Grassroots Park Stewardship: A Force of Change

October 1, 2016, Department, by Le’alani S. Boykin, MURP, and Kathryn T. Trainor, MA

Visitors participate in a community visioning activity led by Friends of Mosholu Parkland with support from PfP. (Melanie Reiders)In the 1970s, at a time when government was too limited by budget constraints to provide key services, New Yorkers who cared about their public spaces rolled up their sleeves, picked up their trowels and took back their parks from neglect. “Friends of” groups, as they called themselves, came together to put positive use back into abandoned parks seized by graffiti, drug activity and violence. Their grassroots park stewardship became a force of change in local communities.

Today, NYC’s friends of groups are still making marks on their parks and doing so with far more support from the public and private sectors. Since 1995, Partnerships for Parks (PfP), a joint program of City Parks Foundation (CPF) and the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks), has been the primary champion and resource for NYC friends of groups. Communities and government know that public parks are the settings for our shared experiences and improve the quality of life for all New Yorkers by providing spaces for social and civic engagement. By developing occasional volunteers into community leaders, PfP builds long-term investment in public space and strengthens the social fabric of our neighborhoods. The program’s aim is to create strong partnerships between local communities and NYC Parks to help them see one another as allies, working toward a common goal of caring for parks.

One Mission, Two Parents

For more than 20 years, PfP has carried out its harmonious mission under two distinct organizations:  NYC Parks, the city agency that owns and manages a nearly 30,000-acre park system; and CPF, the only independent nonprofit with a specific mission to lead programs that activate those parks throughout the five boroughs. Being part of local government allows PfP to work on the same team as park management; being part of a nonprofit allows it to relate to communities and build trust with them. While it has its own vision statement, strategic plan and identity, PfP is not an independent organization and cannot always act autonomously. Decisions around budget, staffing and program development must be developed in coordination with and approved by CPF and NYC Parks. Both parent organizations are consistently committed to park stewardship.   

Build, Connect, Sustain

PfP equips people, organizations and government with the skills and tools to transform neighborhood parks and green spaces into dynamic community assets. PfP consists of three areas — Outreach, Technical Assistance and Volunteer Programs — that are responsible for specific services and resources. Those services and resources are employed to build, connect and sustain the friends of groups, helping them to become long-term stewards of their parks.

Many of the best practices identified by PfP are based on the experience it developed through its Catalyst initiative, a community development program created more than 20 years ago to  provide very focused, intensive and extensive outreach and community-building program resources in individual parks.. 

Build focuses on establishing relationships with community members and institutions where PfP responds to requests from those who want to get involved in improving the quality of life in their local neighborhoods. The Outreach Program employs coordinators in all five boroughs who are assigned to serve specific regions within their borough. In most cases, the coordinators are the first individuals to connect community members to NYC Parks, PfP and other resources within their neighborhoods to support the work they want to do for their parks. Outreach coordinators begin the group development work by sharing information about how to get involved in parks and work collaboratively with NYC Parks, and best practices for growing a group, such as how to lead meetings, conduct effective outreach, build interest in their cause and create partnerships with the agency and their fellow community members. Outreach coordinators excel at community engagement because of their approach of listening to the needs of the community.

To continue to build the skills of park group leaders, PfP provides Technical Assistance and training through a series of  workshops that cover such subjects as: “How to Start or Join a Park Group,” “Building Your Community Park Group: Partnering for Success,” “Getting Green $ for Green Space” and “Expand Your Impact: Skillfully Growing Your Community Park Group.” These areas are the baseline skill set needed to have a sustainable park group. To address timely issues and opportunities, PfP also hosts special topic workshops throughout the year for additional learning and networking opportunities. In addition, park group leaders can apply for a six-month fellowship that requires them to propose a goal they want to achieve by the end of the program.

Connect includes the work of Outreach and Technical Assistance programs, teaching groups how to identify common interests and priorities, and to encourage the creation of partnerships among people involved in the parks or working on related issues. This phase also prioritizes connecting park groups to NYC Parks to collaborate on agency and citywide initiatives to maximize the investments from government, as well as to activate networks for social and civic activity that increase the positive impact on their communities. 

Because physical improvements are important to demonstrating change in these public spaces, the Volunteer Program provides year-round volunteer opportunities through the It’s My Park program. As part of It’s My Park, the Volunteer Program gives companies and organizations opportunities to contribute to the community groups’ work through hosting corporate team-building and volunteer events to beautify the parks. The intention is to supplement and match external groups with park groups’ priority projects approved by NYC Parks. Connecting community groups with established companies and organizations helps PfP achieve its goals of sustainable and supportive volunteerism. These hands-on service projects build interest around what is possible in the park and PfP provides tools, promotional materials and project-planning support to community groups to lead these efforts.

Sustain encompasses the capacity building work that PfP does to cultivate the skills needed for a community group to support its parks long-term and empower volunteers to become community leaders. PfP helps groups create missions, develop the appropriate structure that reflects their goals and activities, and maintain the strong connection to the community they represent. PfP also provides small capacity-building grants — since it was founded, PfP has granted more than $1.2 million to 1,000 community groups and organizations through this program, which provides not only direct financial support, but also consultations and support throughout the application process to help groups build grant-writing skills and clear plans for their own growth and community impact. Because park groups need long-term funding and support to grow their park events and programs, PfP emphasizes the development of fundraising and other group development skills to ensure their sustainability.

Community Parks Initiative

Launched by Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver in 2014, the Community Parks Initiative (CPI) brings $285 million in capital dollars to densely populated, growing neighborhoods with higher-than-average concentrations of poverty. The 60+ parks receiving full reconstructions as part of CPI have all received less than $250,000 in capital improvements during the past 25 years. With this initiative, NYC Parks is engaging New Yorkers in rebuilding local parks; providing new, free public programming; and enriched community support for parks.

With community input collected in-person and online, NYC Parks is redesigning and reconstructing neighborhood parks and targeting other park spaces for immediate physical improvements and repairs. In addition to these physical changes, the agency is enhancing public programming on its properties in these neighborhoods. To better connect these parks with their users, NYC Parks has adopted elements of PfP’s model of community building to ensure sustainable community support structures for all CPI sites. PfP staff works to raise awareness of CPI, engage community members in the park redesign process, and unify and develop communities of park advocates and stewards.

Participatory Park Design

In 2014, NYC Parks set forth the Framework for an Equitable Future, a vision for a strong, just parks system, including citywide programs  like the Community Parks Initiative. Community engagement is at the core of the Framework, which is why NYC Parks has taken historic steps to further involve the public in park design decisions, from making capital project tracking accessible online to putting strategies in place that ensure high attendance at public input meetings. PfP has been part of the participatory design movement as well, collaborating with several local partner organizations to develop resources that explain and teach New Yorkers how to participate in the NYC Parks’ process for funding, designing and building capital projects. The Center for Urban Pedagogy and New Yorkers for Parks worked with PfP on an illustrated publication, How Can I Improve My Park, that walks citizens through who to know and the steps to take for both capital and maintenance projects. Participatory design experts at Hester Street Collaborative created “People Make Parks,” a joint project with PfP that describes eight ways communities can get involved in the capital process — from advocating for funding to caring for the new park — and offers a community visioning toolkit with 12 activities designed to collect user input while they are enjoying the park.

The community groups that have been the most successful at growing their membership and participation in park activities have consciously solicited their community for ideas on park use. So, PfP now has a dedicated visioning program that focuses on coaching and training friends groups to gather and share public input with NYC Parks, elected officials, and their communities. PfP Director, Sabina Saragoussi, highlights the importance of the community voice that is captured in community park visioning, describing it as “a public input process led by a community group that gathers ideas, desires and concerns from a broad and diverse audience about activities in their neighborhood park. Community Visioning encourages a sense of community ownership and informs park design and programming.”

Empowering Communities

While New York City’s skyline and landmarks make it unique, the more than 1,950 parks, playgrounds, beaches and recreation facilities across the five boroughs are the shared spaces where individuals connect with each other, foster a sense of community and affect change. PfP has been successful in this work, first and foremost, because of the inspiring dedication and energy of its friends groups. Municipal and nonprofit partnerships allow PfP to increase resources and provide access to decision makers and funding to achieve common goals. Whether it is gathering input or planning a program, PfP encourages park groups to be reflective of their neighborhood and to be intentional about reaching across cultures, languages, needs and the interests of the people in that community. 

Case Study: Astoria Heights Park

Friends of Astoria Heights Park was formed in the fall of 2013 by a group of neighbors who felt strongly about protecting their Queens, New York, neighborhood park and ensuring their community had the same clean, safe, fun and inspiring public spaces as other neighborhoods in the city. The group, whose mission is to “aspire to work with all of their neighbors to make the park a place where we gather to celebrate and demonstrate respect both for our common values and for our unique backgrounds and perspectives,” started by bringing maintenance and safety issues to the attention of NYC Parks and its Community Board. 

While the drive and mission originated with this group, Western Queens PfP Outreach Coordinator, Nichole Henderson-Roy, worked closely with the leadership team to connect them to the right people in the agency to achieve what they set forth to do. This collaboration with NYC Parks and PfP — participating in PfP’s It’s My Park program, participating in a peer-mentoring Academy Fellowship program, being fiscally sponsored by City Parks Foundation to receive tax-deductible donations for their group, receiving Capacity Fund grants that funded summer programming, a mural and street tree care — has led to a clean and active park that is well-used by the community.

Astoria Heights Park serves an ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhood and according to Lynn Kennedy, Chair of the Friends of Astoria Heights Park, the leadership team is intentional about seeking out groups and individuals who are representative of the community’s diversity to help foster community pride. They engage new constituents by hosting fun events that reflect the local community’s culture and interests and have found that these activities result in neighbors caring for this public space and holding it to a high standard of cleanliness through It’s My Park projects and encouraging positive activity by hosting fitness programs, sing-alongs, book giveaways, and puppet shows

The heightened feeling of community created by Friends of Astoria Heights Park has resulted in increased participation at park events and funds raised, and a strong partnership with elected officials, city agencies, and local institutions and businesses. The group’s voice is now heard beyond the park’s borders to address the needs of the community including advocating for increased safety measures in the neighborhood’s streets and more programming for school-aged children.  With a park renovation underway as part of NYC Parks’ Community Parks Initiative, Astoria Heights Park will be an even more vibrant community space led by a dedicated friends group that will continue to beautify and activate the park.


Le’alani S. Boykin, MURP, is the Community Visioning and Planning Manager at Partnerships for Parks. Kathryn T. Trainor, MA, is Director of Technical Assistance at Partnerships for Parks.


1. “Community Parks Initiative” NYC Parks, (July 18, 2016)

2. “NYC Parks Frequently Asked Questions” NYC Parks, (July 18, 2016)