Magazine

The Golden Rule: Caring for Parks Amidst the Climate Crisis

A year spent caring for all 843 acres of Central Park feels largely predictable to the Central Park Conservancy staff. In the winter we prune shrubs and shovel snow and come spring we open lawns and cut back native flowers to encourage growth. Summertime is packed with removing weeds from the Park’s woodlands, while fall is focused on raking the leaves of thousands of trees. These tasks—and the countless others that go into maintaining Central Park—are cyclical, dependent on the four seasons as experienced in New York City.

A deep connection to these patterns in nature is imperative to our work. But what happens when these cycles become less dependable, or more extreme? In the face of a growing climate crisis which creates erratic patterns in the weather, our Conservancy staff—and experts in the field of climate resilience—look to the role that greenspaces play in our collective health, the ways we can adapt our care for them, and the potential for more just, prepared cities.

A boat landing is partially submerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida

In the remnants of Hurricane Ida, water levels at Central Park's Lake rose dramatically, surging past boat landings on the shore and into the Park's landscapes. Photo by Park visitor @meldeeynyc.

A World in Crisis

The earth has experienced changes in climate throughout its 4.5-billion-year history, but scientists unanimously agree that since the mid-20th century, humans have caused substantial damage to the environment, expediting global warming in unprecedented ways. The bulk of this damage stems from greenhouse gas emissions—sources like electricity, transportation, and agriculture—that raise global temperatures, interfere with the earth’s natural cycles, and lead to volatile, often catastrophic weather events.

Rising temperatures are resulting in melting glaciers, reduced snow cover, and coastal flooding. Razed forests are leading to habitat loss and mass wildlife extinction. Intensifying heat is exacerbating air pollution and rainfall. The repercussions of a warming planet will ultimately touch each of us—in the Park and around the world—but, as seen through phenomena like the urban heat island effect, they impact lower income and communities of color first.

These “multi-crises” are described as such because they are occurring at once and at every level. “We are dealing with a global pandemic at the same time as extreme heat and wildfires,” explains Kristin Baja, a Program Director in Climate Resilience for the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN). “It’s not like the smoke from a wildfire stays where the wildfire is—it travels across the country, putting an even bigger strain on people’s already compromised respiratory health.” And that's no exaggeration: in Central Park this summer, a thick haze from the west coast’s record-setting wildfires could be seen—and felt—right here in New York City.

Galya IG Smoky Skies

In July 2021, smoke from over 80 wildfires in the western United States and Canada traveled across the country to New York City. The air quality that day was one of the worst in the world—an unhealthy threshold is numbered at 100, but New York City’s measured at 157. Photo taken by Park visitor Galya Morrell.

Turn and Face the Strange

Since the Conservancy’s founding in 1980, staff members have witnessed and adapted to a wide range of challenges here in the Park. None have felt so complex as those faced in the past few years. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with so few places to gather safely in the City, New Yorkers visited Central Park in droves, trafficking the landscapes in new, creative, and often intense ways. The impacts were felt immediately. With more visitors came a greater appreciation for urban parks and their effect on our collective health, but also more trash, ecological damage, and strain on staff to keep up.

These challenges—and the staff rising to meet them—are not unique to the Central Park Conservancy. Urban, state, and national park organizations around the world are facing similar tensions in welcoming an influx of nature-loving visitors, and like the multi-crises that Baja describes, these tensions do not occur in a vacuum. In addition to expanded use and foot traffic, the Conservancy staff is simultaneously dealing with increasingly erratic weather and the cleanup that follows. The combination is a perfect storm.

Park-goers on the Sheep Meadow enjoying a crisp Fall day. One visitor sits atop a large boulder.

In spring of 2020, after months of quarantining indoors, people flocked to parks around the City and country in record numbers, utilizing the landscapes in new ways and resulting in unique impacts on the ecosystem.

When It Rains, It Pours

On a cool Monday morning in early September, Assistant Manager David Bayne stood at the western entrance to Bethesda Terrace, surveying the grounds before him. The space looked picturesque enough to be on a postcard: water trickled calmly from the Angel of the Waters statue, flowing into a pool filled with enormous Colocasia and lotus plants that danced in the light breeze. Passersby walked with their leashed dogs, enjoying a moment outdoors before their workdays. The sky was bright blue and cloudless, and in the distance, just a hint of autumn’s changing colors could be seen on the tree line across the Lake.

It felt surreal to know that just days before, that very space was completely flooded, deluged by record rainfall that turned the Conservancy staff’s week upside down. In the remnants of Hurricane Ida—a storm that rolled over to the east coast from Louisiana—the Park saw a staggering 3.15 inches of rain in one hour, smashing a record set just 11 days earlier by Hurricane Henri during the City’s Homecoming concert on the Great Lawn.

Cleaning Up the Park in the Remnants of Hurricane Ida

In the aftermath of over seven inches of rain—three of which fell within one hour—Conservancy staff worked around the clock to clear muddy paths, remove fallen trees, and mitigate flooding in the Park. Flooding at Bethesda Terrace was especially intense, creating a pool of water around the fountain. Storms like these can set back routine maintenance schedules by at least a week.

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“When these storms happen, we have to completely shift our focus from everyday operations to cleanup. And when we do that, we lose almost a week of regular maintenance,” explained David as he unpacked a trash-grabber from his cart. For David and his team, that lost week of maintenance can mean overgrown lawns, delayed playground openings, overflowing trash cans, and weedy gardens and woodlands—a frustrating reality for a staff that prides itself on the highest standards of park maintenance. “I do believe we will start to see more of this weather in the future, and while we work to keep the Park moving in a positive direction, we must also respond to these urgent needs that are hitting us right now.”

Historic rainstorms are sure to make headlines—and for good reason—but plenty of other climate-related stories hide in plain sight. From the spread of invasive species like porcelain berry, lesser celandine, and Japanese knotweed in the Park’s woodlands to the growth of harmful algal blooms in the Park’s water bodies, Conservancy staff sees the result of warming weather first-hand. Maybe more so, we can feel it.

“In the month of July we had at least four official heat waves. The next month we had at least two. We keep breaking the record for high heat days each year,” said David, speaking to what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the hottest July on record. During these increasingly common high heat days, Conservancy staff takes extra precautions and extended breaks to stay safe while they mow lawns, plant flowers, and inspect trees. But over time, consistent heatwaves take a toll. “It’s hard because on those days, there are certain things we just can’t do in terms of maintenance. It’s a significant challenge.”

A Conservancy worker in a wide-brimmed hat works deep in the leaves.

Carlos Olivares, a technician on the Conservancy’s Natural Areas team, removes Japanese knotweed in the Ramble. The persistent, rapidly growing invasive plant competes with native species, making landscapes more susceptible to erosion and negatively impacting wildlife that live there. Knotweed thrives in New York’s increasingly warmer, wetter weather.

Resilient Spaces, Brilliant Futures

Parks around the world will continue to be affected by the climate crisis over the decades, but if managed and cared for with intention, their futures remain bright. That sense of possibility is at the heart of the Conservancy’s work to care for the Park and is rooted in a deep connection and response to the landscape.

Take the Park’s trees, for example. Manhattan depends on these 18,000 woody plants to slow increasingly intense rainfall, cool increasingly warm weather, and filter increasingly polluted air. In return, our Tree Care team monitors their health, administers treatments, and prunes branches to help them thrive, all while planting more species of trees that are well-suited to this evolving environment.

A blue jay is perched on a bare branch

Since 1970, the North American bird population has declined by 29%, amounting to the loss of three billion birds. Changing climate patterns and global habitat loss make Central Park’s tree canopy all the more vital to species like this blue jay.

The Park’s meadows, lawns, and woodlands are equally as connected to the City’s resilience. Wildlife like bees, bats, birds, and even coyotes—whose global habitats are fewer and farther between—make their homes in these spaces, contributing to a more biodiverse ecosystem and pollinating the Park’s flowers. To support these landscapes (and their benefactors), our Natural Areas and Garden teams plant wildflowers and saplings, the same plants that soak up rainwater and prevent erosion during more frequent storms.

Central Park plays a vital role in limiting the worst effects of the very crises that impact it, and our staff diligently and expertly works to ensure that these landscapes can do just that. To many experts in the field of climate resilience, therein lies the hope. “We need to respect nature,” says Baja, “but also respectfully return to the truth that we are nature, too. We can build that into our practice, our learning, and really value our space as part of the ecosystem, not dominance over it.”

Turtle Pond DSC 0479

The excess growth and prevalence of harmful algal blooms, duckweed, and Elodea in Central Park’s water bodies is just one example of how warmer weather and external sources of pollution affect the landscapes we love. Conservancy staff monitors these water bodies and works to improve the resilience of their shorelines by removing excess algae and supporting the health of surrounding plant life.

Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell About It.

In the wake of an endless news cycle, real-time climate emergencies, and an ongoing global pandemic, it can feel hard to focus on this ecosystem, let alone how it’s changing. For Julia Kumari Drapkin, a climate science reporter and photojournalist, facilitating that process is precisely the goal of her climate data platform, ISeeChange.

Contributors to the app post pictures and reflections of how they experience climate change in their own backyards, curating a qualitative and quantitative look at our evolving environment. "It’s not just about that tree. It’s about [my] relationship to that tree,” says Julia. “It's about an especially hot day at the Reservoir and how it impacts my run there. The more we are paying attention to [climate change] over time, the more we’re able to understand what it’s doing to us.”

Noticing is the very first step. Admiring a robin perched in a willow tree leads to caring about its livelihood and, eventually, leads to dialogue with others. “If there is one thing that you can have a conversation about with anyone in the world—and find immediate connection with total strangers—it is the weather,” says Julia. “The climate crisis is asking humanity to work together in ways it has never before. If we answer the call, it’s really seeing ourselves as the true collective that we all are."

Collectively, Central Park’s community has a big impact on the longevity of this space. Through basic stewardship practices, like carrying out trash or packing picnics in reusable containers, visitors can protect wildlife and support the Conservancy staff who picks up the trash of millions of people each year. By honoring fencing, treating trees and plants gently, and staying on marked paths, visitors can help landscapes stay strong, intact, and thriving.

A black sign on a short wooden spike helps identify and protect delicate landscapes.

Over the past 40 years, Conservancy staff has expertly restored key ecological habitats in the Park, like this pollinator space at the Dene Slope. Not only do these native plants—like coneflowers, milkweed, and coreopsis—provide important food and host sites for bees, birds, and butterflies, they also create buffers during intense rainfall, mitigating landscape erosion in the Park. Photo by Timothy Schenck.

The Golden Rule

Despite the uncertainty of the past few years, the bellwethers of autumn remain. The Park’s verdant vistas are slowly transitioning to crimson, gold, and purple, and a current of cool air is riding in on the breeze. Thousands of deciduous trees will soon drop their leaves, and the days will be spent raking, collecting, composting, and mulching them back into the landscape.

The dependability of this cycle is comforting in the face of so many immense—and daunting—unknowns. While the warmer days could last longer, and the rainy weather could stretch further, our staff continues their work with rapt attention, ready to pay it forward to the Park that provides so much. How we treat our environment is how we treat ourselves, after all.