An Outdoor Classroom: College Internships in Central Park

Each summer, the Conservancy provides 20 college students with paid, full-time internships in Central Park. Working side-by-side with Conservancy staff, students gain hands-on experience in areas such as public programs, horticulture, and landscape architecture, while developing a deeper understanding and appreciation for urban park management. Interns also hear from experts in the field at lectures, workshops, and practicums.

The program can provide life-changing career opportunities. After serving as a Film and Special Events Intern this summer, Stephen McConkey now works full-time at the Conservancy as a Film and Special Events Coordinator. In this role, Stephen assists with the thousands of requests that the Conservancy receives each year to film and photograph in Central Park.

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Intern Stephen McConkey now works full-time at the Conservancy, assisting with the thousands of requests to film and photograph in Central Park each year.

McConkey shared his enthusiasm for the Conservancy’s college internship program in our essay contest, From the Next Generation of Park Stewards. Students were asked to think deeply about their experiences in relation to the importance of urban park stewardship. Stephen said:

“Interning with the Conservancy this summer has been one of the best experiences of my life. After attending the University of Georgia to study landscape architecture, I knew that I wanted to work with public spaces, whether it be in a design role or in an operations capacity. Working with the organization’s Film and Special Events and Community Relations teams was a valuable learning experience in how urban spaces are used for a variety of purposes. Specifically, I learned how the interests of unique groups of users must be balanced with the needs of New York City citizens and tourists.

Public parks provide indispensable services to cities, helping make urban centers like New York City environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable. Central Park’s various landscapes and planting material provides habitats for many forms of wildlife within the Park, creating a diverse ecosystem within the urban center of Manhattan. For example, the Dene Slope creates a space where pollinators feed on the nectar and pollen of the native wildflowers. Spaces like the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, the Ramble, and the North Woods provide areas where birds come for migration or to establish permanent homes. In addition to the wildlife benefits, the Park also reduces stormwater, increases air quality, and lowers temperatures.

Central Park also helps create social sustainability for the citizens of New York City. The Park is free for all, and has many activities for all types of people. Dotting the edges of the Park are 21 playgrounds spanning from the north end to the south, on the east side and on the west. This gives families from the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, Harlem, and Midtown walkable options for areas to bring their children.

Working with the Special Events staff, I was able to see the impact that large events have on both the Park and the public. Free concerts, like the Harlem Meer Performance Festival, attract a diverse group of people. Young and old, men and women, and people of all races and ethnicities come together to listen to free concerts every Sunday all summer long outside the Charles A. Dana Center, each week enjoying a different genre such as salsa, blues, jazz, or country.

The economic benefits that Central Park has on New York City are substantial. From my personal experience, I have seen vendors selling paintings on the Mall, pedicabs and horse carriages bringing people to Bethesda Terrace and Strawberry Fields, and hundreds of tourists asking for the nearest place to get some food. In 2014, a report by the Conservancy found that the Park’s impact on creating full-time jobs and tourism contributed more than $420 million in Citywide economic output. It also added more than $26 billion to the market value of properties on the blocks adjoining the Park.

Working with the Conservancy has confirmed what I thought while attending school: I want to work with parks. Whether this means working through a not-for-profit conservancy or a government agency, helping public parks stay well-maintained and properly managed has grown from an interest into a passion. I can only hope to maintain other urban parks to the standard that I have learned here. My mentors have taken time to show me the benefits of working for a park, the difficulties that can arise, and their own passions for the Park, all of which have strengthened my belief that I am following an outstanding career goal.”