Central Park: If you can maintain it there …
With public and private funding, and a small army of maintenance personnel, New York’s Central Park is sprucing up its image: restoring the landscapes, repairing the monuments and removing even the smallest pieces of trash. It is a colossal task, brought about by the Central Park Conservancy, a private organization formed in 1980 to fund and urge the park out of its state of disrepair. Together, New York City’s Parks & Recreation Department and the Conservancy have refaced the park and implemented a maintenance program to preserve its 843 acres.
Hosting nearly 20 million visitors per year, Central Park is the nation’s most frequently visited urban park. The potential damage of that traffic on lawns, trees, benches, buildings, sports venues and playgrounds is enormous. However, with a dedicated staff and a management structure that places accountability in the field, the park is managing those challenges.
A man-made haven When landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Central Park, they envisioned a series of pathways and enclaves where visitors could relax and socialize, far away from the bustle of Victorian Manhattan. At the time, the city boasted 440,000 citizens, most of whom lived south of today’s 23rd Street.
The park was largely quarries and swamps when New York purchased the land in 1856, paying $5.5 million. The following year, workers began clearing the land, hauling debris in horse-drawn carts.
More than 43 miles of drainage pipe and 12 miles of irrigation pipe were laid as the landscape was reshaped. Everything — from topsoil and water bodies to bridges and buildings — was placed or built by human hands.
When construction ended in 1873, Central Park had already become a popular attraction, where native New Yorkers and visitors gathered to see and be seen. Only three years into the park’s construction, annual attendance had reached 2.5 million.
As New York grew and lifestyles changed, so did Central Park. Ballfields and tennis courts were added at the turn of the century, and, with the introduction of the automobile in 1912, the park’s drives were paved. In the 1930s, the central reservoir was converted to the Great Lawn; a zoo was added; and the Sheepfold, once home to the Sheep Meadow’s 150 sheep and their shepherd, was converted to Tavern on the Green.
Few structures of Olmsted-Vaux design remain in the park — Bethesda Terrace is one of the oldest — but the architects’ landscape has survived essentially intact. So, too, has the park’s role as a haven for the weary urbanite.
Zoning in on maintenance Granted, Central Park’s first visitors bore little resemblance to today’s 7.5 million New Yorkers. Sunday strollers still make their way to the park, but they are joined by joggers, bikers and rollerbladers; and top coats and corsets have been replaced by shorts and bathing suits in the summer. However, just as they were in the 1800s, Central Park’s visitors are insulated in a cocoon of trees, pathways, gardens and lawns; from no point can they see the entire park from side to side or from end to end.
Driving outside the park, there is little evidence of the perpetual activity within its walls. In addition to the ballfields, tennis courts and zoo, there are volleyball courts, bowling greens, a museum, a carousel, a chess and checkers house, playgrounds and ponds. After a winter snow, the pathways are dotted with cross-country skiers; in the summer, the Sheep Meadow becomes an urban “beach” where sunbathers and Frisbee players gather in the afternoon sun.
Moving among the visitors are more than 150 field maintenance personnel (a mix of Conservancy and city employees), whose jobs range from turf and drainage management to bench repair and graffiti removal. Working in morning-to-afternoon and evening shifts, they attend to the safety and aesthetics of the park’s every corner.
For maintenance purposes, the park is divided into seven sections and 49 zones. Each section has a supervisor, and each zone has a full-time “gardener” who is responsible for all aspects of maintenance within his area.
“The zone gardeners are the core of the maintenance responsibility,” says Doug Blonsky, senior vice president for capital projects and operations for the Conservancy. “They take care of day-to-day maintenance, cleanup and horticulture, and they look out for any repairs that have to be done.”
“The gardener manages a given area of the park,” says Regina Alvarez, a section supervisor and former zone gardener. “They do all the gardening — mulching, weeding, pruning, watering, weed whacking — and all types of cleanup, from garbage to keeping the pathways clean, fence repairs and painting.”
Within any given zone, there are numerous items requiring attention. In addition to horticulture, the zone gardener may be responsible for benches, drinking fountains, stone arches, sculptures, asphalt pathways, playgrounds and more. When necessary maintenance exceeds a gardener’s capabilities, he is aided by one of several parkwide technical crews.
For example, if the gardener encounters a fallen tree limb that is too big for him to remove, he notifies the section supervisor, and the park’s tree care crew is dispatched to remove the limb. If his lawn is too expansive for him to mow on his own, the turf care crew is dispatched to his aid.
Pride and the public Central Park’s zone gardener concept was tested in 1984-85, and, in 1996, Conservancy President Karen Putnam instituted it parkwide. Since then, managers have noted a significant difference in maintenance efficiency and accountability. “You have the front-line people who are staying in their specific zones all day, and they’re experts on all their infrastructure and all their furnishings,” says Stephen Spinelli, deputy chief of operations for technical services for the Conservancy. As manager of infrastructure-related crews, Spinelli relies on the gardeners to alert him to problems.
“The information I get from the field is accurate,” he says. “It makes my job a lot easier having zone gardeners out there who report problems to me instantly because they’re looking at the same stuff everyday. They’re the people who have to live with it every day and hear the complaints from users that walk by.”
“You get very possessive about your site,” Alvarez notes. “Like, ‘This is my zone. I’ve been taking care of it for three years, and I want it to look outstanding.’ You get a different quality of work that way.”
Being on-site everyday, the gardeners are not only experts on maintenance, but they also are familiar with the people who visit their zones regularly. “You get to develop a relationship with the public,” Alvarez says. “There are so many people that come in everyday — dog walkers, bikers, birdwatchers or whatever — and they get to know you. Everybody in my zone knew my name, and I knew a lot of them by name.
“It’s a good way to let the public know what kinds of things they can do to help out,” she adds. “For instance, if it rained and the lawns were soggy, I would say ‘Please don’t run your dogs on the lawn today; go over to the area that has wood chips.’ There are always those that want to do what they want to do, but a lot of people really are cooperative.”
Zone gardeners also build relationships through the park’s volunteer program. In many cases, volunteers are assigned to a specific zone and are available to assist in maintenance on a regular basis.
“We found it to be very effective to assign volunteers to various zone gardeners, so the gardeners and the volunteers can do the scheduling they need to do to get the work done,” says Neil Calvanese, chief of operations for Central Park and an employee of New York’s Parks & Recreation Department. “They kind of work it out between themselves. It’s really gotten the resources where they belong, and it gives the zone gardener additional resources that he can feel empowered with.”
Along with the zone gardeners, the volunteers develop a commitment to their sections, Alvarez says. “I had a group that came every Monday, and I had a group that came every Thursday,” she notes. “They were the same people, and some of them have been coming for years. When I left, the new zone gardener took over the same groups.”
“We give a lot of independence, but we also have high standards of accountability,” Blonsky says of the zone gardening concept. “We keep the supervisors out as much as we can, with very few middlemen, and people reach out and get the work done on their own.”
Turf wars For the parkwide technical crews that complete the Central Park maintenance team, assisting the zone gardeners is but one of their chores. Additionally, they have regularly scheduled routes that keep them busy throughout the year. (See the table on page 49.)
As in any urban park, there are maintenance hot spots, beginning with turf management. “During the winter, the turf crews are doing all the leaf removal, and then we have them doing snow fence repairs and pruning,” says Bill Berliner, horticulture director for the Conservancy. In the spring, turf management intensifies with fertilization, irrigation, mowing and ballfield maintenance requirements.
Mowing is handled on a 10- to 12-day rotation, Berliner says, noting that the park’s turf crew (supplemented with seasonal employees) is divided between the northern and southern ends of the park. “The maintenance requirements are far greater down south than they are up north,” he says. “The bulk of the mowing is concentrated in the south because up in the north we have 110 acres of woodlands, and the reservoir takes up 100 acres.”
“The volume of use in the park is incredible, and compaction is very hard to deal with,” Calvanese says. “We never want to be cutting too much of the blade when we do our mowing. Where we’ve restored lawns, our goal is to get just one-third of the blade at a time, and, in the spring, that could mean weekly or sometimes bi-weekly mowing.”
Similar to the lawns, the park’s 26 ballfields require ongoing attention during the spring and summer. “Just the softball fields (there are 19) have about 7,000 games a year,” Blonsky notes.
“There’s a big maintenance load for the ballfields,” Berliner says. “In the spring, the crews regrade the fields, adding clay and putting in the pitcher’s mounds. They check all the backstops, paint, line the fields and aerate, in addition to the standard lawn maintenance.” In the winter, the fields are closed with snow fences, which also must be maintained.
Maintenance nuts and bolts In addition to meeting Central Park’s horticulture requirements, crews work daily to ensure the safety and aesthetics of the park’s structures and furnishings. According to Spinelli, the graffiti, bench and playground crews are among the park’s busiest.
The graffiti crew has a variety of weapons in its cleaning arsenal, ranging from industrial products to power washing and sandblasting. As a rule, graffiti is removed within 24 hours of its appearance.
“The only way to combat graffiti is to take it off immediately,” Spinelli says. “When it’s off the next morning, it’s disheartening [to the perpetrator], and they won’t waste the effort on it again or risk getting caught doing it.
“We have a lot of very delicate architectural materials in the park, like sandstone, so we try to do the most minimally invasive kind of thing we can,” he adds. “We use products that draw the graffiti out as best they can, but sometimes it’s irreparable.”
Although graffiti cannot be prevented, unsafe playgrounds and benches can be, and Central Park focuses designated crews on preventive maintenance for those areas. For the playground crew, a manager performs weekly “detailed inspections, looking at the structures, the paving, planting, trees, everything,” Spinelli says. “We change nuts, bolts, ‘S’ hooks; we change swings when they start to show wear; and we repair safety surfaces that are wearing.
“The playground crew is very, very busy,” he adds. “There are 21 playgrounds, and they are the most heavily used in the city. Although a playground’s footprint may be 10,000 square feet, there is a tremendous amount of furnishings and infrastructure. The more preventive maintenance you can do, the better, because playgrounds can deteriorate into capital projects very quickly.”
Attention to the park’s 9,000 benches is equally painstaking, Spinelli says. The bench crew keeps a maintenance log and replaces bolts and worn slats as needed. In the case of a broken bench, the structure is taped off until the crew makes the necessary repairs.
“The bench program is very important to us,” Blonsky says. “We made a goal two years ago to have every bench in Central Park in very good condition. So we repaired all of them in one year, and we don’t let the benches [deteriorate]. They are repaired on a daily basis.”
“The goal is to get the longest life expectancy out of a furnishing or a facility,” Spinelli says. “We want to keep everything up and running, and accessible to the public. I don’t want somebody to walk down to Bethesda Terrace and see that the fountain is shut down because the pump blew or go to the Great Lawn and not be able to sit on a bench because of a bolt.”
Transformation and adaptability Since 1980, New York City and the Central Park Conservancy have worked steadily to revitalize all of Central Park’s lawns and appointments. Last November, restoration of the Great Lawn was completed, transforming what had come to be known as the “Great Dustbowl” into 55 acres of green lawn, softball fields, volleyball and basketball courts, and a one-eighth mile running track.
According to New York’s Parks & Recreation Department, the new lawn was created with 500,000 square feet of Kentucky Bluegrass and perennial rye sod; 25,000 cubic yards of soil; 22,500 linear feet of storm turf and sub-surface drainage lines; and 11,000 linear feet of irrigation lines with 275 pop-up sprinklers. Nearly 230,000 trees, shrubs, native grasses and perennials were planted, and decorative bluestone paths and plazas were added.
Central Park’s annual budget for horticulture, maintenance and operations is more than $4.5 million, and maintaining the newly restored Great Lawn will cost an additional $350,000 per year, according to the city. The lawn will require meticulous grooming, and crews are taking care to close it when the grass is wet and vulnerable to trampling. Additionally, ballfields are being rotated, keeping one closed at all times to allow the turf to repair itself.
In February, New York City entered an eight-year contract in which it formally assigned Central Park’s maintenance to the Conservancy and agreed to providematching funds. The agreement calls for the city to provide $1 in public funds for every $5 the Conservancy raises, provided the Conservancy raises and spends at least $5 million on Central Park each year.
In short, the future looks lush for New York’s most enduring natural setting, and the park’s maintenance plan appears to be sprouting in other cities. “I’ve had other cities reach out,” Spinelli says. “They’ll call because we have an in-house landscape design firm — that’s what it amounts to. We’re experts in playgrounds; we’re experts in landscapes. They call us for details, recommendations, vendors, that kind of stuff.”
Although few parks departments have the budget and manpower to dedicate a specialized staff to a single park, Spinelli insists that Central Park’s secret is not in the numbers. “We’re a lot leaner than you would think; it’s not an endless thing from a budgetary standpoint. It’s just a matter of structuring your management (with the zone managers and crews) so you can provide support. I think you can transfer it reasonably well to any public space.”
According to the Central Park Conservancy, the following personnel are dedicated to specialized maintenance throughout the park.
* A two-person crew removes graffiti, cleaning more than 40,000 square feet per year. * A two-person crew maintains and restores 51 fountains, monuments and sculptures. * A nine-person crew, skilled in stone carving and rustic wood carpentry, restores and maintains bridges, arches and historic structures. * A three-person crew cares for 26,000 trees, pruning approximately 1,200 trees per year and protecting trees from disease. * A five-person turf care crew irrigates, fertilizes, rakes leaves and mows the 250 acres of lawn. * A two-person crew monitors four major water bodies within the park. * A three-person crew maintains 5.3 miles of benches and repairs 2.4 miles of benches each year. * Three full-time and 11 part-time employees clean and maintain the park’s six-mile perimeter. * A two-person stormwater team cleans more than 800 catch basins, snakes lines and maintains hundreds of miles of drainage pipe. * A two-person crew inspects and maintains 21 playgrounds.
The Central Park Conservancy is a private, not-for-profit organization that manages Central Park. Since its inception in 1980, the Conservancy has raised nearly $170 million with donations from corporations, foundations and individuals.
In addition to fundraising, it has prescribed a management and restoration plan for the park; funded major capital improvements; and created programs for volunteers and visitors. It has invested nearly $62 million in restoring the park’s landscapes, completing two-thirds of the restorations to date.
Source: Central Park Conservancy