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New York City Urban Field Station

Reading the Landscape: A Social & Site Assessment of Public Greenspace

What are the uses, meanings, and values of public greenspace in New York City?

[photo:] Conducting interviews in the field, Jamaica Bay. Photo credit: Joana Chan, City Parks FoundationForest Service social science researchers have initiated a Social & Site Assessment of Parks and Natural Areas in communities around Jamaica Bay. With financial support from the NYC Natural Areas Conservancy and a field crew supplemented by seasonal NYC Parks & Recreation employees, Forest Service staff conducted four months of field observations and data collection, exploring the uses, meanings, and values of public green space, attending both to enduring themes and to specific issues arising in the post-Sandy context.

This research seeks to inform the adaptive management of NYC’s public open spaces and to provide a new rapid assessment methodology for understanding the socio-cultural values and services embodied in and performed by parkland.

In 2013, field research was conducted in the Jamaica Bay region in collaboration with a team of 12 from the Jamaica Bay Restoration Corps, a workforce development program funded by the Department of Labor to support individuals displaced from their work by Hurricane Sandy (October 2012). The program employed 200 adults from diverse and historically underserved communities that were most adversely affected by the storm. Forest Service Social Science Researchers trained twelve members of this Corps in mixed social science research methods, including public interviews, qualitative and quantitative site observations, and photo-documentation.


The Corps worked alongside the research team for a month of intensive field research, learning about the many uses and values of public open space, practicing professional, interpersonal, and communication skills, and bringing their unique and diverse perspectives on public lands to our shared work. Altogether, the field crew surveyed over 4000 acres of City and Federal land and interviewed over 600 parks users. View footage from our field research by Colin MacFadyen.


In 2014, the study expanded to citywide and covered an additional 22 parks with a field crew of four seasonal social science researchers. An additional sub-research question was added in year two that explored public use and perceptions of ‘natural area’ forest and wetlands citywide.  With fieldwork now complete, the research team has transitioned into data analysis, product development, and sharing findings.  The team is developing a geodatabase, park profiles, white papers, presentations, and peer-reviewed articles.


After completing the citywide study, Forest Service researchers are training other members of the public in the implementation of the rapid social assessment method.  Two years of students at the Macaulay Honors College were trained in the protocol and conducted the study in Northern Manhattan Parks. 


An expanded, multi-season study is being conducted at Inwood Park, with social assessment data collection in fall, winter, and spring complemented by semi-structured interviews and ethnographic participant observation.  These more fine-grained data will help to inform a stewardship plan for the park.

Affiliated scientists and staff


[photo:] the Jamaica Bay Restoration Corps at work in Marine Park, Brooklyn.  Photo credit: Gillian Baine, USFS NRS.

Related Publications


Auyeung, D.S. Novem; Campbell, Lindsay K.; Johnson, Michelle; Sonti, Nancy Falxa; Svendsen, Erika. 2016. Reading the landscape: citywide social assessment of New York City parks and natural areas in 2013-2014

Auyeung, D.S. Novem; Campbell, Lindsay K.; Johnson, Michelle; Sonti, Nancy Falxa; Svendsen, Erika. 2016. Reading the Landscape: Park Profiles 2013 - 2014. Social Assessment White Paper No. 3. (34 MB)

Campbell, Lindsay K.; Svendsen, Erika S.; Sonti, Nancy Falxa; Johnson, Michelle L. 2016. A social assessment of urban parkland: Analyzing park use and meaning to inform management and resilience planning. Environmental Science & Policy. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2016.01.014

Svendsen, Erika S.; Campbell, Lindsay K.; McMillen, Heather L. 2016. Stories, shrines, and symbols: Recognizing psycho-social-spiritual benefits of urban parks and natural areas. Journal of Ethnobiology. 36(4): 881-907.

Campbell, Lindsay; Svendsen, Erika; Sonti, Nancy; Johnson, Michelle. 2015. Reading the Landscape : A Social Assessment of Parks and their Natural Areas in Jamaica Bay Communities. White Paper, Part I: Social Assessment Overview (4 MB)

Campbell, Lindsay; Svendsen, Erika; Raymond, Nancy Falxa; Baine, Gillian. 2014. Reading the landscape, a reflection on method. PLOT. 3: 90-95.