New Yorkers for Park

Hiller, Myer, Pantin and Murphy at the New Yorkers for Parks event.


Literally out of the ashes of the city’s near-death experience in the 1970s, New York City neighborhoods built beauty and community by claiming vacant lots and turning them into gardens. Elsewhere across the city in the decades that followed, reclamation assumed a grander scale. Governor’s Island turned from a forgotten military outpost to a place where green space and great views form the backdrop to visual art and music. On a waterfront where industry once thrived, Brooklyn Bridge Park took shape. The High Line transformed a relic of the factory city into a tourist attraction for the 21st Century.

Now, as the city’s population grows and land becomes more scarce, these sites are more essential. Some are also more threatened. All face the question of how to fund upkeep without private interests–on-site housing, commercial development, philanthropy–crossing the line between donation and distortion.

Last week, New Yorkers for Parks convened another in its series of Open Space Dialogues to explore the issues around turning vacant space into public space, and the challenges of keeping it that way. Bill LoSasso, director of GreenThumb; Michael Samuelian, the president and CEO of the Trust for Governors Island; Dan Barasch, the co-founder and executive director of the Lowline; Tony Hillery, the founder and executive director of Harlem Grown; Regina Myer, the president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership and Marlene Pantin, the president and founder of the Red Hook Conservancy, joined this reporter, who moderated.

Video of the event is here. The audience generated so many questions that Samuelian answered some of the ones we didn’t get to during the event itself. The questions and his written answers are below.

Question: How can open space bridge social barriers (xenophobia, homelessness)?

Michael Samuelian: Open spaces can be bridges to social barriers through both thoughtful design and sensitive programming, On Governors Island, the park was designed to bring discovery and delight to visitors from all walks of life and all ages. In addition, programming on the Island is carefully curated to invite people from across the city to partake in the activities or chose to simply have a quiet day in a car free environment.

Q: What should private philanthropy’s role be in fostering and maintaining open space?

MS: Some parks, depending on their location and neighborhood, are good candidates for philanthropy and financial support from neighbors and local residents, but we need to keep in mind that there are a wide variety of types of parks in this city and there is not a one size fits all solution to funding parks and open spaces.

Q: How can the city foster nontraditional open spaces? What should agencies do? What shouldn’t they do anymore?

MS: The city can continue to foster non-traditional open space such as the transformation of streets into plazas, giving priority to pedestrians over cars and other vehicles. There is a lot of potential to create even more public open spaces in our underutilizes roadways.

Q: Like the Low Line and the High Line, do you see more opportunities for thinking about open space in three dimensions (parks on roofs of buildings, et cetera)? How about building over the BQE and similar highways to create parks? If these options are viable, what are the challenges to be addresses?

MS: While there are opportunities to create more open spaces both above and below ground, we should keep in mind the additional maintenance costs of these types of spaces, as well as the accessibility and security challenges that they can pose.

Q: Post-industrial spaces helped us create some of the most iconic new open spaces. What is the next type of land we should consider in seeking new opportunities for active and passive recreation?

MS: I think that large scale roofs, especially in industrial areas are a great opportunity for us to create new types of expansive open spaces