by Henry Stern,

Commissioner of Parks and Recreation,
New York, New York

Henry Stern was asked to discuss the rating system he has developed to keep New York City parks and playgrounds cleaner and in better structural condition, as well as the use of Work Experience Program (WEP) workers.

This is a nuts and bolts presentation of how to make parks cleaner and safer. Parks in New York are cleaner, and playgrounds are in significantly better shape than they were four years ago. Why? First, because we do ratings of our parks every two weeks, not every three months, and there is relentless follow-up on those items that haven’t been done.

I think evaluations have to be done by outsiders. You cannot have the employees rate themselves. We have a special group of management/planning people who are not connected to the daily maintenance of the parks, and these teams go from park to park with a long worksheet with 12 specific points to evaluate. They write down whatever they see. They take photographs whenever they’re required. It’s a statistically random sample of each park – nobody knows which site will be visited. So you can’t prepare the sites. When we get an evaluation from them, it is a documented, specific thing. The evaluators can rank a problem as an IA – Immediate Attention – and the park staff has 24 hours to fix it.

The five components of a clean park are: no glass, no graffiti, good lawns, no litter, and no weeds. So, we’ve made that into GLOW. G stands for glass and graffiti. L stands for lawns and litter. O stands for nothing … and W stands for weeds. And all of our employees are expected to remember that. Then we have structural components – S is for safety, surfacing, and sidewalks, P is paved services and play equipment. Then TBF – trees, benches, and fences. These are the components of a structurally sound park. Park workers remember Support Parks To Be Fit as a mnemonic for these features.

We also have 6,000 people who are receiving public assistance and are now cleaning the parks of New York City. It’s a successful program in three ways:

One, the parks are getting cleaner. Two, we have found jobs for almost 1,000 of them in private industry, because private industry wants people who have demonstrated a work record. And three; they are doing useful work, and they’re getting the satisfaction of working, and they’re wanted by other people.

Additionally, in our Partnerships For Parks program we’ve developed ParksCards to foster a sense of stewardship, ownership, and involvement with people. ParksCards are like a membership card, and will go to anybody who is a volunteer for the parks or who is a member of a “Friends of the Parks” group. These cards have the name of the volunteer, the group that they belong to, and room for their park name if they have one.

We want people to have the concept of joining a park just the way they join a museum or the public library. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, has 102,000 people who are members. And they have a particular identification with that museum. We want people to be able to join the parks – a particular park – and feel that by doing that they’re a user. That they have a particular linkage to that park, a responsibility for it, and they can be called upon to help.

“We want people to have the concept of joining a park just the way they join a museum or the public library.”

A ParksCard creates a tangible – if small – connection to parks that people carry around in their wallet. For a block association, or for a small group that has 50 members, this can serve as a membership card. Once we get up to the point where we have ten or 15 or 20,000 of these cards, then we can go to both local businesses and city-wide businesses and try to assemble a package of discounts and member premiums – which a smaller “friends” group with 15 or 50 members wouldn’t be able to get on its own.

Another very useful way of identifying people with parks and giving them a sense of involvement is giving out T-shirts. Give people a LOT of T-shirts when they volunteer, and they wear the T-shirts, and it reminds them of what they should be doing and who we are.