Protecting Our Urban Parks from the Impacts of Climate Change
The Yale School of the Environment is partnering with the Central Park Conservancy and the Natural Areas Conservancy in a first-of-its-kind initiative aimed at helping cities develop strategies to manage and mitigate the impacts of climate change on urban parks.
By Paige Stein
Many American urbanites’ experience of nature begins and ends with their city’s public park system. Fifty percent of all New Yorkers, for example, report that the only time they spend in a natural environment is in city parks. There are over one million acres of urban parks in the United States, which are as vulnerable to the effects of climate change as wilderness areas, coastlines, and other parts of our national landscape. Fittingly, urban parks are often described as forgotten or invisible infrastructure; there are no common maps or unified sources of information or policy recommendations to aid cities in the management and protection of these vital greenspaces in the face of challenges created by climate change.
To bridge that critical knowledge gap, the Yale School of the Environment is partnering with the Central Park Conservancy and the New York City–based Natural Areas Conservancy in a new initiative to study the on-the-ground impacts of climate change on urban parks. The end goal of the Central Park Climate Lab is to work with cities across the United States to advance and implement urban park strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change and understand how these essential greenspaces could be used to create more resilient futures.
“With about 55% of the world’s population now living in urban areas, urbanization plays an increasingly important role in how we manage and mitigate the impact of global climate change,” said Professor Karen Seto, Frederick C. Hixon Professor of Geography and Urbanization Science at the Yale School of the Environment. “This collaboration aims to use mapping and other tools to develop urban interventions to protect their urban parkland and use them to mitigate and adapt to climate change.”
YSE Professor of Soils and Ecosystem Ecology Mark Bradford also will be part of the initiative, as will YSE alumnae Sarah Charlop-Powers ’09 MEM and Clara Pregitzer ’20 PhD from the Natural Areas Conservancy (NAC). They will be working alongside the Central Park Conservancy team of practitioners.
Research will begin on the ground in Central Park before expanding to other New York City greenspaces and then select city parks around the country. With the data acquired, the Lab will create new, scalable strategies for implementing climate mitigation and adaption protocols in urban parks across the U.S. Central Park offers a unique setting to begin studying climate change adaptation in urban parks as it has been impacted by some of the more severe effects of climate change within the past decade.
“Parks are essential for New Yorkers, as this last couple of years have proven, but flooding, high winds, and extreme temperatures pose a threat to their health,” said New York City Mayor Eric Adams. “The Central Park Climate Lab begins a new era in research and cooperation that will give our park professionals improved tools to combat the climate crisis, and it will be a model for urban parks across the country.”
Hurricane Ida brought a record 3.15 inches of rain to Central Park in one hour on September 1, 2021, beating the record set just 10 days prior. In July 2021, Central Park faced at least four official heat waves; in August, at least two. (Extreme heat is now the number one weather-related cause of death in the U.S.) Increasing global temperatures due to human-caused climate change, a rise in pollution, and a build-up of nutrients in run-off water have caused harmful algal blooms to be a growing problem around the world, including in Central Park’s water bodies. The effects of climate change are compounded with the everyday management challenges that arise when serving a dense urban area. Central Park sees more visitors a year than Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. (Central Park welcomes 42 million visits annually versus the Magic Kingdom’s 20.8 million.)
“The Central Park Conservancy initiated this effort after experiencing the effects of climate change on our management of Central Park. Severe weather events, such as unprecedented rainfall, blizzards, high winds, and extreme heat and cold, strain resources and impact Central Park’s tree canopy, plants, and wildlife, all of which are vital to the health of our city and its residents,” said Elizabeth W. Smith, president & CEO of the Central Park Conservancy.
Through this partnership, cities around the country will be provided with tools, resources, and data that can inform their efforts to defend local urban parks and allow them to leverage these vital spaces to protect their cities.
“The Natural Areas Conservancy is thrilled to partner with the Central Park Conservancy and the Yale School of the Environment on this groundbreaking initiative,” said Charlop-Powers, NAC’s executive director. “Our organization has spent years researching the unique role that natural area parkland in cities —forests, wetlands, and grasslands—can play in mitigating climate change. This project will shine a light on the importance of urban natural areas in addressing the climate crisis.”