Late last month, video of a confrontation between an avid birder and a dog walker in the Central Park Ramble went viral. While Twitter and the op-ed pages rightfully prioritized the degree to which white privilege, prejudice, and misplaced fear motivated the dog walker’s more than inappropriate response, the exchange also underscored long-standing tensions between birders and dog walkers in the Ramble, and sparked broader conversations about city park usage in general. That conversation has become all the more timely now that parks are playing host to massive protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
The Ramble, located on the Upper West Side between 66th and 79th Street, has always been an important part of the park for birders. Originally designed as a wild garden, it’s a notable stop for warblers during migration, and the dense forest lends itself to roosting. Due to the rarified conditions for migratory birds, dogs must be leashed at all times.
As one would expect, the rule is often broken. “There are a lot of signs in New York that say ‘Don’t do this’,” noted Robert DeCandido. “They’re New Yorkers. If you followed all the rules you wouldn’t get anything done.”
DeCandido has M.S. and doctorate degrees studying the flora of New York City and, before the pandemic, regularly hosted bird walks. DeCandido says he thinks dog walkers believe they’re unleashing their dogs as one-time exceptions, but birders see it happening all the time. “We see it as a cumulative effect,” he said. “Each incidence of a dog just reinforced the stereotype of, ‘Here we go, a dog off the leash in the Ramble is running around.’ The dog walker sees that as an individual case.”
DeCandido believes there is a disconnect between birders and park-goers about the significance of the Ramble. “They [dog walkers] don’t see from a broader perspective that they might be affecting birds who want to forage on the ground and certainly they don’t understand that when someone like Chris [Cooper] or myself gets upset,” DeCandido said.
For DeCandido and the birding community, it is a recurring problem. “If you go up to a dog person and you say to them politely, ‘Would you please put your dog on the leash?”, they look at you like you like they’re from another planet,” he said.
Ken Chaya, an artist, designer and urban naturalist who spent two and half years locating and identifying trees in Central Park, hopes New York City green spaces will be appreciated responsibly, especially during the pandemic. “Fortunately, many New Yorkers who use and enjoy our parks are responsible citizens,” Chaya said. “But the few bad apples who are out there can really ruin an experience, a landscape, a day or even a whole season for others with their bad behavior.”
Urban planners and designers are thinking about the lasting impact of how people in urban environments are interacting with public space during the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re kind of reimaging public space, especially in New York,” said Olivia Flynn, designer at an urban research and design consulting firm, Gehl Architects A small team from Gehl’s New York City office conducted surveys about public space and social distancing in Jackson Heights, Herbert von King Park, Prospect Park and Fort Greene Park. Flynn studied her own neighborhood, Clinton Hill, as well as neighboring Fort Greene Park and its surrounding streets.
“What we’re seeing anecdotally from life in Clinton Hill-Fort Greene, is that the parks are becoming everyone’s dining table and living room and the only space where you can hang out with people,” Flynn said, noting that usually restaurants and bars serve this purpose.
In the wake of the killing of Minneapolis’ George Floyd, parks have become a place for protest. On Sunday, Fort Greene Park held a silent protest against racism and police brutality. Parkgoers sat in silence for approximately nine minutes, the same amount of time an officer knelt on Floyd’s neck before he died.
The idea of open streets has been popular in urban design communities before Covid-19. According to NYC Parks, the parks department is a steward to only 14 percent of New York City. Open streets are an opportunity to expand public life. “We’re always preaching that, pre-Covid times: streets are public space, and streets are places for kids to play,” Flynn said. “You can have a picnic there too.”
Last month, designer Eamon O’Conner published the results of a survey conducted by Gehl. Of 2,000 respondents from 40 states and 68 countries, 65 percent had used public space during the pandemic for reasons beyond essential needs while 35 percent had not. 42 percent of those who did use public space for reasons beyond essential needs said they went to large public parks and 87 percent of people said that they were using neighborhood streets and sidewalks for these activities Of their total respondents, 25 percent of them said they felt crowded in a public park. 10 percent of respondents reported using open streets, but only 1 percent reported feeling crowded in open streets.
Last month, New York City added 12 additional miles of open streets (for a total of 30 miles) and 9 additional miles of protected bike lanes, and set a goal of 100 miles of open streets.
“It sounds so simple, but it’s just about prioritizing humans and not cars,” Flynn said.
Covid-19 has not only changed the way designers are thinking about public space but changing the way hobbyists, especially birders, are engaging with public space. For many birders, transportation is a problem.
“The immediate effect in March was far fewer people going out to bird,” said David Barrett, founder of Manhattan Bird Alert, a Twitter account dedicated to real-time birding updates. “Not just because of the fear of a public place but because it takes transportation for most people to get to Central Park. People were advised not to take the subway. Not to take buses. Except for people who live very near the park, a lot people widely stayed home and followed the advice of the governor and others.”
The outcome was more people were birding vicariously online. Barrett was aware of the phenomenon when posting. “People stuck at home have been on Twitter more,” Barrett said. “They have been coming to accounts like mine that are relaxing and soothing..”
This was exactly what happened to Ellen Zimmerli, a mother who also holds a doctorate in biopsychology. “I heard about bird Twitter and I was like, ‘I have Twitter on my phone, I’ve never really used it,’” Zimmerli said. “I heard it was a happy place. There were beautiful pictures of birds and reports and found out some of them were so close to me.”
All of Zimmerli’s other creative outlets had come to a halt because of the pandemic. Her role as vice president of The Stonewall Chorale and work as a Butterfly Explainer at the American Museum of Natural History had come to a halt. Her science background gave her a great framework to begin birding.
Zimmerli decided to walk to Central Park as she began birding during the pandemic. She has seen over 107 species since she started in March. Like many, Zimmerli is cooped up in her apartment with her family. She is quarantining with three children, two who have been home from college since Spring Break and another who was participating in online learning. For her, birding in Central Park is a great way to get out of the house and feel a sense of satisfaction when spotting something new.
Plus, it’s the perfect social distancing activity. “One of the nice things about birding is it’s the perfect solitary activity,” Zimmerli said. “For me, it’s better to do it alone.”
On the question of park usage, Zimmerli thinks that public space has been vital for everybody. “When the weather is nice on the beautiful days, that park gets full,” Zimmerli said. “There are a lot of people running, just getting out there but I think it’s been good for everybody.”