidemic shows no sign of abating.

We all hope that mobilization of more doctors, nurses, equipment and expertise, will turn the tide against Ebola soon. Even so, this outbreak is likely to finally confirm the notion that the nature of infectious disease has changed and that AIDS was not just a freak virus that evaded our capabilities. We no longer live in an era when antibiotics and distance were enough to protect us from most infectious disease.

Published 20 years ago The Coming Plague described the new era of infectious disease  we face.

Published 20 years ago The Coming Plague described the new era of infectious disease we face.

That was the thesis of Laurie Garrett’s 1994 book, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. Global air travel, wars, changing social mores, and environmental destruction have allowed deadly viruses once confined to wild animals – and a few unlucky humans who came in contact with them – to reach a worldwide population.

No doubt preventive measures have improved since that book was published. But as the recent spread of Ebola to health workers in the U.S. and in Spain shows, these measures are likely not enough – or aren’t being strictly followed. The full extent of these shortcomings, we will learn soon. And beyond our borders is West Africa where, health officials agree, medical care will need to be greatly improved to defeat Ebola. Attention must be paid: When it comes to infectious disease, there is no such thing as Fortress America; we ignore these outbreaks in seemingly far away places at our own peril.

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