New York looks for lessons in successful UK parks

BP grand entrance

The grand entrance of historic Birkenhead Park, part of UK parks official Mary Worrall’s portfolio.

By Len Maniace

With New Yorkers facing the chronic under funding of their parks, there were important lessons– both hopeful and cautionary – to be gleaned from a talk by a veteran parks official from the United Kingdom last week.

The cautionary tales sounded like they could be faced by any number of financially pinched municipalities in this country:

* Budget reductions threaten to trigger another round of maintenance cuts to the parks.
* An over-enthusiastic park “friends” group hacked away at a tree growing near an historic monument.
* In a case of privatization run amok, a business cleared park trees and then encroached on public parkland.

Mary Worrall, however, is the top park manager for the Borough of Wirral, a municipality of some 310,000 residents located across the Mersey River from Liverpool. (And yes, the name of the borough is confusingly similar to the parks administrator’s.)

BP Swiss Bridge

The historic Swiss Bridge was restored under park improvements in the UK.

Worrall’s domain includes historic Birkenhead Park which opened in 1847, the UK’s first publicly funded park, and is   said to have inspired Central Park’s designers. So it was fitting that Worrall gave her talk at the offices of the Central Park Conservancy, the private nonprofit group that manages our city’s most famous park.

Despite the problems she cited, Worrall was upbeat. She’s a firm believer in metrics to drive park improvement, in particular the rating system used by the Green Flag Awards – though a little more money wouldn’t hurt, either. The awards began in 1996 in England, then spread to other parts of the UK, and eventually to Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the Netherlands. Earlier in Worrall’s career she oversaw the parks of Northwest London from  2002 to 2010.  Those parks won 16 Green Flag Awards.

The creation of the awards and improved park funding in the UK, followed a period in the 1970s and ’80s when many parks, particularly those in urban areas were allowed to decline. That matched a similar trend for US parks, particularly those in New York City. “Parks were getting real bad in the 1970s. They were at rock bottom,” said Worrall of the situation in the UK.

BP Visitor Center

The Birkenhead Park’s Visitor Center. Its modern design did not please everyone.

Worral’s presentation was sponsored by the Central Park Conservancy’s Institute for Urban Parks which, among its missions, works to share best-management practices with parks organizations. Park systems share similar  problems so it’s valuable to hear about solutions being found in other places, said Terri Carta, the Institute for Urban Parks’ associate vice president. “Everybody has some piece of the answer to putting together this great puzzle,” Carta said.

To be sure New York City parks are managed better and have improved dramatically since the early 1990s – and that goes for ordinary parks as well as the city’s elite parks. After hearing Worrall speak and watching her Power Point presentation, it’s hard not to think that UK parks – at least those chosen for her talk – are in better shape than those in our city.

Wirral Map

The Borough of Wirral is located across the Mersey River from Liverpool (on right.)

As we’ve noted in earlier posts, New York City government spending on our parks lags behind that of many other U.S. cities. It’s never returned to the levels of the 1980s, despite the fact that the city’s economy is much healthier. So while we are enthusiastic about learning from other park systems, we’re even more interested in seeing an increase in government spending for all of our parks. If you agree, you can make can difference in the next few weeks as the city’s budget is finalized. Contact your City Council member and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The Central Park Conservancy hosts a series of programs for people interested in how we can improve our parks. RSVPs are required for the Park to Park seminars. RSVP at

* Planning for Play: Redesigning and Rebuilding Central Park’s Playgrounds, May 29th, 2014,  4 p.m. At 14 East 60th Street, 12th Floor, New York, N.Y.
* Zone Management: The Central Park Conservancy Approach to Park Operations. June 12th, 2014,  8 a.m. At 1 East 104th Street,  2nd floor, New York, N.Y.
* Building the Next Generation of Philanthropists
June 26th, 2014,  8 a.m. At 14 East 60th Street, 12th Floor, New York, N.Y.
* Using Social Media to Promote Your Park, July 10th, 2014,  4 p.m. At 14 East 60th Street, 12th Floor, New York, N.Y.

About lenmaniace

Award-winning writer and editor who has worked as a journalist and a corporate communications professional specializing in environmental sustainability and public health policy. Experience includes successful media outreach for a Manhattan publicity firm. Board member and president of a community-based nonprofit. Founder and leader of a series of successful park, art and environmental programs in Jackson Heights, Queens, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the nation’s most diverse city. * Executive Editor at Elsevier, a leading scientific and medical publisher. * Publicist, Media Advisor, Social Media Manager (part-time) at Monteiro & Co., a book-marketing company that specializes in business management, economics and politics. * Reporter (part-time) at the New York Post, specializing in breaking news in the world’s most competitive media market. * Senior Writer and Editor at The Journal News/, Gannett’s daily news outlet in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties. Specialized in health policy and environmental sustainability issues * President the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, a volunteer nonprofit civic organization in Queens, N.Y. Leader of its innovative environmental sustainability programs, including the Green Agenda for Jackson Heights.
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