Travers Park, in Jackson Heights, Queens, is a standard outer-borough park: Asphalt ball courts, covering less than a square block, are surrounded by black, chain-link fencing that reaches more than halfway up the treeline. Sycamores on the cobblestone lawn divide the park from the sidewalk. An adjacent playground sits on a concrete platform, encircled by a low metal fence, waist-high above the sidewalk. The park’s two entrances at 77th and 78th Streets face each other at mid-block.
A new citizen-driven planning initiative will tear down those fences, making select parks more appealing to the eye and more accessible from the street. With a combined $50 million in funding from OneNYC grants, Parks Without Borders invites New Yorkers to nominate parks that need stronger relationship to surrounding streets, via fewer fences, new entrances, or revived “park-adjacent spaces,” those underused, vestigial public spaces that sit between parks and the street or sidewalk.
Parks figure heavily into the goals of OneNYC, the city’s guiding planning and policy document that evolved out of former Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC. New York has almost 30,000 acres (46.9 square miles) of parkland. A central of goal of PlanNYC was to have every New Yorker live within a ten-minute walk of a park. Building on and broadening that goal, OneNYC includes a mandate to create “thriving neighborhoods that support healthy active lifestyles and [neighborhoods] that have easy access to cultural activities,” said NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver.
Tall fences that surround many parks, Silver said, date from the 1930s through the 1970s. With the city skirting bankruptcy in the 1970s, capital funding for parks was limited and maintenance budgets were slashed. Through the 1980s, securing park perimeters to prevent crime and deter vandals prevailed over aesthetic concerns.
Silver emphasizes that Parks Without Borders is a “flexible strategy that can be applied to many situations.” Parks that are particularly prime for improvement, he noted, are surrounded by fences that block views into the park, especially barriers above eye level. Parks with difficult or narrow entrances, or that lack entrances at key locations, are strong candidates too. Additional considerations include a park’s proximity to a busy commercial corridor or public institutions and the number of street trees.
To nominate a park for Parks Without Borders, residents can search for “Parks Without Borders” on nycgovparks.org to access an interactive map. Click on a park and a checklist of potential improvements appears, such as “street furnishings,” “paving,” “fences,” and “activities,” as well as an open-ended comments field. The submissions period began mid-November 2015, and, as of late January 2016, the Parks Department has received around 3,000 entries.
To reach all New Yorkers, especially residents with limited access to the internet, the department will distribute informational flyers at libraries and recreation centers, conduct presentations and workshops at community board forums, and run neighborhood events where, according to Silver, “we will be using a table-top exercise that collects exactly the same feedback as the website does, in a format that is more accessible to those who do not feel comfortable using computers or websites.”
Parks enthusiasts, plan ahead: the department will select eight initial parks for a makeover when the call for submissions ends February 2016.