Green Scene

Green Scene

A new manual providing sustainable park guidelines was launched at the Center for Architecture on January 6. Produced through a partnership between the Design Trust for Public Space and the Department of Parks and Recreation, High Performance Landscape Guidelines: 21st Century Parks for NYC is said to be the first document of its kind in the nation. The line to get into its launch stretched down the block, prompting Park Commissioner Adrian Benepe to dub the gathering “the Studio 54 of design.”

The manual, loaded with bullet points, provides clear checklists for administrators, designers, contractors, and maintenance staff on how to build and maintain sustainable parks. After walking the reader through site assessment and analysis, the report moves on to design before tackling construction and upkeep. The book’s major thrust centers on a section called “Best Practices in Site Process,” which divides its focus between soil, water, and vegetation. The manual culminates in a series of case studies that employ the book’s principles. “The most important part is the applications,” said Benepe. “It’s a very hands-on document.”

“I like to think of it as the Strunk and White of park design,” said Charles McKinney, principal urban designer for Parks, invoking the beloved style bible of writers. He added that one major motivation was to “make manifest a shared set of values” within the department and beyond. As Parks is the only city agency that designs, manages, and maintains their properties, the institutional knowledge presented will likely be useful to other agencies, like the Department of Transportation, which now manages newly allocated pedestrian plazas in Times and Herald squares. Jeannette Compton, a Design Trust fellow, said that a citywide manual encompassing all the various agencies’ needs would probably prove unwieldy, but their overlapping goals could easily be found within the guidelines. “They may not be Parks’ properties, but they’re parks in spirit,” she said.

Design Trust executive director Deborah Marton believes the sharing of information remains particularly important within the department, especially between those who design the parks and those who maintain them. “If we’re going to be serious about this, then the people who care for the parks have to understand why they are the way they are,” she said, referring to the current formula for les pristine and more plant-rich parks. What might look like weeds to the untrained eye could actually be filtration wetland.

For many years, an oral tradition dominated the way things got done at Parks. McKinney said that with staff preoccupied with completing the business at hand, there was little time left to write it all down. The Design Trust made it possible to bring in experts from the outside and implement a peer review process. “There were certain areas outside of our purview, like soils,” he said, adding that that effort also provided a framework for the agency to draw expertise from within the agency as well.

With the manual online at, the creators see it as a living document. “No one believes that some of the stuff we put forward won’t become outdated. It’s a working document,” said Benepe. “It’s a very big tent that these things fall under, but the document will help institutionalize what we are doing.”