A look at zone management

September 22, 2009 by Melissa McMasters

Tim Fulton, Meg Cheever, Doug Blonsky, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Board Chair Jerry Voros, and Phil Gruszka

Yesterday the Parks Conservancy hosted two park experts from New York to tell us the story of zone management: Doug Blonsky, President of the Central Park Conservancy and Administrator of Central Park, and Tim Fulton, former Director of Park Operations at the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy. They were joined by our own Phil Gruszka, who shared his experiences with zone management at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA.

I touched on this a couple of entries ago in the New York parks recap, but in a nutshell, zone management means that a park (or park system) is divided into zones, with each zone having a dedicated crew responsible for maintenance. In Central Park, for example, crews use a "GLOW" checklist to rate the appearance of their zone for Graffiti and Glass, Lawns and Litter, and Weeds. (More on that here.) Having workers assigned to specific areas gives them both accountability and a sense of pride in their area. It also makes them ambassadors for that section of the park, knowledgeable about the area and able to share information with park visitors.

Mr. Blonsky's presentation was excellent, with lots of stunning visuals to illustrate just how terrible Central Park had become over the years when there was no management plan. (Want to see them? Click here to view a PDF of the presentation.) Prior to the Central Park Conservancy signing its management contract with the City of New York, the Conservancy was focusing on capital improvements while the City handled maintenance. But they quickly learned that all the capital restorations in the world were useless without a maintenance plan. After the contract was signed, the Conservancy took charge of all day-to-day operations, dividing the park into 49 "zones" and assigning its own employees and the City employees to specific zones.

The impact was immediately noticeable. Before, when people would walk into the park, the first thing they saw was trash. With the dedicated zone crews, litter removal began to occur earlier and earlier in the day, and soon people stopped littering so much. That's the thing that strikes me about the zone management approach: when people see the impact that the park staff is making, they are encouraged to use the park more positively. Positive use then drives out negative use (witness the transformation of Harlem Meer from a crack house to a well-used educational center following its restoration).

Central Parks Great Lawn before and after its restoration and maintenance

Zone management also makes maintenance more efficient: the Central Park Conservancy has a rule that graffiti must be removed within 24 hours, but usually it is gone in less than two. Without park workers assigned to zones, the Conservancy would likely have to rely on visitors to report problems--or park workers would be driving around the entire park looking for issues, wasting time and burning fossil fuels. Instead, the staff remains in their areas and notices problems immediately.

Similar strides were made in Buffalo after zone management was adopted. Mr. Fulton told the story of how the City of Buffalo was facing bankruptcy and could no longer afford to employ a staff to maintain the park system. The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy accepted a contract to manage the parks, and expected to adopt a zone management approach within 5 to 10 years. They wound up implementing it within the first year, despite the community's worries that the organization should remain focused on capital projects and programming.

Volunteers are assigned to zones that interest them, as in the aquatic restoration program in Central Park.

As in Central Park, the impact was almost immediate. Workers began to get enthusiastic about their areas of the park and to advocate for them. They changed the way people treated the parks. Before, companies having events in the parks drove their vehicles all over the turf, creating huge ruts and making the park look unappealing. Following zone management, the employees were able to enforce the rules and explain how damaging some of the old practices were.

Both speakers also mentioned how zone management has had a positive effect on volunteers. Instead of coming in as part of a large group, volunteers are assigned to a zone based on their interests. Some prefer to specialize in the aquatic areas, while some like to assist with flower plantings. They develop relationships with the zone's other volunteers and staff members, and their sense of ownership in the park increases as well.

If this interests you at all, I'd recommend checking out the lecture recap and materials, which we've archived on our website. You can download all the presentations and read more about the speakers. We're not there yet in Pittsburgh (the Conservancy and the City have an excellent partnership, but the Conservancy does not have a contract to manage the parks), but it's fascinating to learn about how this approach has been able to take parks to the next level in other cities.

Ecological Restoration, Parks Management