By Kim Vesey
August 29, 2023
Enter Fort Greene Park from the southeast, and you see not the lawn envisioned by Frederick Law Olmsted, but a chest-high wooden fence. Inside the park, the main lawn was, until a few years ago, a place where off-leash dogs congregated in the mornings, soccer players met on the weekends, and people meandered freely. Now, signs warn against lawn chairs, sports, or pets off leash. The main lawn was a bit of a dustbowl, but there were grassier expanses elsewhere. It seemed the picture of a successful urban park — pretty but not precious, with fireflies in June and sledding in January.
On a recent Monday afternoon, I counted six fenced lawns open for use (four passive and pet free), several areas fenced of completely for turf maintenance, and countless other fences: fences along border plantings, fencing around a thicket, fences around individual trees and shrubs (including some that were, themselves, behind other fences), fencing along paths to discourage people from wandering off piste, fencing around the tennis courts and playgrounds (to be expected, although it added to the maze look), even a strip of free-floating fencing that was either left over from a previous fence, or the beginning of a new one. A friend who lives nearby has taken to calling it Fort Greene Park Museum.
At first, the fencing seemed temporary — some seasonal maintenance, understandable if inconvenient. The fence around the main lawn was part of a lawn pilot that started in 2021, the fencing on the hills was to reduce erosion until the grass grew in, and signs around the park assured visitors that the Fort Greene Park Conservancy was working to reduce fencing. But it seems that over the years, the fencing has, if anything, increased.
What happened? I wanted to know. How did this romantic Olmsted park, with its winding paths and sloping hills, a 30-acre jewel, get turned into a fussy grid with every area demarcated, every use dictated?
This isn’t unique to Fort Greene,” says Adam Ganser, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. The pandemic increased parks use dramatically, as has climate change. All those 70-degree days in December and April mean that parks no longer get the winter recovery period they once did. Although the Parks Department doesn’t track usage, all the parks conservancies and advocates I spoke with told me the city’s parks are getting pummeled (visitors to Prospect Park are up tenfold, to more than 10 million, from the late 1980s). And Fort Greene, perched at the edge of Downtown Brooklyn, is a relatively small park (and a hilly one, leading to lots of erosion) that’s being trampled by the 30,000 new residents who have moved to the area since 2010, in the years after Bloomberg rezoned the neighborhood for dense residential development. Fencing off large swaths to reduce wear and tear is an expedient, if inelegant, solution.
“We are seeing maintenance strategies that are based on an unbelievable amount of use and it’s putting access to these spaces in jeopardy for a lot of New Yorkers,” Ganser says. “It’s emblematic of the crisis the city is facing with parks.”
Decades ago, fences were commonplace in city parks. When John Lindsay became mayor in 1966, he made removing them a priority. The parks commissioner at the time, August Heckscher, told the Times that he’d never seen “such a unanimity of feeling among the environmentalists, the community, and the Parks Department,” when they tore down the chain-link fence around the grassy and wooded hills at the Grand Army Plaza entrance to Prospect Park. The hills had been designed into the plan by Olmsted and “the chain-link fence destroyed the natural sweep of the hill.”
The Parks Department ended up re-installing some of those fences a few years later to quell complaints about garbage and lawlessness, but most came down during the parks renaissance in the 1980s, when the city, and its parks, were transformed, often with the help of conservancies, from neglected, often dangerous spaces into busy, beloved ones.
Christian Zimmerman, who oversees landscape management and capital improvements for the Prospect Park Alliance, says that in the 33 years he’s been there, the park has had an open-lawns policy. “We’ve always had the philosophy of ‘Let it be free,” he says. “It’s never going to be pristine. So it’s, ‘Let the dogs run and the people play volleyball.’ It’s such a small-d democratic space, everybody has at it.”
But that ethos is starting to fall out of favor at many parks. Madison Square Park, for example, has a fenced lawn — dogs not allowed — that is open, weather-dependent, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. And then there is Central Park. The Central Park Conservancy, which began “mentoring” Fort Greene Park on maintenance strategies in 2014, is known for both its meticulously maintained turf and for fencing off its greenswards to protect them from the public. It was easy to imagine that its methods, translated from Central Park’s 843 acres to a much, much smaller park like Fort Greene, might create the over-fenced situation there today.
But Fort Greene Park Conservancy told me that Central Park wasn’t the one that had pushed fencing and passive lawns. That was the Parks Department — which wouldn’t make the Fort Greene Park director Dave Barker available for an interview, or answer specific questions about its policies regarding passive lawn use or the situation at Fort Greene. The department wrote in an email that it seeks to limit fencing “while recognizing that fencing — both permanent and temporary — is an important tool for caring for our greenspaces and ensuring our parks can be enjoyed by as many visitors as possible.”
“We don’t like fences. We’re not pro-fence,” says Rosamond Fletcher, the executive director of Fort Greene Conservancy. But she says that, based on what they see in the surveys the Conservancy conducts, people are overwhelmingly supportive of clean, green lawns — not patchy ones where you might be sitting in something gross. Fort Greene is one of the dozens of city parks, including Prospect, that have off-leash hours before 9 a.m. and after 9 p.m. The program, codified in 2007, has been credited with helping make parks safer by filling them with people early in the morning and late at night. But Fletcher says that surveys they’ve done revealed a tension around dogs — and what some believe to be the effects of their paws and their pee — in the park. And how else, besides fencing, could they keep off-leash dogs from roaming wherever they wanted? Although the Conservancy says the dried-out yellow grass following last year’s reseeding effort was not, as some people assumed, from dogs, but rather an unlucky combination of seed type and weather.
“If you think about it, we are the park for Downtown Brooklyn, for all the people who moved here and have dogs,” Fletcher says. “Images of Fort Greene Park are included in every developer’s marketing brochure. It puts a lot of pressure and stress on the park in terms of keeping it up.”
Amy Hecht is on the board of PUPS, the association of Fort Greene Park dog owners, which has cooperated with the Conservancy and even supported the re-seeding initiative, but she objects to the notion that dogs are solely responsible for wear and tear in the park. All use damages the park. “We don’t dispute that dog owners damage the park, but we’re not the only ones who do,” Hecht says.
She pointed out the most recent survey on park use, which led to the main lawn being closed to off-leash dogs, didn’t have an option for taking down the fence and opening the entire main lawn to active use. In the mornings, dog owners are now relegated to standing in an area behind the tennis courts, the ragtag borders of the park, or a fenced, active-use lawn on the north side, which is at this point almost a de facto dog run.
Dogs have lost many of their off-leash rights. But so, too, has everyone else. Is it really better to fence off every green space in a park than to accept that there will be some dirt patches? What about the people who visit the park to take in the expanse of open lawn and hills, a delight in itself in a city where every other inch of space is cramped and cluttered and claimed by someone else. “It looks like a construction site,” says one Fort Greene resident I spoke with. “There’s nothing relaxing about it. It’s awful, just awful. There’s no respect for the original design of the park.”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a little seasonal maintenance. I’m even fine with a passive lawn — or two! — for people who want to lay back on the grass without thinking about the trace amounts of dog pee. But living in New York means accepting that you’re probably always sitting on something gross. New York is an exercise in figuring out how to carve a happy, satisfying existence out of the chaos and dirt, side by side with the millions of other people who live here. So why not free the park? Aim for a few patches of good-enough grass and, as Zimmerman says, let the dogs run and the people play volleyball.