Oasis in an urban environment

Photo by Peter Bellamy.
Turf Crew Supervisor Karen LeRiche is in charge of maintaining the open areas and ball fields in Prospect Park

It’s challenging to maintain an individual residential backyard, keeping the turf, plants and trees healthy so they can be enjoyed by family and friends. Imagine the challenge of maintaining a backyard that’s used by an entire borough in New York City.

Prospect Park is the only outdoor escape for those who live in Brooklyn—the only open space, woods and recreational area at their disposal in a densely packed urban environment. “It is the backyard for city residents,” says Ann Wong, director of landscape operations for Prospect Park. “Many live in small apartments with little space, but they are able to come to this beautiful park.”

Often overshadowed by Manhattan’s Central Park, Prospect Park was designed by the same legendary landscape architects: Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. At that time, in the mid-1800s, Brooklyn and Manhattan were separate cities, and rivals of sorts. “So, after seeing that Manhattan had built a great park, Brooklyn set aside land and hired a designer. But, then the Civil War took place and plans were put on hold,” says Wong. After the war, Brooklyn’s leaders reexamined the plans and decided that improvements could be made, so they contacted Olmsted and Vaux, who reworked the plans.

“Originally, it was going to be a more formal park, with lots of gardens,” says Wong. “But, Olmsted and Vaux had really learned a lot from designing Central Park. They took a less formal approach. We like to joke that they practiced at Central Park and built their masterpiece in Prospect Park.”

Olmsted and Vaux were visionaries in understanding the need for park-like settings in urban areas, she says: “They realized the pressures that city life could put on people. So, they wanted Prospect Park to be like a trip to the countryside. The design wasn’t about flower gardens; it was about shutting out the city. So, they bermed-up the edges. They created an artificial water system covering about 60 acres; it starts in the woods with a waterfall and goes into several ponds, and then into a stream and finally a lake. And, they were clear that they didn’t want any major roads inside the park. The design leads visitors in and winds them through the park in a way that makes them want to explore the area.”

Photos courtesy of Prospect Park Alliance unless otherwise noted.
Maintaining the park requires a balance between promoting use and protecting the landscape, says Ann Wong.

Prospect Park is a bit smaller than Central Park—526 acres versus 843—but is maintained by a landscape crew significantly leaner than that of its neighbor in Manhattan. Prospect Park’s landscape maintenance is made possible by a public-private partnership between the city and the Prospect Park Alliance. There are four crews within the landscape management office: turf and ballparks, horticulture, natural resources (woodlands and water areas) and arboriculture. Considering the size and scope of the park, each department is staffed with only a handful of employees, so everyone in the landscape department works hard to keep the park looking good and functioning well.

Perhaps Prospect Park’s most prominent feature is its centrally located, 200-acre woodland. “Traditionally, many parks have not maintained their wooded areas. It’s been assumed that, ‘Well, the woods will take care of themselves,’” says Wong. That was the case at Prospect Park, but the approach changed in the early 1990s when years of neglect had begun to take a toll on the woods. “Years ago, people were sort of running and riding bikes through the woods wherever they wanted to. So, there were a ton of desire lines and some significant erosion, as well as a lot of invasive plants. We were really close to losing the woods,” she says. “But, we’ve made tremendous progress.”

Ann Wong, right, director of landscape operations, works with the natural resources crew to improve Prospect Park’s 200-acre woodlands area.

The natural resources crew, made up of a supervisor and eight employees, works mainly on woodlands restoration. “Every year we work on another area. We’ve closed off the desire lines, added cribbing and water bars, attempted to establish a topsoil layer and replanted native species of trees,” says Wong. “It’s been such an exciting part of the work we’ve done with the park.”

The entire watercourse, from the waterfall down to the lake, has also been renovated, with invasives dredged out and native plants reestablished. An Audubon center has also been opened in the park. “The kids and adults that visit it now have this incredible environment to come and learn,” says Wong. “We’re right on the Atlantic Flyway for migrating birds, so we’re trying to maintain the people as well as birds.”

The arboriculture crew is responsible for maintaining the park’s 12,000 landscape trees (not including those in the woodland areas). Recently, a donor made it possible for Prospect Park to purchase its own bucket truck and chipper, reducing the need to rely on city tree crews for assistance. “It’s been so exciting; we can now do our own deadwood pruning. We could never really do that before unless it was an emergency,” says Wong.

The park has also begun to use GIS to map and identify the landscape trees in order to schedule routine maintenance. The arboriculture crew also conducts a successful donor tree program that lets citizens purchase trees for the park. “Over time, we’ve lost many landscape trees, so we’ve been planting 40 to 50 new trees annually,” says Wong. “We follow historic photos and maps to determine where trees were planted originally.”

The horticulture crew also maintains 24 separate gardens—many around buildings—throughout the park. “We have some annual beds and formal shrubs. We don’t have a lot of perennial beds,” Wong says.

The recent addition of a bucket truck and chipper has allowed Prospect Park’s arboriculture crews to better maintain the 12,000 landscape trees on-site.

While visitors are venturing more and more into the woods, Prospect Park’s large, open areas remain a prominent attraction as well. Headlined by the 1-mile-long, 90-acre Long Meadow, one of the nation’s largest urban open areas, the park’s turfgrass areas are used mainly for picnicking and relaxation. There are seven baseball fields that, with their former bleachers and fencing removed, blend into the natural environment. There is also a separate “parade ground” area just outside the park’s borders that provides additional ball fields.

The turf crew, led by Karen LeRiche, mows nearly nonstop during the growing season, using one large gang mower and two Toro Groundsmaster mowers. The more difficult job is to keep up with the trimming, given the size of the park and the crew, says Wong. “We try to keep our lawn areas in as good shape as possible. We know that’s where people will be, and we want to let them use the lawns. Each year, we’ll pick our most worn lawn areas and topdress and aerate them, and then overseed and keep them fenced off for a year.”

Nor surprisingly, the turf is also subject to substantial wear and tear from everyday use and from special events. “We just hosted a huge Met Opera concert this summer; there was a huge stage and 50,000 people here,” says Wong. “It was a bit stressful.” Given budget constraints and the high level of use, the goal isn’t turfgrass perfection, but rather to keep the lawn areas green and usable. “In a way, it’s nice, because it keeps us ‘green,’” says Wong of the park’s approach to turf maintenance. “We don’t use herbicides. We love clover; we love anything green!”

Managing the park is always a balancing act; balancing between different user groups and the needs of the park, Wong explains. It would be easier to maintain if there was a fence surrounding it to keep people out, or to treat it like a museum and limit access, but then it wouldn’t be fulfilling its role, she says.

For example, barbecuing is a popular activity in the park. “It can be destructive when people dump their hot coals on trees, so we try to restrict it to seven designated areas. In some ways I would like to see it banned, but then you see the enjoyment people get when they’re in the park.”

Over the years, as societal trends have changed, Prospect Park has served the evolving needs and wants of Brooklyn’s residents. In the early 1900s, for example, the park hosted a multitude of lawn tennis courts. “The photos showing the nets strung out all across the lawn are amazing,” says Wong, noting that as the needs and desires of visitors have changed, “the design has proven to be fairly flexible.” With millions of residents depending on the park as their backyard, it needs to be.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.