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Cultivate Parks to our Needs

By Paul Bray

New York’s state park system was established in the 1920s when tens of thousands of families “had what their forebears might only have dreamed about: significant amounts of leisure time.” A history of our state parks points out that “more people had more time to go to more places — and to more distant places. Inexpensive, mass-produced automobiles changed travel habits, and shorter working hours allowed more time on the road.”

Robert Moses came and had immense physical influence upon New York City and the suburbanization of the state in the 20th century. The Moses biographer Robert Caro wrote that under his direction, every park in New York City was reshaped during the Depression and “then filled …with zoos and skating rinks, boathouses and tennis houses, bridle paths and golf courses, 288 tennis courts and 673 baseball diamonds.” Moses also caused new parks and parkways shaping suburbanization to be built on Long Island.

Although many of our state parks like Niagara Falls and Letchworth are natural wonders, our state park system is rich in recreational facilities like golf courses and physical infrastructure. It has resulted in a huge backlog of deteriorated park infrastructure. The state budget included appropriations of about $90 million a year over the past two years and we may need to spend well over $500 million more to restore the infrastructure for the whole state park system. The park advocacy organization PTNY says the traditional state park system is neglected.

The case can be made that the 20th century state parks no longer adequately serve the needs of the 21st century. This view was presented at a recent Fabos conference on landscapes and greenways at the University of Massachusetts. Professor Jack Ahern declared that we are in an urban century when we can anticipate 75 percent of the world’s population living in cities.

More than ever, we will depend on ecological services to support this urban population. Ecological services capitalize on natural and cultural resources and processes that give us fertile soil, fresh water, breathable air, an amendable climate and recreational and cultural opportunities. Green infrastructure, for example, through the use of rain barrels, porous pavement, urban trees and rain gardens move water between the sky and rivers and streams by slowing the water down and infiltrating it into the ground.

Cities like Stockholm count their benefits from ecosystem services to include air filtration, microclimate regulation, noise reduction, rainwater drainage, sewage control and recreational and cultural values.

The Milwaukee Metro Sewerage District invests in storm water trees, rain barrels, cisterns, rain gardens, and walk and bike trails, green roofs, porous pavement and constructed wetlands.

Urban and regional landscapes that foster ecological services with recreational and cultural benefits will become the new normal for urban and state parks in the 21st century. Neither our state parks agency with its ingrained Robert Moses infrastructure habits nor the Department of Environmental Conservation with minimal urban and regional planning capacity are ready to lead the way to meet the urban and rural landscape challenges of the 21st century.

Instead of continuing to pump state funds into the restoration of outdated physical infrastructure like roadways, facilities and structures of traditional state parks, the state needs to foster the green infrastructure inherent in these parks. We have to integrate our natural and cultural resources into our communities and daily lives in new, environmentally productive and interesting ways.

Paul M. Bray‘s e-mail address is pmbray@aol.com

This article originally appeared in the Albany Times Union