Urban Jewels

Not so long ago in New York, visitors to local parks could expect to find used condoms, liquor bottles and crack vials in sandboxes, playgrounds and the huge swaths of weeds posing as green space. The city’s park system was a disgrace, plain and simple.

Like so much about the city, the parks have changed dramatically over the last 20 years. The national Trust for Public Land ratified those changes recently when it ranked New York’s park system as the second-best in the country, behind only Minneapolis.

Yes, there was a time when a chant of “We’re Number Two!” would have sounded hollow coming from a New Yorker. But given just how far the city’s parks fell during and after the city’s brush with bankruptcy in the 1970s, being number two means that, well, we try harder.

According to the Trust for Public Land’s study, 96 percent of city residents are within half a mile of a public park. While not every park is always pristine, there seems little question that the city is, in fact, trying hard: City Hall currently spends $160 per resident per year on parks, an increase from $152 per resident in 2007.

Public-private partnerships like the Central Park Conservancy have also played an important role in the city’s green renaissance. The Conservancy and other groups have acted as advocates for the parks and those who use them. While critics have raised concerns about the role of private organizations in the maintenance of public open space, anyone who remembers what the Great Lawn looked like 30 years ago would have to agree that the park is better off thanks to the intervention of individual benefactors and organizations.

So add parks to the long list of municipal assets that have seen dramatic improvement over the last 20 years. But bear in mind that, as with other assets, there is nothing inevitable about continued progress. The city’s parks are in first-class condition because their stewards have been creative and flexible, qualities that are not simply handed over with the keys to City Hall.