As temperatures rise across the globe with no sign of slowing down, the parks of the future will be subjected to droughts, flooding, punishing heat, and more abundant snowfall as warmer air is capable of holding more moisture than colder air. (It’s often said the world of the future will be wetter and wilder for that exact reason.)
So how can urban parks harden themselves for the coming decades? The Central Park Conservancy, the Yale School of the Environment, and the Natural Areas Conservancy have teamed up to turn New York City’s most iconic park into a hub for studying climate change adaptation and potential mitigation strategies. The Central Park Climate Lab was announced on January 12 by the conservancy, and the insights gleaned from the program will expand to other parks across New York city and eventually, other parks across the country.
Unlike the planned Governors Island Center for Climate Solutions, the Central Park Climate Lab won’t be an actual physical campus embedded in the Frederick Law Olmsted- and Calvert Vaux-designed landscape.
“Parks are essential for New Yorkers, as this last couple of years have proven, but flooding, high winds, and extreme temperatures pose a threat to their health,” said Mayor Eric Adams in the program’s announcement. “The Central Park Climate Lab begins a new era in research and cooperation that will give our park professionals improved tools to combat the climate crisis, and it will be a model for urban parks across the country.”
“With about 55 [percent] of the world’s population now living in urban areas, urbanization plays an increasingly important role in how we manage and mitigate the impact of global climate change,” added Karen Seto, Frederick C. Hixon Professor of Geography and Urbanization Science at the Yale School of the Environment, in the university’s announcement. “This collaboration aims to use mapping and other tools to develop urban interventions to protect their urban parkland and use them to mitigate and adapt to climate change.”
While the 843-acre Central Park isn’t New York’s largest—that honor goes to the sprawling 2,765-acre Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx—it is by far the most famous and frequented by residents and visitors alike. The park is already equipped with an abundance of precipitation sensors and is maintained by a small army of landscapers thanks to its generous endowment, making it the perfect place to collect data on climate changes and trial adaptation techniques.
Central Park received a record 3.15 inches of rain in a single hour and consequently flooded when Hurricane Ida swept through the Northeast in September of 2021, right after a summer that saw four heatwaves in July and at least two in August. It also isn’t immune from the rise of pollution and nutrient runoff that cause the algae blooms that have plagued waterbodies elsewhere.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has turned urban parks into oases and safe gathering places for residents sick of their cramped apartments, that rise in use hasn’t been followed by a corresponding increase in funding or maintenance. Thankfully, with a centralized testbed from which to export solutions to other parks and urban landscapes, they could still reap the benefits.