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New York State Parks: Funding Heritage Innovation

By Guest Observer May 25, 2015

By Paul M. Bray

"Letchworth State Park Upper Falls 2002" by Andreas F. Borchert. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons -

Letchworth State Park Upper Falls 2002 by Andreas F. Borchert. Licensed under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

New York State has the oldest State Park System in the USA. The System dates back to 1924 and now has 179 state parks. Many of the State Parks are first class like Niagara Falls State Park, Letchworth State Park (known as the Grand Canyon of the East), Thatcher Park near Albany and Saratoga Spa State Park and Jones Beach on Long Island, to name a few. Many are world-class natural sites while some are more known for their golf courses, campsites, swimming pools and beaches.

The State also has vast ecologically rich parks like the 6 million acre Adirondack Park with the only constitutionally protected wild forest land in the nation. The environmental parks like the Adirondack and Catskill Parks are managed by the State’s environmental agency while the more conventional state parks (some of which do have ecologically sensitive resources) are managed by the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (ORRHP). OPRHP also has 37 historic sites and its Commissioner is the State Historic Preservation Officer.

Credit: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

New York Heritage Areas. Credit: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

In 1977 the State Legislature enacted a law directing OPRHP to do a plan for a statewide system of urban cultural parks (UCP) and another law designating the whole area of the 6 historic neighboring communities at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers as the Hudson Mohawk Urban Cultural Park. The UCP name was dropped in the 1990s when regional areas were added to the program and replaced by calling the parks “heritage areas.”

The then OPRHP Deputy Commissioner for Historic Preservation told a group of state legislators that the proposed UCPs represented the ideal for historic preservation. But concluded that “there is no way” the agency could implement a UCP law. The state legislature, however, saw it as a beneficial partnership that integrated program for conservation, education, recreation and sustainable development and by enacting a law directed the program to move forward. Commissioner of OPRHP, Orin Lehman hired the planning firm of Lane and Frenchman who had at worked on the plan for the Lowell National Historical Park to prepare a statewide plan to implement the UCPs.

Communities that wanted to be UCPs had to prepare feasibility studies to be considered for designation. By 1982 thirteen communities from New York City to Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario were selected for designation as part of the legislation establishing the UCP system.

In 1981, Commissioner Lehman sent the legislature a letter saying, “I am pleased to submit to the Legislature this Plan for the New York Urban Cultural Park System. The plan recommends the creation of an innovative state program, which will help communities to make better use of resources they already have. These resources often lie within declining historic buildings and districts in the heart of our cities. Through the framework of the Urban Cultural Park System, these areas can serve to interpret the heritage of New York State, while becoming regional centers for economic and cultural development through a well-defined and realistic revitalization process.” He also noted that the plan for the development of New York State’s Urban Cultural Park Program received the American Planning Association’s 1981 national “Outstanding Planning Program Award.”
The State Heritage program grew to have 20 state heritage areas and the first 13 state heritage areas benefited from an environmental bond act with $20 million for visitor centers. A mix of state agency programs also helped the state heritage areas support planning and projects.

In September 1991 the National Park Service, the New York Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commission and the National Parks and Conservation Association held a Partnerships in Parks & Preservation Conference in Albany. New York’s urban cultural park/heritage areas were recognized as “partnership parks.”

Mario Cuomo, New York’s Governor and father of Andrew Cuomo who is New York’s current Governor said in his introductory speech that, “The New York Urban Cultural Parks Program has used the partnership of State and local governments and the private sector to preserve some of New York’s most important and impressive downtowns. The State provides technical assistance, grant money, and marketing. The local community provides interpretive staff, capital improvements, and sponsors special events and street festivals. And the private-sector puts the buildings to work as shops, offices, museums and cultural centers.” He went on to say, “We fulfill our own needs for the growth and development of the community, and at the same time fulfill our responsibility to preserve a crucial link between past, present and future generations.”

Cutbacks in Federal program support and state recessions over resent decades ultimately led to a billion dollar backlog in maintenance needs for the traditional state parks. Budgetary issues set the stage for the undoing of the New York heritage areas. Under the administration of Governor Paterson, the small heritage area program was zeroed out although the state provided $100,000 million a year to address the maintenance issues for the traditional state parks.
To this day the State Heritage Area Law remains on the books and OPRHP has reviewed and approved a couple of additional State Heritage Area management plans as it is required to do under State Law. However, no state parks staff or funding has gone directly to State Heritage Areas.

Two years ago when current Governor Andrew Cuomo sponsored a conference on heritage tourism, representatives from the National Trust for Historic Preservation led the program and said New York State is fortunate to have a State Heritage Program. At the OPRHP table outside the meeting room, when asked for information on the State Heritage Areas, a representative said “we don’t do that program any more”. Technically by law that was not true, but in effect that is how the State Parks Agency has acted and the new era of parks in NYS, state heritage areas, has been abandoned by the very agency that created the award winning plan for state heritage areas.

What is happening in NYS is contrary to an enduring heritage of parks like Olmsted’s Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City, great traditional state parks and urban parks that the State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, has protected through the public trust doctrine. It is very regrettable that the highest stewards of NYS parks, the Governor (the son of the former Governor who oversaw the creation of heritage areas) and the State Parks Commissioner, may have found a way to stifle State Heritage Areas that embody the great heritage of their State.

Paul Bray’s email is secsunday at

Addendum: The financial woes of the New York State Heritage Area program are not unique. The Pennsylvania Heritage Parks (renamed heritage areas) program that drew its inspiration from the New York Urban Cultural Parks also faces hard budgetary times. A direct appropriation for the program was zeroed out in the Governor’s 2009 budget and it has survived on a mixture of legislative largesse and state agency accommodation ever since. Recently elected Governor Wolf has again proposed to eliminate funding for the program. And the campaign to restore funding is in full swing. See an editorial in the commonwealth’s Lackawanna Valley paper calling to Fully Fund Heritage Areas.

Finally, there is the ongoing saga of funding for the National Heritage Area program with its 49 National Heritage Areas, which has been a tug of war between the Department of Interior’s budget recommendation to cut funding for the program in half and Congress’s druthers, which is to put the money back. So far Congress has had the last word, but it takes up a lot of time and effort that could be spent conserving our nation’s heritage.

Brenda Barrett
Editor, Living Landscape Observer


New York State’s Recreational Areas Deserve Spotlight

By Guest Observer November 30, 2014

By Paul M. Bray

Photograph Courtesy of the National Park Service

View of Central Park in New York City. Photo Courtesy: National Park Service

As a member of the World Commission on Protected Areas, I’ve met park managers and activists from all parts of the world. I have seen how America’s National Parks are well known internationally. The National Park System is called the best idea America has ever had. The National Park Service is renowned for its skill in managing parks from Yellowstone, known as the mecca of parks, to portions of Lowell, Mass., an old industrial city.

But New York state has not gotten such national and international attention for its great parks and protected areas.

Consider the state’s protection of wilderness areas.

One of the nation’s most important environmental laws turned 50 this year: the Wilderness Act. New York played an important role in its establishment. The state passed a constitutional amendment in 1894 declaring the public land within the boundaries of the Adirondack and Catskill Parks shall remain “forever wild.” This is the only constitutionally protected wild land in the nation, a large portion of which is being managed as “wilderness.”

Howard Zahniser, former leader of the Wilderness Society, was instrumental in the creation of the Wilderness Law. Zahniser had a cabin in the Adirondack Park near a cabin owned by Paul Schaefer, a leading advocate for protecting New York’s forest preserve. Zahniser was impressed by the forest preserve and spent many hours talking with Schaefer about New York’s experience with the forest preserve.

Like our National Park System, New York has a wide range of top notch parks and protected areas. Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City are renowned as urban pastoral gardens. Olmsted also selected the location of Albany’s Washington Park. Regrettably, Albany’s city fathers rejected Olmsted’s insistence on designing a coordinated system of parks and parkways, and he moved on to Buffalo, where he went on to do just that, the first such system of its kind in the country.

In 1892, the state established the vast Adirondack Park, which is now 6 million acres in size. It was followed in the early 20th century by the Catskill Park. Both parks are a matrix of wild forest lands and inhabited areas.
Robert Moses led New York to establish the nation’s first state park system, now composed of 179 state parks and 37 historic sites. The system includes Niagara Falls, the oldest state park in the nation, Letchworth State Park, known as the Grand Canyon of the East, and the vast Jones Beach on Long Island.

In 1982 the state enacted the nation’s first Urban Cultural Park System. It is now called the Heritage Area System. It has 20 State Heritage Areas ranging from Harbor Park in New York City, portions of cities like Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, villages like Seneca Falls and Sackets Harbor, and regional heritage areas like the Concord Grape Heritage Area.

Credit: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

New York Heritage Areas. Credit: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

Heritage Areas have been called “partnership” parks because successful management depends upon partnership between the state, localities and the private sector. Sadly, they have been limping along because the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has not wanted to uphold its share of the partnership. Notwithstanding the troubles some of the Heritage Areas have had with the state, the first of the 49 National Heritage Areas which followed in New York’s footsteps is having a 30th anniversary this year. New York again led the nation.

Our state also has established greenways like the Hudson River Greenway, stretching from New York City to Saratoga and Washington counties, and preserves like the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, which was recently designated by the U.S. Department of Interior as a National Natural Landmark, and the Long Island Central Pine Barrens.

We should be proud of our parks and protected areas in New York state. Many of us enjoy, are inspired by and make good recreational use of one or more of our parks and protected areas, but I don’t think we have proudly proclaimed how world class our parks, protected and heritage areas are. We need to show our pride if we are to be known as a desirable place to live.

This article originally appeared in the Albany Times Union on October 12, 2014


Help NY State Heritage Areas

By Guest Observer August 26, 2014

by Paul Bray

A few years ago a delegation of environmentalists and officials from the Adirondack Park visited Lake Baikal in Russia. Lake Baikal is so large that it is often mistaken for a sea. It is the deepest and largest (by volume) freshwater lake in the world, and thought to be the world’s oldest as well. Famous for its crystal clear waters and unique wildlife, the lake is under threat by pollution, poaching and development.

An Adirondack lawyer on the trip told me that they had a boat ride with a group of Russians. One of the Russians said to him “Why are we wasting our time with Americans? Russia has a culture that produced great writers like Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Turgenev and Chekhov, great musicians like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Rimsky-Korsakov and great dancers like Baryshnikov, Nureyev, and Nijinsky. What has America contributed to the world?” The American lawyer responded bluntly saying that America has contributed “the rule of law.”
Credit: New York State Government

While Russian culture has much to admire, it is rule of law that makes America special. As a drafter of laws for 30 years at the state Legislature and as an engaged citizen, I respect our state laws. It is troubling to me when, for example, a law like the state heritage area law is ignored and intentionally is not funded or not supported with staff, as is happening in the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic preservation law under the Cuomo administration.

The New York State Heritage Area System Act of the New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Law enacted in 1982 represents the first and most comprehensive attempt at creating a statutory framework for the designation and management of urban and regional heritage settings.

Today, the system has 20 heritage areas, like the Albany Heritage Area, designated by the state Legislature. The 1982 New York law creating a system of 13 state heritage areas is the forerunner of the 49 National Heritage Areas, which include the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor and the Hudson River National Heritage area. The first National Heritage Area, The Illinois-Michigan National Heritage Corridor, was created 30 years in 1984 ago by Congress.

We should think of the state’s heritage as the Europeans think of their cultural heritage. Europeans consider it their “common wealth — our inheritance from previous generations of Europeans and our legacy for those to come,” as the European Commission puts it in a report this year on an integrated approach to the cultural heritage of Europe. “It is an irreplaceable repository of knowledge and a valuable resource for economic growth, employment and social cohesion.”
The report goes on to recognize that “cultural heritage is a shared resource, and a common good. Like other such public goods it can be vulnerable to over-exploitation and under-funding, which can result in neglect, decay and, in some cases, oblivion. Looking after our heritage is, therefore, our common responsibility.”

New York’s heritage areas are “partnership parks” encompassing public and private interests as well as partnership between state and local government. The award-winning state plan for the state heritage area system declared “the principal state agency responsible for establishing the System will be the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.”
But our state parks agency abandoned the state heritage areas and their law, leaving the responsibility to local governments.

Some heritage areas have had success; others have failed for lack of state partnership support. This abandonment of the state heritage area law, which remains in the state law books, is a sad example of the failure of the rule of law by the state of New York.

* This article originally appeared in the Albany Times Union on August 11, 2014
Paul Bray’s email is


NHA@30: Key Documents 1983 New York Greenline and Urbanline Parks Conference

By Guest Observer March 30, 2014

The 1970’s and early 1980s were a period of experimentation in the fields of conservation, historic preservation and planning. Looking back, what is perhaps most exciting is the rapprochement (integration may be too strong a word) that occurred across these knowledge areas at the local, state and federal levels.

The mixing and sharing of ideas among practitioners in these different fields, in conjunction with the input, organizing and passion of local communities, resulted in the initiation of a large number of landscape-scale projects.

These proceedings from the 1983 Greenline and Urbanline Parks Conference (link is to a PDF-copy of the document housed in the New York State Library digital collections) capture and report back on wide variety of programs, including the New York Urban Cultural Parks, the New Jersey Pinelands and Lowell National Historical Park – all efforts that would be pivotal in influencing the designation of National Heritage Areas beginning in 1984.

Citation:  Proceedings [of] Greenline and Urbanline Parks Conference : held at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government of the State University of New York, Albany, New York on May 20, 1983. Publisher: Department of Environmental Conservation, Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation, State of New York.


A Holistic Approach to Open Space

By Guest Observer January 2, 2014

By Paul Bray

Lake at Sunset  Credit: Rensselear Plateau Alliance

Lake at Sunset
Credit: Rensselear Plateau Alliance

When David Sampson was director of the Hudson River Greenway, he would say that Troy in Rensselaer County is Albany’s Georgetown (referring to Georgetown in Washington, D.C.). As much as I like Troy, I thought it was a bit of stretch. Yet each time I go to Troy from my home in Albany, I increasingly see what Sampson was talking about, as Troy has character, some top quality urban housing and neighborhoods, and walkability.

Now I see something else very special in Rensselaer County: the Rensselaer Plateau. This eastern portion of Rensselaer County is our region’s Adirondack Park.

The plateau has 105,000 acres and is approximately 10 miles wide and 30 miles long. It is 25 percent of the county’s land area and is the fifth largest forest in our state. It is a scenic and recreational area for the whole Capital Region, with opportunities for hiking, bird-watching, boating, swimming, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, fishing and hunting on public land on the plateau and where private landowners allow it. The plateau is significant in at least two ways — its natural and heritage resources, and its locally initiated comprehensive regional approach to conservation.

Its rich natural resources include contiguous northern forest unbroken by roads and homes, the headwaters of seven watersheds, interesting geologic formations and extensive wildlife. The Audubon Society has designated the plateau as an important bird area because it supports forest breeders including at-risk species like the wood thrush, northern goshawk and Canada warbler.

Its heritage features include the remnants of abandoned farms and mills. Many stone walls that separated fields remain, along with some high bush blueberries that were once a cash crop.

The plateau includes all or part of 10 rural towns and has many small land owners. It is not easy to have partnerships in this mix that can set mutual priorities, share resources and collaborate effectively. Zoning to manage land uses is rare and generally viewed as a threat by small landowners.

In the 1980s, I received a call from an official of one of the towns in the plateau, asking for help. Someone from Westchester County wanted to develop a trailer park in the caller’s town. I asked if the town had zoning or subdivision regulations. The answer was “no.” I was asked if I could I still help. I pointed to some state laws and regulation relating to land use, and it turned out to be enough to hold off the trailer park.

I was able to help another plateau town without zoning in the next year, but I told the official I would not do this again if his town and neighboring towns were not willing to do comprehensive planning and adopt zoning and planning laws.

In light of my experience with the plateau towns, I was impressed when I learned that a grassroots organization, the nonprofit Rensselaer Plateau Alliance, had organized and successfully engaged public and private stakeholders in a comprehensive approach to foster conservation across property lines and political jurisdictions. So far, the alliance, with support from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, has gotten the plateau designated as a Forest Legacy Area by the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Legacy Program helps protect participating forest lands from conversion to non-forest uses.

The plateau is one of 165 conservation initiatives in the Northeast, from West Virginia to Maine, applying “a whole systems, large landscape approach” as part of a project by the Regional Plan Association. We are seeing a change in focus from state parks that are gated and publicly owned to protected and managed landscapes that are “vital for managing watersheds and habitats and addressing long-term issues like climate change” as well as meeting recreational needs. What’s happening on the plateau is a good example of the new holistic, participatory approach to open space.

First published in the Times Union (Albany New York) December 8, 2013



The Italian-New York Connections on Parks and Protected Areas

By Guest Observer October 30, 2013

By Paul Bray

For 6 months in 1996-97 I had the opportunity of living at the American Academy in Rome as a recipient of a Rome Prize.

As an advocate of parks, protected areas and historic preservation in New York State and beyond, my interest has been less with the traditional public estate parks (local, state and national) and more with area wide parks, greenways, landscapes and heritage areas like the six million acre Adirondack Park, the 3 million acre Hudson River Greenway and state and national heritage areas.

I expected to find historic landscapes in Italy that were being managed as parks, but thanks to the emerging effect of the European Union (“EU”) I found more park interest and activity than I expected. The EU set a standard for each EU nation to have at least 10% of its land mass be managed as park or protected area. At the time this standard was established Italy had only 4 National Parks and 1% of its land mass protected. By 2000 Italy could claim it met the 10% standard and it had more than 20 national parks complemented by regional parks like Alpi Apuana, a mountain top region of northern Tuscany with the marble mines that provided the marble used by Michelangelo.

My interaction with Italian park and conservationists was interesting and enriching. As an American, I was welcomed as a national of a nation with the global Mecca of parks, Yellowstone National Park.

Yet, as I got to know the Italians and told them about the Adirondack Park and our heritage areas, we had a new and unexpected common ground. I was not the “know it all American” but someone who admired and wanted to learn about Italian parks like the Italian Abruzzo National Park, the Po Delta Park and the Pisa Regional Parks.

Abruzzo landscape. Photo: Wikimedia commons user Wento

Abruzzo landscape. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia commons user Wento

The Abruzzo Park about 2 hours from Rome and Naples in the Apennines was a small 100,000 acre model of the Adirondack Park, but it was also awesome in its beautiful surround of 6,000 foot mountains, its medieval villages strung along its basin and its remarkable wild life including a sustainable population of 50 wolves. The wild life was nurtured at the same time eco-development was fostered in the Park’s villages through, for example, visitor centers in each village and stores selling products of the park. This was happening as mountain villages in other parts of Italy were dying.

To make a long story short, ties were established between parks and protected areas in New York State and Italy. A conference with Italians from all parts of Italy was held in Rome at the American Academy and a couple of the Italians suggested “twinning” Italian and American parks like sister cities. A description of some of the twinning activity can be found at the following:

As a result of the Great Recession in 2008 and some changes in leadership in some of the parks, the formal exchanges have declined. Now the only formal, ongoing twinning is between the Central Pine Barrens on Long Island and the Pisa Regional Parks. Thanks to the assistance from the Brookhaven Lab and the links for ongoing, real time through camcorders biodiversity projects that were established between schools on Long Island and Pisa, the Pisa-LI twinning continues. Informally, contacts continue between people that where involved in the other formal twinnings. Contacts between planners and academics in Italy and the USA led to the recent publication of Parks and Territories: New Perspectives and Strategies edited by Francesco Morandi, Federico Niccolini and Massimo Sargolini. Retired Professor Roberto Gambino is coordinating another book of articles on park and landscape planning.

The Italian-NYS park twinning fits very well with the observation of Canadian’s J.Gordon Nelson and Lucy M. Sportza in their article ‘The Evolving Shift in Protected Area Thought and Practice”:

We are living in a shifting and evolving framework for protected areas, nature conservation and sustainable development. This situation is marked by the involvement of many government agencies and private groups not only in the lands and waters in and around protected areas, but those that are far away. In these circumstances concerned agencies and private groups cannot easily regulate or direct on another’s activities. Civic arrangements need to be encouraged so that the array of stakeholders concerned about protected areas, nature conservation and sustainable development can learn mutually for one another and find ways to communicate, negotiate, plan and act in the individual and the common interest. In this respect pluralism needs to be explicitly recognized and to be dealt with in a collaborative rather than a predominantly or exclusively corporate manner. The human dimension of protected area planning, management and decision making requires as much attention as science at the local, provincial or state, national and international scales of thought and practice.

The human dimension of the park twinning which included park officials, managers, advocates and various stakeholders allowed many to “learn mutually from one another and find ways to communicate, negotiate, plan and act in the individual and common interest”. Mutual learning complemented by ongoing communication continues.


Albany’s Downtown and Tomorrow’s Prospects

By Guest Observer July 31, 2013
Credit: Jean Mackay, Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor

Downtown Schenectady, NY could provide a model for development in other communities.

By Paul Bray

The buzz over the desire of some to have an Albany aquarium built is what Yogi Berra called “déjà vu all over again”.

When I read about Omni Development Co. President I. David Swawite’s proposal for an aquarium in downtown Albany on a site reserved for a proposed convention center, I went back to a column I wrote for the Times Union in September 1998. It was about a proposal for a downtown aquarium and IMAX Theater that a group from Mayor Jenning’s Capitalize Albany advisors and the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) brought back from a visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee

I feel the same today about the aquarium notion as I did in 1998. Simply stated, a unique and culturally rich city like Albany should invest in its assets and strengths developed over time like its heritage, established institutions, great architecture and streets, parks, river front and neighborhoods rather than investing in entertainment attractions like an aquarium.

I suggested in the column that we should have a civic debate over which path to take, investing in entertainment or in local assets. We did not have the civic debate. We don’t have an aquarium or the Mayor’s passion, a convention center.

When it comes to Albany’s assets, the historic St. Joseph’s Church, an Albany icon, remains empty without a plan for its future. But we have built attractive and well sited new public schools and public libraries.

Mayor Jennings hasn’t given up on getting a convention center. Too bad in 1998 he ignored a consultant’s report recommending a dramatic upgrade of the Empire State Plaza’s convention and meeting facilities to include a 28,000-square-foot ballroom and another 3,800 square feet of meeting and service space for an estimated cost of $18 to $19 million. The new ballroom, when combined with the New York Museum’s Terrace Gallery, will provide spectacular, one-of-a-kind setting that can become the signature function space of Albany’s public assembly offering.”

In contrast to Albany’s civic fumbling, the recent Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor’ conference in Schenectady on “Where Canal Meets Commercial Corridor, Unlocking Investment Opportunities in Your Downtown” offered many ideas.

Much of the event focused on introducing the relatively new approach of “locavesting” and “crowdfunding” as a means of attracting entrepreneurs, developers and project funding to downtowns. It exemplified how heritage areas can be a creative force to downtown development.

Crowdfunding, according to Woody Neiss of Crowdfund Capital Advisors, “is not about ‘finding the next Facebook’ -Silicon Valley does a robust job of that already. It’s about finding and funding ‘the next 1 or 100,000 Main Street startups’ that will create jobs and help build strong and prosperous communities. It’s social media meets community finance.”

Needless to say, Albany needs Main Street startups.

David Buicko, CEO of the Galesi Group, also spoke at the conference. This traditional, locally based developer gave a long list of downtown development projects in Schenectady that involved the Galesi Group. They included the Bowtie 11 screen cinema and the new Golub Corporate Headquarters amongst an impressive array of large and small development that is reviving Downtown Schenectady.

Buicko highlighted the promising Alco project. It involves cleaning up a contaminated brownfield and turning it into a Mohawk River Harbor. It would be the first river front “life style center” with lots of dockage for boats in our Hudson and Mohawk river cities of Albany, Schenectady and Troy.

Hopefully the dust up over the aquarium proposal entwined with the unrealized convention center proposal is just the last gasp of Albany’s way of failing.

Progressive, new leadership in the Mayor’s office unconnected from the old ways of running a city can be a catalyst for creatively engaging developers like the Galesi Group, nonprofit community organizations like the Community Loan Fund, heritage areas like the Erie Canalway, the Hudson River National Heritage Area and the Albany Heritage Area. Potential partners and Albany’s citizenry need to work with the next mayor in the spirit one can find in Schenectady.


Cultivate Parks to our Needs

By Guest Observer May 30, 2013

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

This article originally appeared in the Albany Times Union


New York State Parks Agency Dropped the Ball

By Paul Bray December 29, 2012

A great thing about America is its parks, their diversity and their endurance. Communities proudly have parks, as do states and the nation. Those parks preserve natural and cultural assets for future generations, offer places for recreation and foster civic identity.

New York’s state parks and historic preservation system began with acquisition of Gen. George Washington’s Revolutionary War headquarters in 1850 and the preservation of natural and historic treasures like Niagara Falls.

Later came the Robert Moses era, which was intended to assure outdoor recreational opportunities within reasonable distance for all New Yorkers. Urban and regional state heritage areas broaden that mission explicitly to include sustainable economic development.

Creativity and pride go into the protection of natural and historic treasures as parks. New York courts have protected parks with the public trust doctrine that requires legislative approval before discontinuing or compromising a municipal or state park.

Sadly, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is walking away from responsibility for heritage areas.

These parks, created in our time, were put in jeopardy by former state parks Commissioner Carol Ash during the Paterson administration. In 2008, her deputy commissioner wrote to the state heritage area directors declaring that the “agency’s approved Financial Management Plan for this year includes the end of agency staff support and technical assistance for the Heritage Area program.”

The new parks commissioner, Rose Harvey, has publicly expressed support for heritage areas and has done the bare minimal responsibilities under the law relating to heritage areas. But she has not found a way to the leadership called for in the law creating the state heritage area system.

With strong support from state legislators, local officials and many other public and private leaders, state heritage areas have managed to survive in hard times that have been made harder by the state parks agency. The Susquehanna Heritage Area, for example, recently expanded from 2 cities and village to include more than 35 towns and villages in Broome and Tioga counties. New heritage areas in the concord grape region and the city of Niagara Falls have been established by having their locally prepared management plans approved by the state.

In the early 1980s when the state heritage area law was enacted and the early 1990s there were recessions and cutbacks in state and federal funding. But in both times, state participation in the heritage area partnership continued. Former state parks Commissioner Orin Lehman stated in the face of cutbacks in 1981 that the heritage area concept “will remain valid and achievable”. He did not walk away from it as Carol Ash did.

When the National Park Service held a conference on “Partnerships in Parks & Preservation” in Albany in 1991, these heritage areas were celebrated as “partnership parks.” New York has 18 state heritage areas and 4 of the 49 national heritage areas, including the Erie Canalway, the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area and Champlain Partnership. A portion of each of these 3 national heritage areas is within the Capital Region.

At that 1991 conference, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo said “government – be it state, federal or local – cannot by itself assure that our most precious historic and natural resources will survive.”

He went on to say, “we now recognize that an entire area or region, like our Hudson River Valley, the Adirondacks or what we now know as the Hudson-Mohawk Urban Cultural Park (also known as the Riverspark heritage area) can constitute in its totality a resource of pre-eminent importance.”

The state heritage area program is codified in the state parks law. The state parks agency was to be the leader of a heritage area system with local governments and private organizations playing significant roles in organizing and managing their heritage areas. State agencies were to assist heritage areas as they pursued their integrated goals of conservation, recreation, education and sustainable development pursuant to management plans approved by the state parks commissioner. Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga Springs and the Riverspark including Troy, Cohoes and five neighboring communities) are state heritage areas.

Throughout New York history, the ball has not been dropped by withholding support and jeopardizing the continuance of an important type of park as our state park agency did with the state heritage program. It should not get away with this dereliction of duty and tradition.

This article originally appeared in the Albany Times Union in November 2012.


Erie Canal – Deserves Attention

By Paul Bray November 30, 2012
Lock 27, Photo by flicr user sailorbill.

View of Erie Canal, lock 27. Photo by flickr user sailorbill.

Historian Warren Roberts begins the chapter on “Albany and the Erie Canal” in his book “A Place in History: Albany in the Age of Revolution, 1775-1825” by declaring, “The Erie Canal is one of the most important transportation projects in all of American history.” The Erie Canal is approaching its bicentennial in 2025. It is hard to underestimate how transformational its creation was to the nation. Yet, why can’t we realize its potential as what former Gov. George Pataki called one of New York’s most valuable resources?

Visions for a new chapter for the Erie Canal came from Pataki when he was governor, Andrew Cuomo when he was the U.S. housing secretary, members of Congress when the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor was established and Peter Tufo, chairman and CEO of the Thruway Authority when Mario Cuomo was governor.

Little of that potential has been realized. The Erie Canal is threatened every time a Thruway toll increase is proposed. Tufo led the preparation of the Canal Recreationway Plan and called the scenic vistas that appear when a canal lock lifts travelers to new water levels as being “like a Verdi opera.”

Tufo envisioned the Canal Authority doing for upstate what the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey does for economic development downstate. He proposed goals to Pataki including “piers, restaurants, retail shops, information kiosks, picnic tables and trail amenities” along an end-to-end trail from Buffalo to Albany as well “tourist clusters” at Tonawanda, Rochester, Oswego, Seneca Falls, Little Falls and Whitehall. Planners believed the increase in tourism would create 2,700 jobs and pump $230 million into the state’s economy by attracting 1.3 million visitors.

I thought Pataki would jump at a project that would benefit traditionally Republican upstate New York, but Thruway interests killed it. The best Pataki did for the canal was the not-so-bold “bold new vision to create an ‘Erie Canal Greenway.'” It was a news release solution.

As Pataki dropped the ball, Cuomo announced a Canal Corridor Initiative for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide $74.2 million in low-interest loan guarantees and $56.8 million in grants along the entire Erie Canal Corridor and connecting waterways. Members of the New York congressional delegation announced legislation to designate the Erie Canal to be a National Heritage Corridor. The results were small steps forward for some Canal communities.

Cuomo recently announced an upgrade to the state’s tourism program to attract more visitors to economically struggling upstate. The report in the New York Daily News on this tourism revival didn’t mention the Erie Canal that Tufo believed could be an international attraction. It also didn’t mention the marketing power that could come from a bicentennial celebration for the Erie Canal looking forward to the emerging technologies across the state.

To be serious about upgrading upstate tourism, it is time to go back to Tufo’s vision from the Mario Cuomo era and hitch it to the Erie Canal bicentennial as a means to capture the attention of the whole state, the nation and the world.

The Erie Canal is not only a recreational asset; it symbolizes a dynamic state that opened commerce to the Great Lakes. It sparked the development of upstate cities and allowed New York City to become a world-class city.

In addition, builders of the Erie Canal moved on after its completion to build the Ohio & Erie Canal. Roberts wrote, “the success of the Erie Canal was so great that it ignited a ‘canal fever’ that swept across America.” According to Roberts, “it contributed to a shift in the geographical center of economic activity, giving America a new place in the world community of nations.”

The Erie Canal bicentennial should have a national series of events. One of many benefits for us, for example, could be learning how the Ohio & Erie Canal counties like Tuscarawas County were inspired by their canal to create a countywide trail and green space system.

Some of the historic steps that led to the building of the Erie Canal have already had their 200th anniversary. Time is running out to launch the commemoration of the canal we deserve.

This article originally appeared in the Albany Times Union on November 8, 2012.

 Photo by flickr user sailorbill.