The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation holds sway over 5,000 different properties encompassing 29,000 acres of land — nearly 15 percent of America’s largest city. The person who just passed the 10-year mark as NYC Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe, still lives with his wife and sons in the Upper West Side Manhattan neighborhood where he grew up in the 1960s. So the man knows his home turf.
That being the case, there may not be a better way to combine leisure with learning then the Hudson River Greenway Bike Tour that the Commissioner will lead, and which promises to be a highlight for a lucky few early registrants for the International Urban Parks Conference, Greater & Greener: Re-Imagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, being held from July 14 to 17 in New York City.
The three-hour tour on the afternoon of Sunday July 15 will traverse the longest continuous car-free bicycle and pedestrian path in New York City: the Hudson River Greenway, an uninterrupted 11-mile route between Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, and north beyond the George Washington Bridge. The trail passes through Hudson River Park, Riverside Park South, Riverside Park and Fort Washington Park.
New York City’s historical legacy as a pioneer of urban park innovation in America will be both on visual display — and on display in the accompanying ruminations of the Commissioner. Bicycles and helmets will be provided and the stunningly scenic and informative ride will be at a relaxed pace with, Benepe promises, about a half dozen or so stops. “Hopefully the weather will cooperate, and there’s usually a breeze along the river and many places to stop, talk, get water and get a bite along the way.”
Sunblock and cool clothing are good ideas. Perhaps only an excessive fear of helmet hair should be a deterrence.
“I haven’t figured out the exact route yet that we’ll take,” the Commissioner says, “but we’ll see Battery Park and Battery Park City, Hudson River Park and the new park that connects Hudson River Park and Riverside. We’ll see some new parks on the Upper West Side and Harlem…we’ll pass by the state park on top of the sewage treatment plant in West Harlem, and [maybe] will see some of the improvements [underway] to Fort Washington Park. If we have the energy, we can go as far north as the Little Red Lighthouse — the iconic structure underneath the great bridge, the George Washington Bridge. You know, the story as told in the children’s book is more or less true. The river didn’t come to life and we don’t know if it was exactly called back into action on one dark and stormy night — but we do know it was saved from demolition and restored.”
Benepe points out that the necklace of parks and the continuous bike paths that now adjoin them, “the opening up of the formerly industrial waterfront for recreational use,” is felt by many to be one of the city’s two or three greatest urban planning accomplishments of recent decades. “I’m a recreational cyclist. I get out and ride on weekends,” he says, “and you can now do a continuous ride without ever having to cross a street, from the Battery [on the south end of the island] all the way up to Dyckman Street [in the Inwood neighborhood of most northern Manhattan] because all the missing links have now been filled in. That’s a distance of almost the entire length of Manhattan.”
This has all occurred during the biggest period of park investment, construction and expansion for New York City since the 1930s. “The waterfront parks and re-purposing the post-industrial and post-maritime landscape for public recreation has been a major focus in particular,” Benepe explains. “This is being done around the world and has been a particular emphasis here in New York.” As a signature program of the Bloomberg mayoralty, Benepe estimates the city has invested in excess of $1 billion dollars on waterfront parks alone, $3 billion on parks in total over the last 10 years. “Just look at Brooklyn Bridge Park and Hudson River Park — those alone are half a billion. Plus [the development] along the Bronx River, the Harlem River, the East River waterfront park south of South Street Seaport…so I think a billion is probably accurate. Certainly no one else in the United States is doing this much.
“New York City has become both a lab and a bellwether for urban park design, development, construction and management [with] all permutations of creative public-private partnerships,” he explains. Conference attendees will be able to see first hand “many examples of terrific landscape design by talented architects, and more varied models of park management in one place then you can find in 10 other cities.”
Presented by City Parks Alliance, Greater & Greener: Re-Imagining Parks for 21st Century Cities will feature over 100 tours and workshops. Space for the Commissioner’s bike tour is very limited, so be sure to sign up soon.
Please visit www.urbanparks2012.org for full program and registration details.