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American Society of Landscape Architects


January 2008 Issue

Friday in the Park with Adrian
He started out picking up beer cans and swabbing out locker rooms. Now a “parkie” is running the New York City Parks Department as it enters a new golden age.

By Linda McIntyre

Friday in the Park with Adrian

Parks in New York are like parks everywhere, only more so. Their fortunes rise to spectacular heights, as in the Works Progress Administration-backed building binge in the 1930s, but can later crash into equally astonishing dereliction, as in the crime boom and financial bust of the 1960s and 1970s. As with theatrical productions, park issues often open in New York City and settle in for a long run. People versus cars? Mothers here were battling then-commissioner Robert Moses over a plan to replace a playground with a parking lot in 1956. Private-sector intervention in public parks? It was invented here in 1980 with the establishment of the Central Park Conservancy. Synthetic turf rather than real grass? The city has been using the fake stuff for a decade and is its biggest municipal buyer.

Adrian Benepe keeps an eye on history and takes the debates in stride. He has been overseeing New York’s park system, comprising more than 1,700 parks, playgrounds, and recreational facilities spanning almost 29,000 acres, and the clashes it engenders, since Mayor Michael Bloomberg named him commissioner in 2002. But Benepe’s connection with the city’s parks is strong and deep—he grew up playing in Riverside Park and had menial summer jobs in the department in the dark days of the early 1970s, when the parks were bedraggled havens for criminals and vagrants.

He was a member of the first corps of rangers established by then-commissioner Gordon Davis to educate visitors and keep eyes on the parks after the staff was demoralized and depleted in the wake of the city’s fiscal crisis. After earning a graduate degree in journalism, Benepe returned to the Parks Department for a succession of jobs including press aide; first head of the Natural Resources and Horticulture Division, established in 1984 by Commissioner Henry Stern; and Manhattan borough commissioner.

In departmental parlance, Benepe’s a “parkie,” and it seems karmically appropriate that, having cast his lot with the Parks Department back in the bad old days, he’s now presiding over a program of improvement and expansion that almost rivals that of his predecessor Moses. Expanding residents’ access to parks, open space, and recreational facilities is a key component of Bloomberg’s “2030 Plan,” which seeks to cope with the pressures of growth, aging infrastructure, and environmental challenges. Since Bloomberg took office the city has acquired more than 416 acres of new parkland with thousands more in the pipeline—no mean feat in this built-out landscape—and the Parks Department is enjoying the biggest expansion of staffing and capital budgets in decades.

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