May 18, 2016

Edgy Explorations: The Transformative Effects of ‘Parks Without Borders’ 

By Mitchell J. Silver

In our densely populated city, people look to parks to serve many purposes. New Yorkers use parks as backyards and living rooms, public squares and nature preserves. However, New York’s public sphere has not always been designed for this multitude of uses, especially not around park edges. City parks themselves take up 14% of the land in New York City, and streets and sidewalks take up 26%; together, that’s 40% of the city’s land occupied by public spaces. Designing them to work well together and function as a unified public realm can make the city more beautiful, more comfortable, and easier to get around in.

That’s why NYC Parks has developed “Parks Without Borders,” which was launched in the autumn of 2015 and funded with $50 million from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “OneNYC” plan for a sustainable, resilient, and equitable city. The goal of Parks Without Borders is to improve areas of connection between parks and their communities by making park entrances, edges, and adjacent and in-between spaces more attractive, accessible, and active. Working with our partners at the City Department of Transportation and NYPD, we’re identifying ways in which fluid design can make neighborhoods more beautiful and parks better used – and even make them safer by improving sightlines to add more “eyes on the park.” Parks Without Borders has three goals:

  • Accessible Parks:  Make parks more welcoming and accessible to everyone.
  • Improving Neighborhoods:  Extend the beauty of parks out into communities.
  • Vibrant Community Spaces: Transform underused spaces into centers of community.

What would this look like in practice? No two New York City parks are the same – that’s the strength of our diverse and vibrant parks system – but certain approaches can be shared. Narrow entrances can be widened; high fences around parks can be lowered, removed, or replaced by benches; and sidewalks adjacent to parks can be widened or activated with public programming or concessions. The opportunities are many, and I’m excited to see how NYC Parks’ designers and planners respond to this call to innovate.

But experts aren’t the only ones with ideas; public input is at the core of this program. Last November, we launched an interactive map of on our department’s web page where New Yorkers could share suggestions about how the edges of their neighborhood parks could be improved. These nominations will help us choose eight showcase projects where Parks Without Borders principles would be on full display.

We received more than 6,000 nominations about nearly 700 parks (that’s more than one-third of all City parks) from all kinds of people who use and care about parks, from kids to community board members to landscape architects. One person shared a story about a neighbor who lived across the street from a park for more than five years without ever figuring out how to get into it.  Another wrote about the many people who enjoy their lunch in a particular park, and how it could use more tables. Someone else suggested installing a clock in a plaza that’s on a popular running route to help people time their runs. Drawing from this wealth of input, and taking into account factors including potential for partnerships with community groups, physical conditions and context, and overall accessibility, we will announce the winning showcase projects at the Parks Without Borders Summit at The New School on May 24.

Parks Without Borders also isn’t limited to these eight projects. We’re making sure that  new design principles become part of the hundreds of projects already in our capital projects pipeline as well, ensuring that this program will change the face of public space in New York City through accessible design. The nominations received on the website will also be used to inspire and inform projects and improvements in the future – moving us toward a more open, more accessible park system across New York City.

Mitchell Silver is the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. The Center for New York City Affairs and the Tishman Environment and Design Center are joining the Parks Department in sponsoring the Parks Without Borders Summit on May 24.