Parks get greener

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An new, energy efficient LED light is installed into a lamp in Central Park

It’s clear that New Yorkers love their parks in all forms. High above the urban framework, separated by greenery, or integrated within the complex fabric of our global city, these verdant spaces captivate our thoughts like no other aspect of the city. We commonly view parks as environmentally friendly and green, but for a long period of time, our city’s largest parks were incredibly energy inefficient and regularly taxed our water supplies. That’s not to say parks were not or are not less energy inefficient than the buildings that might otherwise occupy their space within the urban fabric, but just because a park is a park does not mean it gets an automatic clean bill of environmental health.

Over the past decade, the parks service and the city have taken incredible steps to improve energy efficiency, especially in park lighting and water use. How we as a city can and have transformed our green parks into environmentally green urban spaces is an important development for the city’s carbon footprint and overall environmental impact.

For a long time, New Yorkers enjoyed nightlife in parks at considerable monetary and environmental cost. Early on, urbanites and The New York Times argued that the city should not light the parks, but their argument was more moralistic than it was environmental. When the city did decide to light major parks, especially Central Park, it used gas lamps. These lamps, which the Times described as “a row of invalid glow-worms” in 1866, were not very bright. This early attempt at urban lighting was replaced with electric lamps in the 1880s, and the lamps made their way to Central Park soon after its completion.

To the city’s credit, it has taken steps to improve lighting efficiency in urban parks. Rather than resting on the laurels of the park system’s natural beauty, policymakers have strived to ensure utmost energy efficiency. Until recently, the park used electric lighting, and had relied on 175-watt metal halide bulbs since the early 1980’s. Recently, though, the parks undertook a switch to 40- and 90-watt LED lamps that last longer and use as much as 62% less electricity and will eventually monetary savings as well. The LED lighting program was started by the Department of Transportation as a means of changing roadway lights, but has spread to the parks service over the past year through the Mayor’s sustainability initiative, PlaNYC.

Turning to water use, you might be surprised at how little water Central Park uses on a daily basis. The park requires 20,000 kiloliters of water each year, or the equivalent water use of just over 13,200 Americans. While the sheer magnitude and unit of measurement required to discuss the park’s water use might seem outlandish, the park’s water use is a fraction of what it was in 1999. Improved irrigation systems are chiefly to credit for this improvement, and with each passing year the park’s thick green grass wastes less and less municipal water. Improved drainage systems, bioswales and the capture and use of storm water has increased the park system’s environmental friendliness and decreased the amount of municipal water needed to keep the grass thick and green.

The parks service has taken strides to make the greenest parts of our cities environmentally friendly through its “Sustainable Parks” movement. Its most recent report, published early this year, shows that the trends of progress established in its inaugural report and 2011 plan are continuing to produce more efficient parks. The parks service’s renovation of brownfields and other decayed aspects of the urban framework like the famed High Bridge and High bridge Park further improves New York’s overall environmental footprint.

We should not automatically view parks as being environmentally friendly by their nature. Our parks, though, have become greener in a literal and an environmental sense through human ingenuity and the city’s push for greater environmental sustainability in spite of increased park use.

Photo Credit: Davis Enterprise