How parks and open spaces can strengthen resilience

Release Date

NEW YORK – When many people think of resilient rebuilding after disasters like Hurricane Sandy, what often comes to mind is elevating a home above flood level or reinforcing critical infrastructure such as electrical systems.

But what role do parks and open spaces play in increasing communities’ resilience to potentially catastrophic events?

This and other questions were explored recently at a symposium, “Building Community Resilience through Enhancing Parks and Open Spaces,” hosted by the Natural and Cultural Resources Recovery Support Function at FEMA’s New York Sandy Recovery Field Office.

The symposium, held at the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in Manhattan and carried live online, brought together a range of experts from government, academia and the nonprofit and private sectors. Participants discussed recent and upcoming projects and the health benefits of parks and open spaces. They also talked about the social dynamics of the creation and care of such spaces, and how those spaces can increase resilience physically as green infrastructure and socially as they build community.

Resilient rebuilding is a key priority of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force that President Obama created by executive order to help state, local and tribal governments rebuild communities damaged by Sandy.

Bill Ypsilantis, the field coordinator for the Natural and Cultural Resources Recovery Support Function who led the symposium, stressed that parks and open spaces can play significant roles in building community resilience in a variety of ways.

“The workshop-webinar is about how open space really helps community resilience: physical resilience, holistic well-being of individuals and helping them recover from the storm,” he said.

Marc Matsil, director of the New York office of the Trust for Public Land, a national conservation group, said the trust, in partnership with others including the New York City departments of Education and Environmental Protection, had recently developed unused sites into playgrounds that incorporate green infrastructure.

“The three playgrounds that we built capture over 1.5 million gallons a year of storm water and we have nine that are in the design or construction phase now,” Matsil said. “I think it adds to not only the social resiliency but it adds an education component.” The new playgrounds allow science teachers to include storm water management, landscape architecture and rain gardens in their curricula, he noted.

The trust was also working with New York City and other partners on the QueensWay Project with the hope of transforming a 3.5-mile stretch of the abandoned Rockaway rail line into an elevated bicycle and pedestrian pathway that connects several Queens neighborhoods, Matsil said. It also was collaborating with Columbia University, New York City and others to implement a green infrastructure improvement plan along vulnerable waterfront areas.

“The enormity of the damage that was caused by Sandy and the likelihood of more extreme weather in the future really underscore the importance of land protection in the city shorelines,” he said.

Lindsay Campbell, a research social scientist at the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station, talked about the social dynamics of parks and open spaces. Campbell and other researchers are studying post-disaster memorials across the country, including one created in Joplin, Mo., after the 2011 tornado and another erected in the Rockaways in Queens, N.Y., after Hurricane Sandy.

The tree-like sculpture in the Rockaways, called Sea Song, is nearly 16 feet high. Rockaway residents contribute salvaged and hand-made materials, messages and mementos to its base and in its crevices, often with prayers and messages of hope.

“The tree also represents rootedness and protection in the face of tribulation,” the website for Sea Song says. “The hope is that the collaborative process of building the sculpture, as well as the final piece itself, can act as an anchor against the erosion of Rockaway communities by bringing people together and also acting as a reminder of the importance of ecological stewardship.”

Campbell considered Sea Song an example of “counter narratives of decline and loss.”

“We found that people were creating these sites out of very basic needs: to beautify, to teach, to relax, to restore, and to create or re-establish a locus of control,” said Campbell, who helped implement the Living Memorials Project, which provided funds to communities to plant trees in remembrance of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

“Nature, the thing that destroyed, is something residents turned to in recovery rebuilding – nature being re-appropriated to assert narratives of recovery, memorialization and sacredness,” she said.

Emanuel Carter, an associate professor in the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, stressed the importance of fostering place attachment among residents so that, after a disaster, residents may be likelier to want to return and rebuild. One way to deepen residents’ attachment, Carter said, would be to develop urban forests as milieus on every parcel of city land.

“That urban forest is in woodlands and wetlands and waterways and meadows but it also needs to be right where we all live: on our properties, on our blocks, in our neighborhoods. It has to be considered fundamental to parcel, block and neighborhood,” he said.

Place attachment, Carter said, “is actually more important than ecological design or planning. The most fundamental aspect of a city being sustainable is having people who want to live there.”

Using nearby green space frequently can deepen attachment, which can in turn encourage pro-environmental behavior. Neighborhood green common areas encourage bonding among neighbors and interest in keeping these communities revitalized.

“Yes, we want to have more parks, we want to have more beaches with berms and dunes that are planted and we want to deal with storm surge and other kinds of climate change manifestations as well as we can,” Carter continued.

“But we also want to make [a] city in general a better place to be and one of the ways we can think about doing that is to bring all that is good about the host ecosystem right onto every parcel where every person lives every day. And that place attachment becomes part of the resiliency after any unavoidable disaster. People want to go back to places they’re proud to be in and places where they’ve crafted a life in the context of ‘we.’”

Anhthu Hoang, an environmental specialist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, described the health benefits of parks and open spaces. For about a century, she explained, urban planners considered open spaces mainly within the context of preventing infectious diseases like cholera and typhoid fever.

Today, public health challenges such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, strokes, exposure to toxic agricultural and landscaping chemicals, injuries and violence inform open space planning, Hoang said. A lack of access to open spaces such as parks decreases physical activity, which in turn can worsen public health problems like obesity.

“Open spaces offer tremendous opportunity to build public health,” she said.

Strategies to create open spaces, particularly for vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly and low-income residents, should be as diverse as New York’s neighborhoods. “Understanding the communities you’re working with and understanding their needs are very important,” Hoang said.

Other participants included Jeanne DuPont, president of the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance in the Rockaway section of Queens, N.Y., and Walter Meyer, a founder of Local Office Landscape Architecture, a Brooklyn firm specializing in coastal landscapes and landscape and urban design, resiliency and sustainability consulting.

Local Office worked with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation and others to provide a schematic design for a double dune forest of trees and shrubs in the Rockaway Beach neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., to provide beachfront storm surge protection.

Last updated