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NYC must bring some order to greenway upkeeping

New York City’s greenway network is a Frankenstein monster of jurisdictions, histories and responsibilities. Unfortunately, this shows up on our public pathways in uneven upkeep, an unsteady pace of improvement and poor equity of access across the five boroughs.

It doesn’t have to be this way, according to the NYC Greenways Coalition, a set of local and citywide groups spanning parks, biking and stewardship interests. The coalition wrote recently to City Hall urging an overhaul of the way the city manages its many miles of greenways.

Today, greenways may be run by the city Parks or Transportation Departments, with the Department of Design and Construction building DOT-planned segments and NYC Economic Development Corp. doing some construction work for Parks (and with some stretches like the Hudson River and Brooklyn Bridge parks under management of special one-off agencies such as the joint state-city Hudson River Park Trust and the nonprofit Brooklyn Bridge Park Corp.)

The lion’s share of maintenance and upgrade problems come from assigning full responsibility for much of the greenway network to the Parks Department. It’s well known that the agency, through no fault of its own, is a perennially under-resourced afterthought for most mayors and budget directors.

Every bit of Parks’ work to maintain or upgrade greenways seems like a momentous struggle, and is episodic rather than routine. Funding aside, the agency also seems poorly structured to cope with hard infrastructure like paved pathways. Even when elected officials — including then-Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams — supplied the cash to repair cracked and heaving concrete along a short stretch of Ocean Parkway in Gravesend, it has taken more than four years for work to begin. In the meantime, other stretches along the parkway have become more dilapidated.

That’s not an isolated case. A lot of Parks’ “legacy” greenways, many built decades ago alongside the parkway system, are in bad shape. Pelham Parkway features a wide green swath across the Bronx, yet the crumbling greenway path is only about six feet wide, and is meant to be shared by both two-way bike traffic and pedestrians. Much of the greenway mileage stretching between Kissena and Alley Pond Parks feels like it still has its original, mid-20th century pathway surface.

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A flip side of this problem occurs with newer greenways built and maintained by the Department of Transportation, like those along parts of the Brooklyn waterfront. DOT will not design greenery into its greenways unless it has an agreement with a private or nonprofit entity to take care of plants. So some “greenways” end up as bare-bones bike lanes.

The Greenway Coalition’s proposal to City Hall is to better align institutional assignments. Move responsibility for greenway concrete and asphalt paths to DOT, which has big dedicated units for both materials, and have Parks play to its strength by taking on all of the green — trees and other plantings — in greenways. DOT control over greenway maintenance would also help with planning street detours when key greenway routes are undergoing work. That simply doesn’t happen today.

Additionally the groups have urged that greenways be fully treated as transportation routes. Today, the Sanitation Department doesn’t clear snow from most greenways after a storm, because they are “parks” and have a lower priority for cleaning. It makes no sense in a city where bikes became a mainstream form of getting around and doing business long ago.

There’s a lot of good going on with NYC greenways. The city has won federal funds to plan a future set of completely new greenway routes, including along the Bronx side of the Harlem River. Mayor Adams has pledged to build a new greenway in central Queens, and last year’s city budget devoted nearly $50 million to upgrading older segments in eastern Queens and southern Brooklyn. Last year, the City Council enacted legislation requiring a regularly updated citywide plan that highlights greenway network gaps and steers future investment. These are all important steps toward an interconnected greenway network that reaches every corner of town.

But a larger, more inclusive greenway system will mean a bigger maintenance and upkeep job in the future.

That means now is the time to work on getting greenway management right. Fixing the agency mismatch in greenway responsibilities and capacities seems like a no brainer for an administration that recently appointed a chief public realm officer expressly to surmount agency silos. Let’s get stuff done to realize the big quality of life, sustainability and safety potentials of New York City’s greenways!

Armstrong is executive director of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative. Orcutt is advocacy director at Bike New York. Both are members of the NYC Greenways Coalition.

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