Early on I learned that when people said to me that Bryant Park looked great, what they actually meant was “Wow, the lawn is really green.” I even got a letter once from the managing editor of the New York Times complimenting us on how good the lawn looked, and asking if I would come out to Long Island to give him a hand with his yard. There is no getting around that nothing communicates to folks that a public space is well-managed and under social control better than a verdant, well-kept lawn. It may be high maintenance and not ecologically correct, but it is what is. People want to look at, sit on, play on and LIE on a beautiful carpet of grass. And getting to a great lawn isn’t easy. At the same time, keeping people off the grass sends exactly the wrong message – you want the lawn to be open to use as often as possible. This signals that the space is somewhere that people are invited in and welcome to use.
As I have previously written, the Bryant Park lawn took several years to get up to standard. At King Park in Jamaica after several years of advocacy we got the turf where I wanted it to be for a short period of time, but we and the Parks Department (DPR) just didn’t have the resources to keep it up. DPR recently did a major capital project to improve pedestrian circulation in King Park (moving the paths to where the desire lines indicated where people actually wanted to walk – rather than where the original designers thought they should walk), and some of the turf was reseeded as part of the project. But today, the stretch of grass directly in front of the King Manor Museum (a historic house) looks scruffy – and transmits the wrong signal right in the middle of the Downtown.
You know how in the “The Graduate” Dustin Hoffman is whispered a word that is suggested as the key to his future success: “plastics.” My words that are the key to a great lawn are: “core aeration.” A great lawn is about three things – seed, sun and water. Getting them in balance is what makes for a great stretch of grass. Having people on the lawn makes it more complicated to manage. Their feet compact the soil, making it difficult for water to get to the roots. Too much sun, and not enough water makes for burned-out turf. And, folks don’t like to sit on wet grass; so you can’t solve those problems by over-watering. Every morning, three seasons a year, on my way into Bryant Park in the morning, I would put my hand down and feel the grass. That’s what it takes to make a great lawn. I would determine by feel how wet the turf was and make a determination as to whether and for how long the grass should be watered that night.
I would also make a decision about when it needed to be mowed. Like how wet the turf should be; its length is a judgment call. Some people like putting green length grass. That looks manicured and carefully managed. Many folks like to sit on a long cushy bed of grass. Shorter grass burns out more easily during long periods of sun. Longer grass protects the roots from sun and holds moisture. But if the grass gets too long it looks like no one is paying attention.
Compaction is the enemy of a great greensward. The more people who walk on the lawn the more compact it gets. That makes it harder to get water to the roots and more difficult for the roots to grow. The longer the roots are the more water the grass will be able to absorb, and the more abuse it will be able to take. Core aeration is a relatively simple process that involves a tractor (even a very small one) and a device pulled behind it with a roller. The roller extracts plugs from the soil and dumps them on the surface. This serves to break up the soil and makes it easier for the roots to grow. It’s a good thing to do after a big event; or at least a couple of times a season. After aeration is a good opportunity to lay down seed, as the aerated soil and watered seed creates a particularly receptive environment for successful seed germination. Of course, you need to keep people off the lawn for a couple of weeks after seeding to allow the new grass to get established.
And speaking of seed, let me put in a good word for seed, as opposed to sod, lawns. Seeded lawns are more resilient, because they establish deeper roots. Sod lawns can become established over time (sod is a mat of soil with grass with roots already established in it. Sod has the ability, unlike seed, to provide an “instant” law). But regular re-sodding prevents that kind of root establishment. In Bryant Park, when the fashion shows moved to the grass, re-sodding after events became essential. There is now annual re-sodding after the removal of the ice rink in the early spring. In my cranky, venerable opinion the sod lawn has never looked quite as great as the seed lawn (once we got it right) of the mid-90’s. It is important to note that Bryant Park management takes great pride in (and keeps track of) how many days a year the lawn is open to the public for use.
Allowing the lawn to recover for a day or two after heavy use, is also a good idea, and helps keep the turf stay in best possible condition for as long as possible into the summer. It is good to keep people off the turf when it is very wet – because that is when it is most vulnerable to both compaction and wear. Again, this is part of the balancing act that is essential to maintaining a great looking swath of green and letting people use it as much as is feasible.
A great example of the management problems that turf creates is the lawn at Lincoln Center on the roof of the restaurant Lincoln. It was a wonderful idea to create a green panel at this heavily otherwise hardscaped public space. The lawn panel was designed at a steep slope, which forces water towards the bottom (making the top of the lawn drier and the bottom wetter). The bottom of the lawn is narrower and effectively the “entrance” to the space – creating a situation of very heavy use and wear at the bottom of the panel – which is nearly impossible to keep green as a result. There are no ideal solutions to how to manage this turf. But the public does love to look at it, and sit on it – and on balance it makes the public spaces at Lincoln Center warmer, more welcoming and better.