Meet a New Yorker for Parks: Gordon Davis

December 10, 2015

Gordon Davis has a long history with New York City parks, having served as Commissioner for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation from 1978 to 1982, an appointment received from Mayor Ed Koch. His work at DPR had a lasting impact still felt today: while there he co-founded both the Central Park Conservancy and the Prospect Park Alliance, he established the NYC Urban Park Rangers, and he oversaw the restoration of Sheep Meadow in Central Park.

A native of Chicago, Mr. Davis graduated from Harvard Law School in 1967. He then worked in New York City government, becoming a member of the New York City Planning Commission from 1973 to 1978. He is currently a partner at Venable LLC, where he deals with land use development and related environmental issues.

But Mr. Davis is not done supporting parks, and one of the ways he does this is by being a sustaining donor to New Yorkers for Parks. We interviewed Mr. Davis where he shared his insight into why parks are essential, how we can make them better, and why he supports the work of New Yorkers for Parks.

What do you think is important about the work that NY4P does?

My history goes back to when NY4P was called the Parks Council and Barbara Fife was president. The primary function of NY4P is to serve as a watchdog and, at times, a friendly adversary. Sometimes back when I was commissioner the Parks Council would annoy me, but that’s ok. NY4P is the only citywide organization with that function, and they are doing it very well. As a former Commissioner, I can say that we always think we’re doing it right. But everyone in every aspect of government and community building needs council and advice from a group that is independent and objective. Every part of city government serves as stakeholders involved in the creation and maintenance of public open space. We currently have a very good city council parks committee, and I have no doubt that NY4P played a significant role in the increase in parks funding under the current city administration.

What do you see as being the most important issues facing NYC parks in the next 10 years?

The issues are always the same – resources. Money. We’ve seen an increase in parks acreage in the past 12 years, but the underlying issue with open space is always about capital to build and maintain parks.

New York parks have the most elaborate capital system in the world. It’s a hugely sophisticated infrastructure. It’s a neighborhood infrastructure – whether it’s a trip to the local park, or getting on the train to Coney Island – and it’s used in the most intimate way by New Yorkers. This makes maintaining our parks very challenging.

It’s easy for the city to decrease resources for parks, because it’s hard to maintain a coalition to ensure that doesn’t happen. It’s politically easy to decrease funding to parks because the consequences are not immediately visible. So it’s necessary to have a strong coalition to protect and advocate for parks resources. NY4P has been making these coalition advocacy efforts more effective.

The library campaign during the last city budgeting session was great, but it would be very hard to do something similar with parks because there aren’t organizations with the same level of resources. And of course the parks department can’t lead a public campaign. We need to have coalition-building and resources applied to maintaining parks, which is a very hard mission. NY4P is the only organization trying to do that.

Why do you choose to support New Yorkers for Parks?

I support NY4P because I love the work they’re doing, and I want them to be able to do more and bigger and better.