Natural Parks Define American Cities

Adrian Benepe, New York. 
9 April 2014

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

With almost all of my career (and most of my adult life) spent working in or around city parks, I was recently surprised to learn an astonishing fact. In American’s largest cities, more than half contain park systems that are more than 50 percent “natural.” In fact, in America’s 10 largest cities, all but one (Chicago) have park systems where more than half are natural.

The idea that our nation’s largest cities are repositories of natural areas of significant size flies in the face of not only the perception of cities as crowded “concrete jungles,” but also of the popular image of city parks all being in the Olmstedian tradition, of designed, heavily manicured greenswards or large modern recreational facilities — ballfields, tennis courts, golf courses, running and cycling tracks, and skating rinks.

That so much of the park systems of our largest cities are natural has profound implications for the future not just of the park systems themselves, but also for the environmental sustainability of cities and for all of the factors that go into planning, designing, constructing, and managing parks. And as cities confront climate change, rising sea levels, increased storm water runoff, or drought, and in some cases burgeoning populations, their parks and especially their natural areas, will play even more important roles, particularly as they are recognized for providing ecosystems services and other benefits.

Importantly, city officials, park managers, scientists, landscape architects, planners, engineers, and open space advocates understand the value of natural areas in cities, and are taking steps to protect, study, manage, and, in some cases, restore natural areas.

These facts can be found in the recently issued 2014 City Park Facts (CPF), written and published by The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, a “think tank” for urban park issues. For readers wondering how America’s biggest cities — some of them very densely populated and developed — have so much natural land within their borders, it is important to first define the terms. According to CPF, “Natural areas are either pristine or reclaimed lands that are open to the public and left largely undisturbed and managed for their ecological value (i.e., wetlands, forests, deserts). While they may have trails and occasional benches, they are not developed for any recreation activities beyond walking, running, and cycling.

CPF also takes pains to define “Designed Parkland”: “Designed areas are parklands that have been created, constructed, planted, and managed primarily for human use. They include playgrounds, neighborhood parks, sports fields, plazas, boulevards, municipal golf courses, municipal cemeteries, and all areas served by roadways, parking lots, and service buildings.”

In most cases, the natural areas were deliberately preserved as part of official efforts to save large open spaces and preserve their natural aspects. In other cases, the preservation of natural areas was somewhat accidental at first, as open space acquired to develop as active parkland sat fallow due to lack of resources or civic will, or formerly disturbed areas (garbage dumps, filled-in freshwater and tidal wetlands) were naturalized as human intervention tailed off.

Blue Heron Park in Staten Island, New York. Image courtesy of Natural Areas Conservancy
Blue Heron Park in Staten Island, New York. Image courtesy of Natural Areas Conservancy

The “benign neglect” theory applies to New York City, by far the nation’s largest city, and the largest city to have a park system more than 50 percent natural. I have some experience with that, as for two years in the late 1980’s, I was the Director of the NYC Parks Department’s Natural Resources Group (NRG). The NRG was created in 1986 under then Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern. Stern had a personal fondness for natural areas and especially for trees, and his First Deputy Commissioner, Robert Santos, proposed creating the NRG to assess and develop management plans for the City’s natural areas.

This was a watershed moment for NYC, and perhaps for urban park management nationally, because generally speaking, the then quite vast areas of woodland, meadow, and salt and freshwater wetland (approximately 10,000 acres of city parkland; another 7,000 acres of Federal parkland were mostly “natural” as well) were shown on park maps as “undeveloped land.” While recent Federal and State regulations offered some protections for wetlands, the natural areas were all subject to being  “developed“ for active recreation purposes, or in some cases for roadways. With the creation of the NRG, we set out to determine what the resource was, see how healthy it was, assess the types of restoration or other intervention that might be appropriate, and also promote the values of the wild areas through education and the creation of trails and nature centers, helping people to understand, appreciate, and use them more.

How did NYC come to possess so much “natural” open space? Some of it was deliberate — though Robert Moses is reviled for filling in wetlands and building major highways along shorelines, he also presided over the saving of what was left of the open spaces of Jamaica Bay, including land that would later be transferred to the National Park Service as part of Gateway National Recreation Area. Much earlier, in the early 1880s, John Mullaly led an effort to acquire and protect as parkland almost 6,000 acres of woodlands and meadows and wetlands in the Bronx, creating Pelham Bay Park — still the city’s largest park and almost four times the size of Central Park — along with Van Cortlandt Park and Bronx Park, later the homes of the Bronx Zoo and NY Botanical Garden.

But other “natural” parks are former dumps, filled-in wetlands, and areas of designed parks that either naturalized due to lack of maintenance, or were deliberately restored or managed as natural areas.

In many other cities, the preponderance of natural areas is due to “the idiosyncrasies of city boundaries” according to the CCPE, but also because many cities have within their boundaries large Federal or State parks or natural areas. In that vein, Anchorage, Alaska leads the pack. Its astonishing 501,785 acres of parkland include just 2,400 acres of designed parks, and the vast majority of its parkland is contained in the Chugach State Park, with 490,125 acres within the Anchorage city limits. Spacious natural parks also dominate in cities with large populations as well as in those not as densely populated.

Of the 36,113 acres of parkland in Los Angeles, more than 26,000 are natural, with the State managing over 10,000 acres, and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority managing almost 6,000 acres. Phoenix, Arizona also has a huge park system, mostly city-owned, and 43,610 acres are natural, with 5,654 acres designed. Of Scottsdale, Arizona’s nearly 29,000 acres of parks, a scant 974 are designed. In New Orleans, Louisiana more than 24,000 of the total 28,432 acres of parks are contained in the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge.

Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in St. Paul, Minnesota, a Trust for Public Land Project. Image from The Trust for Public Land database; Photo: Allen Brisson-Smith
Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in St. Paul, Minnesota, a Trust for Public Land Project. Image from The Trust for Public Land database. Photo: Allen Brisson-Smith

So with all of this natural land in many cities, what are the best strategies for protecting and even expanding these areas? Some of them face threats that may include inappropriate development (such as utility rights of way), lack of funding for maintenance and security, and the effects of climate change. Is there consensus among city leaders, or even among environmental managers, for how best to take care of the resource? For example, in many places there have been efforts to restore natural areas through the careful eradication of non-native, exotic species of plants, and even of animals. But that is an expensive proposition, with no certainty of a desired outcome, and some professionals, such as Peter del Tredici, suggest that we should respect the tenacity and success of certain invasives and not try to fight an ultimately losing battle against them.

What are the challenges confronting natural areas in cities and the benefits they provide? How can cities best address these challenges, and who are their potential allies?

First, the impetus to protect and enhance urban natural areas must start locally. In a number of cities, municipal and county government and non-profit organizations have come together in productive partnerships. The Green Seattle Partnership provides a sophisticated stewardship model for urban woodlands. In Portland, the Intertwine brings together a variety of levels of government and the non-profit sector to address the varied needs of natural spaces and the connective tissue of greenways. The Chicago Wilderness Alliance links together public and private entities with a focus on the prairie ecosystem.

But a stronger partnership between the three prominent levels of government may be the key to success in the preservations and productive use of urban natural areas. In New York City, the NRG is partnering with the US Forest Service in the operation of an “Urban Field Station,” a jointly run laboratory where city, state, federal, and academic researchers and practitioners are studying the impact of natural areas and trees on the environmental health of cities. The Million Trees NYC project, that has led to the planting (so far) of nearly 850,000 trees, is now the focus of research projects thorough the Urban Field Station. It is accepted that trees and woodlands play an important role in cleaning the air, storing carbon, mitigating the urban heat island effect, and processing storm water, but how much of a role do they play, relative to other design features? Which trees function best in the difficult urban environment, and what is the mortality rate of small whips planted in old landfills, compared to large balled-and-burlapped trees planted in sidewalk pits?

Part of the funding for the research, and for base level assessments of the natural areas of NYC is coming from a major public-private partnership focused on helping protect and manage the resources, known as the Natural Areas Conservancy, which in just a few years has already raised over $5 million in donations from private funders. Also in New York City, a conservancy has been formed to partner with both the National Park Service and the NYC Parks Department on caring for and programming the 10,000 acres of mostly natural parklands of Jamaica Bay, and a research institute focused on the  damaged ecosystem of the bay has recently been created.

But the biggest lift may be the one of changing attitudes. Too many elected officials still look at large natural areas and see them as “empty” or “undeveloped,” envisioning active recreation facilities, roads, container ports, or real estate developments. In coastal cities, at least, drastic weather events such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy have shown the perils of building anything in flood zones, but as cities grow and feel the pressure to create housing and economic development, will we forget the cruel lessons of the recent past?

Particularly in cities affected by extreme weather events, we have seen an evolution and new appreciation for the ecosystems services value of natural areas, and even the value of creating green infrastructure to capture storm water and mitigate storm surge, with the attendant layers of value as parks and habitat. And there may be additional, less urgent, but equally interesting challenges.

There are a number of metrics that have been developed for calculating the value of trees on city streets and in landscape designs, but not necessarily for urban forests. Can we develop metrics for the value of large urban natural areas? How much carbon dioxide can be processed by one tree? What are the optimum species and sizes? What is the rate of return of a large wooded area? Does size matter, or is it density and species composition? The groundbreaking work of Richard TT Forman in landscape ecology offers ways to predict the soil’s carbon storage potential in different types of forests or other landscapes, based on such factors as types of plants and rainfall data. Are all wetlands generally helpful in storm surge mitigation, or must they be of a certain magnitude? Can we develop metrics that would suggest an ideal amount of tidal wetland or number of trees per person for an environmentally healthy city?

Three decades ago, forestry school graduates and ecologists were looked at as batty to practice their trades in or focus research on cities — surely, no real “nature” was taking place there. But as people around the world and in the US (83 percent at last count) live in cities, and as we come to understand the extraordinary value of natural areas to cities, the cutting edge research and practice of natural area protection and management will increasingly take place in urban areas. Elected officials, public sector managers, non-profit and academic partners, and citizens can help to effect a sea change in how our urban natural areas are viewed, appreciated, and treated going forward.

Adrian Benepe
New York City

On The Nature of Cities


Adrian Benepe

About the Writer:
Adrian Benepe

Adrian Benepe has worked for more than 30 years protecting and enhancing parks, gardens and historic resources, most recently as the Commissioner of Parks & Recreation in New York City, and now on a national level as Senior Vice President for City Park Development for the Trust for Public Land.

Adrian Benepe

Adrian Benepe

Adrian Benepe Senior Vice President, Director of City Park Development The Trust for Public Land New York City Adrian Benepe has worked for more than 30 years protecting and enhancing New York City’s parks, gardens and historic resources, most recently as the Commissioner of Parks & Recreation. He continues this effort but now on a national level, as Senior Vice President for City Park Development for the Trust for Public Land, starting in that position in September, 2012. Serving as New York City Park Commissioner for the last ten and a half years, Adrian Benepe oversaw a major expansion of New York City’s parks system. During his tenure, he restored historic parks such as Central Park and Battery Park, added 730 acres of new parkland including Manhattan’s Highline, and laid the groundwork for an additional 2,000 park acres within the city. Prior to serving as Commissioner, Benepe worked as the Manhattan Borough Commissioner from 1996 to 2002. Adrian Benepe has earned a B.A. in English Literature from Middlebury College. In addition, he has earned a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University, where he was awarded a Pulitzer Fellowship. In 1987, he participated in the Mayor’s Top 40 Program, and in 1992 he was selected to participate in Leadership New York, a program of the Coro Foundation. Although born in New Rochelle, NY, he has lived in New York City since 1959.

6 thoughts on “Natural Parks Define American Cities

  1. Lots of good thoughts and even better questions in the article. This may be out of scope, but the vast area of currently developed parkland also has great future value as restored to a more natural state that emphasizes human interaction and active recreation.

    We are seeing increasing interest in our habitats integrated into what was large expanses of grass and trees. Now these places are thriving with elements such as native wildflower meadows, streams and lakes. The key is to make them more appealing to active users who do more than walk; they swim, fish, photograph, bird watch and paddle. These are just the beginning of the list.

    To motivate society towards more natural places, we think it is important to find incentive from enhanced recreation to gain societal enthusiasm. We are finding this gains more support for truly natural places. If we provide for a wealth of recreation, the rest of the ecosystem services etc easily come along. We see a win-win between recreation and nature instead of confrontation.

  2. How does a small city with only 400 acres of nature areas become a member/contributor or whatever in the TNOC?

  3. I read this with great interest, as the topic of urban natural areas is heating up a passionate debate in Seattle right now. The Seattle Parks Department recently approved the building of a mountain bike park in Cheasty Greenspace, a 50-some acre urban forest on Beacon Hill, a lower-income neighborhood. The greenspace was originally purchased and preserved for wildlife and passive use. The bike park proponents have proposed to develop the park in return for eco-restoration services—removing invasive plants and planting natives. I see this as trading usage rights for restoration services. It is as though our natural areas are being offered up to the highest bidder.

    As co-founder of the Seattle Nature Alliance, a group advocating for protection and preservation of urban natural areas, I am very disturbed by this new direction the Parks Department is taking, and also by the fact that at least some people in the Green Seattle Partnership—which you refer to in your article—seem to be in tacit support of the bike park project.

    Cheasty forest was studied in a Vegetation Management Plan only 10 years ago and found to have “notable wildlife habitat” as a “rare interior forest habitat”. It is a small space in a closely-built neighborhood, but is rich with wildlife, despite being partially invaded by ivy and blackberry. Now, however, the City and the bike proponents are describing it as a degraded wasteland, rampant with crime (even though natural areas have far less crime than most other places in the city). They imply the only way to “save” it is to give it over to the mountain bike organizations, who are only too eager to take it on. The well-organized, well-funded bike organizations propose building a multi-skills bike course, complete with jumps, drops, and free-rides throughout the space, as well as some hiking trails, effectively blanketing the space in a network of trails. In return, they are offering their services in removing invasive plants and doing eco-restoration. The project was promoted as a way to “bring access to nature to a low-income neighborhood”, amazingly being described as “environmental justice”.

    I am concerned that the Green Seattle goal of restoring our forests—something like 2000+ acres by the year 2025—has become such a difficult goal that natural areas are being seen as a liability rather than an asset—it’s easier to develop them than to restore them. I am worried that we are losing sight of why natural areas are important—as places where natural processes are allowed to prevail. If we cannot manage restoration, we should leave nature alone, and simply watch and monitor how species succeed or fail to adapt. At least that way, nature will have a chance. If we develop forests in order to “save” them, then what is the point?

    As far as “environmental justice”…there are far more people who value quiet walks in nature than any type of active nature-sport. Walking was by far the highest rated activity (78%) in a recent Park survey. But, walking or nature study does not bring in money. If natural areas are given over to specialized user-groups, the general population, including the elderly, the very young, the low-income or the less-abled will ultimately lose access to nature. That doesn’t sound like justice to me.

  4. Interesting and informative article by Adrian Benepe. I would like to inform that in withinin the urban jungle of Mumbai we have grren lungs, a national park. Natural Green space. Open spaces in cities is essential for durability of city life.

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