Sustainable Parks

Park Planning and Design

By Andrew R. Lavallee, ASLA, RLA, CSI

A new initiative is afoot in New York City to create financially sustainable public parks for the benefit of future generations. Recently, the idea of such a park has been fully embraced with the creation of Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. Integral to this initiative is the concept of incorporating Integrated Maintenance Planning or IMP into the planning and design process.

Brooklyn Bridge Park concept plan

The Brooklyn Bridge Park plan entails a mixed-use park that reclaims a 1.3-mile portion of Brooklyn's industrial waterfront along the East River. The park will serve to alleviate the dense urban crowding within a neighborhood community that is sorely lacking in available recreational open space. The park plan currently includes 79 acres of waterfront property including 20 acres of pier structures over the East River. The park program includes active and passive recreation areas, performance areas, garden spaces, streetscape improvements, environmental restoration areas, and a variety of community, cultural and educational facilities.

A significant part of the park owner/agency mandate is that it be financially self-sustaining. To this end, the plan also includes commercial development sites intended to generate the revenues required for the maintenance and on-going operations of the park.

IMP and the design process

Because of the mandate that the park be self-sustaining, maintenance and operations costs needed to be established clearly prior to construction. The IMP approach is ideal for this because maintenance planning begins early in the design process. The goal of IMP is to evaluate the cost of maintenance and operations of a proposed park in order to understand the implications of programming decisions, physical layout, construction assemblies and finish materials. Once a maintenance and operations budget has been developed, these costs can be broken down on a square-foot basis to allow designers to adjust the overall layout of the park or park program within meaningful cost parameters. The earlier in the process the IMP is developed, the more easily the design can be adapted to anticipated budget requirements. In the case of Brooklyn Bridge Park, IMP has been used to assist in determining how much revenue-generating development programming will be required to economically sustain the park over the long term.

IMP methodology for maintenance planning

The approach to IMP for Brooklyn Bridge Park consisted of three parts: physical analysis of the proposed plan in terms of required maintenance operations, comparative analysis of the proposed park maintenance plan with other parks within the same geographic region to validate proposed operations, and, finally, establishment of the various standards of maintenance and operations proposed for the park.

To this end, the concept plan was broken down into a variety of area types or facility categories that would require similar maintenance activities or "cost centers." Some of the major categories included hardscape areas, water or shoreline areas, passive lawn and landscaped areas, active lawn recreation areas, the pool facility, and overall park utility expenses such as lighting, water and heat.

In addition, the estimated useful life of the proposed facility elements was calculated against a projected 50-year life cycle, as mandated by the owner/agency. Some typical capital maintenance costs included replacement of damaged site furnishings, resurfacing of athletic pavements, and replacement of trees and shrubs. Since nearly 28 percent of the Brooklyn Bridge Park plan consisted of piers and upland supported bulkhead structures, anticipated repair of the piers was carefully evaluated. Another significant cost was the cyclical replacement of park maintenance vehicles.

What was more difficult to establish were the "intangibles" of park operations: the level of maintenance that will be acceptable to the public over the long term, the level of security that needs to be provided, and the extent of park programs and administrative oversight that needs to be provided. Estimated costs for these items were developed from applying comparable cost structures from a variety of New York City parks to the proposed concept plan for Brooklyn Bridge Park on a square-foot basis. Interviews were then conducted with comparison park administrations to understand how they approached operations of their parks. In this way, the capital maintenance budgeting, programming and administration costs for Brooklyn Bridge Park could be better understood in the context of what other parks are doing in the city.

The proposed levels of maintenance and staffing for the proposed park were then reviewed over a number of months in meetings with the park staff to develop a consensus about their vision for the upkeep of the park. Issues that were discussed included levels of security, community and educational programming as well as frequency of maintenance operations such as snow removal, lawn mowing or tree pruning. Levels of maintenance also were studied on a seasonal basis to ensure adequate staffing was available when park attendance was expected to surge during the warmer months. In addition, levels of capital maintenance expenditures were reviewed to ensure that the park infrastructure and furnishings were kept at acceptable levels.

IMP results

The IMP process produced what, to some, were startling numbers: an annual maintenance and operations budget of $15.4 million per year. Approximately 63 percent was for operating expenditures, while 37 percent was for capital maintenance expenditures. Projected out over the anticipated 50-year life cycle of the park, the maintenance and operations budget represented approximately $770 million, or nearly six times the current $130 million construction budget.

In the end, the projected maintenance was greater than anticipated. However, because of the unique multivariate projective model developed in the IMP process, maintenance planning could be evaluated on a variable by variable basis. This provided the potential for the program to be manipulated in order to arrive at an affordable, sustainable budget.

The IMP process and the planning model developed in that process led to several important outcomes. A consensus was developed between the park staff and the designers about the envisioned standard of care for the park that was commensurate with the overall park vision and anticipated visitation levels. The maintenance and operations budget was premised on proactive, preventative maintenance rather than reactive, as-needed maintenance, which will ultimately be a less expensive proposition for the park. And, finally, realistic unit costs were developed for the park landscape and program that can be applied to the design as it progresses.

In short, IMP can provided a critical snapshot of the anticipated cost to maintain and operate the park over its projected useful life, allowing the park designers, economic planners, managers and funding agencies to come to terms with what is possible to achieve of the concept plan. Decisions as simple as whether to pave walkways with granite or asphalt or whether to include a pool or not can be quickly tested on an operational and capital maintenance cost basis. In this way, decision-makers will be able to gauge not only the initial affordability of the park, but also its economic sustainability over its life cycle-setting the course for a truly sustainable park for future generations.

Andrew Lavallee is a senior associate with Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, PC in New York City. He can be reached at For more information about Brooklyn Bridge Park, visit the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation at

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