The Last Word with…Adrian Benepe of the Trust for Public Land
Adrian Benepe remembers being involved with parks at a very young age. "I was a park user, a very intensive park user, long before I was a park employee," he said.
Benepe, who is currently senior vice president and director of city park development for The Trust for Public Land (TPL), grew up in New York City and landed his first summer job at age 16 as a seasonal park helper.
"I was mopping and cleaning locker rooms. Then, they moved me to East River Park, where I was mostly walking around … picking up garbage," he said.
Since that time, Benepe has held a variety of positions in the parks industry in New York, including one as an urban park ranger, which he was hired for while working as an intern for a local newspaper. Benepe landed the internship after receiving his bachelor's degree in English from Middlebury College.
His first reporting assignment for the paper was a story on the city's parks department. And, it was that assignment that essentially led to the beginning of a rewarding career in the parks industry.
For the story, Benepe interviewed Betsy Barlow (later Betsy Barlow Rogers) who was the Central Park Administrator at the time. "I interviewed her, and in the process she told me that the parks commissioner [came up with] a new department called Urban Park Rangers. She said it would be an interesting job for me," he said. Subsequently, Benepe applied for the position and was hired in the spring of 1979 at the young age of 22.
"I did end up becoming one of the first park rangers assigned to Central Park," he said, adding that the department was about education and enforcement.
Still not quite sure about his career path, Benepe left the job and went on to earn his master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism, after which he worked as a reporter in New Jersey. Ultimately, though, Benepe realized that reporting wasn't what he wanted to do.
As luck would have it, Benepe was asked by the director of the Urban Park Rangers to consider returning in an administrative position. Benepe accepted and became director of programming for Urban Park Rangers, for which he worked for a year, under then-New York Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis. Later, he changed positions when Henry Stern took over as parks commissioner, and appointed Benepe as the new director of public information. "He put me in charge of the press office. So, that was great; a good job for me," he said. "It forced me to learn all about the agency, and all the different services we provided—every level of the agency, from recreation to capital projects. That was an incredible stepping stone for me … for two years I was there."
Benepe's parks career continued to thrive as he took on other leadership positions, including New York City director of art and antiquities, operations coordinator, and director of natural resources and horticulture.
Then, in 2002, he began what would be a 10-year stint as the New York City Parks Commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In that role Benepe supervised a major expansion of the city's park system, as well as the restoration of historic parks, including Central Park, and adding hundreds of acres of new parkland.
Benepe left his role as parks commissioner in September 2012 after receiving an offer he couldn't refuse—to be the senior vice president and director of city park development for TPL, a national nonprofit organization that conserves land for people to enjoy as parks, gardens, natural areas and open space.
Clearly, Benepe's career keeps him busy. But, he always makes time to enjoy recreational activities, including cross-country skiing and bicycling, in particular. He often takes rides along the continuous waterfront bike paths in New York City.
"I really enjoy just getting out and sitting in parks and watching how people use public spaces," he said.
His advice for those who are just beginning their parks career? "Don't be afraid to take chances and, in terms of career moves, even if you are not qualified, the experience of the interview will be helpful.
"Particularly when you are young," he added, "it's good to bounce around. Don't feel like you have to be doing the same job all the time. Take chances professionally. I would also say to mentor young people and give them opportunities and stretch them more than they think they can do.
"The other thing I would say is that you don't need to have expertise in a particular area to be successful. Pay a lot of attention to your environment," he advised.
Pay attention to a larger work environment, too, and what's going on politically. "What are the trends? What's the mayor doing? In the parks world, pay attention to your organizations that offer trends in parks, like the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA)," he suggested.
And, speaking of trends, Benepe said: "A wonderful trend is that cities are recognizing the centrality of parks. They are essential to the quality of life, to environmental and cohesive communities and a number of cities."