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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Urban Green Space

Air Date: Week of

WNYC’s Beth Fertig reports on the growing tensions in balancing nature conservation and recreational use of green space in New York City. From the Central Park greens to a bird sanctuary in Jamaica Bay, residents, activists and officials hold a variety of views on how public space should be used.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As major cities become more crowded, the competition over the use of the limited supply of common open spaces is becoming acute. There is much need for places to relax and play. And there's much need for green shelters to balance the ecosystem and to preserve what little wildlife remains in cities. Not surprisingly then, among the open space advocates conflict can arise and New York City is a case in point. Beth Fertig of member station WNYC explains.

(Bird song)

FERTIG: Jamaica Bay is home to New York City's only wildlife refuge, a national park where hundreds of species of migratory birds stop to feed every spring and fall. Visitors can see graceful marsh birds diving into the water, yellow warblers, and gray-colored catbirds that dart out of trees. In the lush summer foliage, other birds can only be heard, says Al Ott, who likes to walk along the dirt path and gaze with binoculars.

OTT: There are several birds singing. One of them is a white-eyed vireo. And they nest in the shrubs. They've got habitat all along where it's going to be destroyed by the construction of the bike path.

FERTIG: Ott is referring to plans for building a new bicycle path here in the brush. The asphalt path would be ten feet wide and one-and-a-half miles long, part of a bigger loop around Jamaica Bay. And it wouldn't go very deep, just nine feet from the park perimeter. But Ott, who organized a group called Save Our Sanctuary, says even that would destroy valuable nesting space, and also ruin a rare feeling of tranquility in a tiny sliver of land near Kennedy International Airport.

OTT: Wildlife refuge is for passive recreation. Walking, observing nature, photographing. You know, when we collected the 5,500 signatures from people that use the refuge, more than half of them were just people that are desperate for a quiet place to go for a walk.

FERTIG: Conservation groups, including the Audubon Society, agree the new path is a bad idea, but the issue has divided the community here in southeastern Queens. Neighbors who want the new path say their gorgeous refuge is inaccessible to bikers, baby carriages, and wheelchairs, because the only paved path is right outside the sanctuary along a busy road.


MUNDY: As you can see right now, I can't even bring my grandchildren up here with their bicycles or rollerblades. The sidewalk is just in terrible condition. It's broke, there's holes in it.

FERTIG: Dan Mundy is president of the Civic Association for Broad Channel, which is right by Jamaica Bay.

MUNDY: We try to provide a place where people can come, get away from the hardtop, get away from carbon monoxide, get away from noise of cars whizzing by and planes overhead, which we hear now.

FERTIG: Jamaica Bay's wildlife refuge is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, a gigantic park around New York Harbor. The 20-mile bike loop around Jamaica Bay would be funded partly by federal transportation dollars, which would also pay for a series of proposed greenway paths all over the city. David Lutz of the group Friends of Gateway says the current plan is a compromise.

LUTZ: This is not an issue of wildlife. This is an issue of people. So you have the recreationists on one side, who are recreationists with binoculars, versus the recreationists on the other side, who are recreationists with bicycles. And the question is whether cyclists and families should be able to have an environmentally pleasant experience when they go through a national park, in an environmentally benign way.

(Children's voices)

McCANTS: Excuse me, ma'am? Can I talk to you for a moment?

FERTIG: But in another part of New York City, park officials say wildlife is the issue.

McCASS: How are you doing, ma'am? My name is Lieutenant Benny McCants from New York City Parks Department.

WOMAN: Hi, nice to meet you.

McCANTS: It's not a problem. I just want to inform you, you did have your dog off the leash...

FERTIG: In Central Park, enforcement officers remind people not to walk their dogs without a leash during the day. The city has beefed up enforcement over the years. Visitors also aren't allowed to play football or soccer, which can ruin the lawns. Visitors can get a ticket, but the officers usually give out warnings first. The Central Park Conservancy has raised nearly $270 million in private donations over the last 20 years to clean up the park, which in some places had come to resemble a dust bowl.

(A lawnmower revs up)

FERTIG: The Conservancy, which is under contract with the city, hired teams of horticulturalists and caretakers. They replanted the fields, pruned the trees, and wiped away all the graffiti. New York City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern acknowledges all this work may cause some inconveniences, but with 20 million visitors a year, he says, he has to balance the needs of the park and the people who love it.

STERN: You do it by following the rule of reason, and by letting people do what they can, as long as they don't injure anyone else or injure the park. You cannot have people playing soccer on a field, day after day, evening after evening, without the grass being destroyed. That's not my rule or Mayor Giuliani's rule. That is a law of nature.

FERTIG: Environmentalists say cities around the country are trying to strike a similar balance, protecting green space while also promoting it. After years of neglect, many parks are now green with cash thanks to the good economy. And the parks are responding, says Kathy Blaha, who directs the Green Cities Initiative at the Trust for Public Land in Washington, D.C.

BLAHA: There's oftentimes different people using those parks than used to use those parks. So you're seeing that where there might have been young people, there are now older people. Or where there might have been older people, there are now younger people. Where there might have once been people who liked to walk through the park, now there are people who like to play soccer in the park. So, local governments are not only facing the demands of trying to improve those places, simply making them look better and making them run better, but really to meet a whole new series of demands.

FERTIG: As supporters of the parks lobby for more funding, Blaha says tensions are sure to surface around the country. She suggests open communication between parks and the communities they serve could help ensure that recreation and conservation are not mutually exclusive. For Living on Earth, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.



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