NYC Park Lovers Say City’s Nature Trails Need More Green
On a recent Friday afternoon in Queens’ Alley Pond, workers from the Natural Areas Conservancy celebrated the fruits of their labor along a hiking trail.
To the untrained eye, their work is almost invisible – but the five-foot-wide, trash-free clearance didn’t happen by accident.
In fact, on some trails this kind of maintenance hardly happens.
The Natural Areas Conservancy is trying, however. It is part of a mosaic of groups teaming up with the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation to keep parks clean and functional.
Much of the effort to keep the borough’s five hundred kilometers of nature trails safe and usable rests on the shoulders of private groups – or even friendly people.
This summer, as many New Yorkers slowly come out of pandemic hibernation and flash in the sun, the Department of Parks and private groups are looking to step up their efforts – introducing a new Strategic trail plan to make urban nature trails safer and more accessible for New Yorkers.
Among the objectives: better signage and maps; more varied experiences; consistent design and maintenance; and programs to engage the community – as well as “diverse and stable funding streams” to pay for it all.
Even before last year 14% reduction in the park department’s budget, maintaining hiking trails was not a task primarily assigned to city employees.
Instead, organizations like the NAC, Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy, and local residents have generally taken on the job. While nonprofits appreciate their partnerships with the parks service, they also want the city to better fund the agency.
Park funding currently accounts for less than 1% of the city’s nearly $ 100 billion budget, a statistic that advocates of parks and open spaces hope to change with the next administration.
“No one wants to throw the parks department under the bus,” said Adam Ganser, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. “I think that’s a bigger problem with the funding the parks department receives.”
Unlike the Prospect Park Alliance or the Central Park Conservancy, the efforts of the NAC are not confined to a single park: “natural areas” include all forests, grasslands and wetlands in the park system and represent approximately one park. third of all public park land. in the city.
The five full-time employees of the CNA oversee hiking trails and other features in 50 parks in the five boroughs.
They say the park’s appreciation is increasing after more than a year in which the pandemic severely limited public life. Stopping indoor activities at home and commuting has made local hikes an attractive alternative.
“We are already seeing a real cultural shift in terms of a real desire to access nature and a desire to spend time in nature,” said Sarah Charlop-Powers, executive director and co-founder of the group. “We had a huge increase during the pandemic as people searched for places to safely recreate and spend time outdoors.”
“A real partnership”
As more and more New Yorkers swarm the outdoors, the NAC has embarked on a major maintenance project for the city’s hiking trails. This includes clearing brush, adding signage, and sometimes creating barriers to keep hikers off the official trail and damaging the environment around them.
Kristy King, Park Service director of natural areas, horticulture and natural resources restoration and management, said the city’s partnership with the NAC is necessary because the group has “brought technical expertise to the table. »For the construction and maintenance of trails.
The Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy plays a similar role. “Maintaining the trails in the city is a challenge,” especially when the Parks Department’s budget is taken into consideration, said Alex Zablocki, executive director of the group.
Zablocki called his organization’s relationship with the Parks Department a “real partnership.”
“When we need something, they try to help us. When they need something, we try to help them, ”he said.
Conservancy employees aren’t the only ones doing the job.
A Queens resident said he undertook trail maintenance as a personal project in the southern part of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Evan Boccardi, an engineer and former candidate for this year’s Council District 29 race, lives across the street from the park’s southern tip in Forest Hills, home to the Pat Dolan Trail.
“A few weeks ago I just bought a hedge trimmer and basically cut what was out of the old trail – only 40 years of overgrowth,” Boccardi said. “I have children now and I want them to be able to enjoy the park which is right next to me. “
He later said the city was unaware of his efforts, but would like the parks department to make the space more usable for everyone.
The parks department issued a statement challenging Boccardi’s characterization of the trail, stating: “It is it is not correct that the Pat Dolan Trail has not been maintained in decades – parks staff last performed maintenance in the past two weeks.
The common thread between the work funded by the private sector of conservancies and intrepid citizens is the low funding of natural areas and urban parks in general, according to advocates of outdoor spaces.
Board member Peter Koo (D-Queens), chair of the board’s parks and recreation committee, praised the work of organizations like the NAC and other nonprofit and volunteer groups. But he thinks the current system is not ideal.
“In a perfect world, the city would have the resources, the funding and the jobs to manage things like trail maintenance. But the point is, we keep getting cut, ”Koo said. “So we have to do more with less. And we have to rely on volunteers, private organizations and individuals to participate and do the work the city should be doing. “
Koo later added, “We can always improve and do more.”
For him, “more” means advocating for an additional $ 10 million for 100 new park staff and 50 gardeners, and $ 4.5 million for the city’s trail system.
Park advocates hope the mayor’s next administration will mean more greenery for the city’s trails and the parks department in general.
“The time has come for the next administration to step up and ensure that New York City remains a livable place where people can survive and enjoy their lives,” Ganser said.