Evolving policies and laws for governance of urban protected areas: New York State’s Landmark Heritage Area System Evolving policies and laws for governance of urban protected areas: New York State’s Landmark Heritage Area System, Ane Books, New Dehli, India, 2003

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Evolving policies and laws for governance of urban protected areas: New York State’s Landmark Heritage Area System, Ane Books, New Dehli, India, 2003. Paul M. Bray


In America, parks, protected areas and historic features are protected through public ownership, creating public estates. Since the 1960s, when urban park historian Galen Cranz noted the beginning of the ‘open space’ era of urban parks where the city flowed into the traditional park and the park flowed into the spaces of the entire city, a gradual expansion of the concept of park and historic preservation has taken place, to encompass urban and region settings.

In 1985 the Conservation Foundation noted in its report National Parks for a New Generation: …newer historic preservation trends…move beyond the ‘feature’ to an entire setting, offering insights into the distinctive human and economic forces that shaped our cities and countryside. Conserving and maintaining such special places requires respect for lesser buildings that make up the ‘historic fabric’ or ‘cultural landscape’ and different management responses to retain residents and encourage appropriate uses. Lowell National Historical Park, Cape Cod National Seashore, and the Olema Valley in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area are but a few of the park service’s new models.’

In the case of city of Lowell, Massachusetts, the New York Times reported that the Historic Park was not in Lowell, but that the city itself was the park. There are now more than 20 National Heritage Areas or Corridors established in regions located throughout the United States.

Under rubrics such as urban cultural park, heritage area, historical park, partnership park, greenline park and regional greenway, urban and regional settings are increasingly being designated and managed to achieve the intersecting goals of preservation of natural and cultural resources, education, recreation and sustainable development. These initiatives fall under IUCN Category V of protected landscape. They have been called partnership parks because their establishment and management requires various public and private sector and intergovernmental partnerships. Frequently, local authorities and/or local NGOs play a significant role in management or program implementation. Partnership parks are distinguished from traditional parks by linking economic objectives with conservation.

New York State’s ‘urban cultural park’ law enacted in 1982 establishes a statewide system of urban cultural parks (UCP) which are now called heritage areas. The New York State Heritage Area System Act (Title G, Articles 31, 33 and 35) of The New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Law (the UCP law) represents the first and most comprehensive attempt at creating a statutory framework for the designation and management of urban and regional heritage settings. Today, the system comprises 17 designated heritage areas. It has been tested through two decades of experience. Its mission is to manage and promote the natural and cultural resources of identified urban and regional areas, in partnership with local governments and the private sector, as a cumulative expression of New York State’s urban heritage.

This chapter will describe the innovative UCP/heritage area organic law, provide a general evaluation of the first 20 years of its implementation and offer recommendations for other jurisdictions that might consider its application.

New York State’s Urban Cultural Park/Heritage Area Law


In 1982 the New York State Legislature enacted a comprehensive law for preservation and governmental reform purposes. The legislature declared a state policy to preserve its ‘cultural and natural resources of statewide significance’ associated with the State’s ‘growth and attainments over time’ through their identification, interpretation, development and use in a system made up of state designated urban cultural parks.

The reform is to improve and coordinate the plans, functions, powers and programs of the state, in cooperation with the Federal government, regions, local governments and other public and private organizations and individuals’ concerned. These purposes are to be accomplished, in part, by broadening the notion of an urban park from one tied to a limited area of open space to the idea of a park as an amalgam of historic, natural and architectural resources embracing man’s total surroundings. The legislature found that the designated historic settings broaden the notion of urban park and offer educational, recreational, scenic and economic benefits today and a legacy for future generations.

The UCP law was an outgrowth of a collaborative effort of six neighboring communities at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers where an agrarian landscape was developed into a dramatic industrial landscape in the 19th century. These communities designated themselves to be the Hudson Mohawk Urban Cultural Park in 1977 and are now known as Riverspark (‘where water sparked a revolution’). Riverspark, in effect, sparked statewide interest in the UCP or heritage area and led the state to prepare a plan for a statewide system of urban cultural parks. This plan, based on an outreach effort to communities throughout New York State included feasibility studies, pilot preservation, education and improvement projects, identified 13 designated urban cultural parks and established the planning and management framework codified in the UCP Law. The name urban cultural park has been changed to heritage area, in part, because some believed that the new name was more suitable, for the three large regional areas that have been added to make it a 17-unit statewide system.

Key elements of the Urban Cultural Parks Law

An Urban Cultural Park (UCP) is a definable urban or settled area of public and private uses ranging from a portion of a municipality to a region with a special coherence, such area being distinguished by physical and cultural resources (natural or man-made including waterways, architecture, or artefacts reflecting a period of style or cultural heritage) which play a vital role in the community and contribute through interpretation, educational and recreational use to the public. An urban cultural park may include traditional parks (pleasure grounds set apart for recreation) and historic places or property on the national or state register of historic places, but the term urban cultural park shall not be deemed to mean a park or historic place used in other provisions of law including those relating to alienation of park land and regulation of public or private activities. Such other provisions of law shall continue to apply to specific parks and historic places with an urban cultural park.’

One should note the inclusiveness of the definition. Traditional parks and historic places may be included within a UCP but distinction is made when it comes to laws and regulations intended specifically for traditional parks and historic places. New York State Urban Cultural Parks Advisory Council

An advisory council is created to implement planning and management of urban cultural parks. Its ex-officio chair is the Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and its member comprise five ex-officio state commissioners in the fields of education, agriculture, community development, transportation and economic development, and six individuals appointed by the Governor including four public officials and two citizens. Its primary functions include:

· coordinating state actions with the objectives of the system of urban cultural parks, and · reviewing complaints made by local governments or other entities established by law to administer UCPs relating to activities undertaken by state agencies that might adversely affect UCP resources and make recommendations with respect thereto.

Establishment of statewide system

The law provides that there is hereby established a statewide urban cultural park system to consist of state designated urban cultural parks that reflect the cultural themes of the state’s development and will provide educational, inspirational, economic and recreational benefits for present and future generations.

The themes referenced are identified in the system plan. There was a belief that the viability of individual UCPs depended on creating a larger system such as the National Park System.


The law designated 13 historic settings that have been identified for their statewide significance in the system plan. The law provides that upon completion of a management plan and its approval, the designated settings shall be ‘state designated urban cultural parks’. The use of the term ‘designated’ conveys that the state still had a role to play. Designated areas range from the cohesive geographic area within the city of New York, including lower Manhattan or portions thereof and appropriate coastal portions of Brooklyn and Staten Island, to small villages such as Seneca Falls, which is associated with the women’s rights movement.

The Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is directed to evaluate areas of the state for potential designations and is authorized to establish guidelines for evaluating partnership eligibility. Since 1982, the legislature has made four additional designations of which three are regional landscapes (the North shore of Long Island, the Mohawk Valley and Western Erie Canal corridors). The law provides that an area or setting that has not received state approval of its management plan in three years following the legislative action shall lose its designation.

Management plan

The local government or, where appropriate, entities collectively for each designated area or setting must prepare a comprehensive management plan conforming to the provisions in the law and agency guidelines. The management plans offer definition to a particular UCP and identify the overall management strategy. Key elements of the plan include: · mapping boundaries including, areas and zones within the park identified for a particular intensity of use, including zones devoted to private or public use and development by state or local government; · goals and objectives of the park; · inventory and designation of natural and cultural resources; · identification of properties to be acquired; · description of interpretive and recreational programs; · economic assessment of long-and short-term costs and benefits relating to the establishment, operation and maintenance of the park; · description of techniques or means for the preservation and protection of the natural and cultural resources of the park; and · description of the organizational structure for planning, development and management.

Each management plan must demonstrate the capacity at the local level to implement and manage the urban cultural park including but not limited to the ability to: · accept and distribute funds; · acquire, improve or dispose of property; · manage, operate and maintain appropriate urban cultural park facilities identified as being of local responsibility without state financial assistance; and · promulgate and enforce land use and preservation criteria and standards as required to protect the resources within each urban cultural park. The local legislative body of each municipality within a designated UCP must approve the management plan before submitting it for approval by the Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The Commissioner may withdraw approval upon finding a significant adverse impact to urban cultural park resources or a general failure to implement a management plan.

Preservation of UCP resources

The law has provisions directing the Commissioner to establish standards and criteria for preservation of resources within urban cultural parks and that each UCP should enact measures to ensure that these standards shall be achieved.

State coordination and consistency

The law attempts to foster support, coordination and cooperation of functional state programs for each UCP. A separate section of the law directs a number of state agencies including education, environment, transportation and commerce to prepare program statements which shall detail actions in the areas of planning, development, use, assistance and regulation that can support and assist the establishment and management of state urban cultural parks.

Another provision states that any state agency whose activities affect an urban cultural park shall conduct or support such activities in a manner which is, to the maximum extent practicable, consistent with the approved management plan.

Acquisition of property

Provision is made declaring that acquisition of interests in real property for preservation, education, recreation or economic development purposes within an urban cultural park is a public purpose for which public funds may be used.

State funding

Specific provision is made for state planning, acquisition and development, and program grants. Under these provisions, the state actively funds much of the planning that went into preparation of management plans, but its record of funding under other categories has been spotty at best. State funding has mostly come outside of the UCP organic framework. The New York State Environmental Quality Bond Act of 1986 set aside US$20 million for state funded visitor centres in the 14 urban cultural parks designated at that time. So far, 13 visitor centres have been developed and are operated by the local management authority. The other primary source for state funds has been the annual capital funding grants under a state environment fund. However, there has not been much state assistance for operation and maintenance of individual UCPs.

Local or regional urban cultural parks

A little recognized and so far underutilized provision of the UCP law authorizes the Commissioner to encourage local conservation efforts to create UCPs that may be integrated into the statewide system.


The UCP area law is a bold stroke riding a current of more inclusive conservation. However, it also butted against park, NGO, professional and bureaucratic interests. In fact, the heritage area phenomenon in the United States continues to grow and evolve with neither a fully realized public identity nor an overriding sense of direction. The growth is occurring nationally with the continued enrollment of new regional national heritage areas or corridors each year. Yet, heritage areas remain essentially a local phenomenon driven by local interests with varying agendas including heritage tourism development, historic preservation, conservation and urban revitalization. At both state and national levels, traditional park authorities have been partners but with a reluctance to exchange their traditional ownership model for a partnership model. A tourism promotion agency in Albany, New York, for example, manages its heritage area while an historic preservation NGO manages Riverspark, both under contract to local municipalities. This complexity explains why after three decades very little has been done to critically assess and evaluate UCPs.

Looking back over time, this circumstance of being adrift is not completely unusual. New York state’s Adirondack Park of six million acres, was referred to in 1992 at its 100th anniversary as a park in the painful process of becoming a park. This blue-line park without gates is half constitutionally protected wild forest land and half regulated private lands with more that 80 towns and villages and 130,000 permanent residents. Inhabited parks and protected areas with many and diverse public and private stakeholders by their very nature may have to evolve slowly towards their farsighted conservation goals.

As an advocate, organizer, advisor, legal and planning services consultant and, draftsman of the New York State Law, I do have a distinct perspective on the assessment of the law that points to successes, shortcomings and recommendations for reform.

What works

In the light of high expectations to create a new form of park and achieve a far-reaching level of inter-governmental arrangement and coordination, one could realistically say that New York state’s heritage areas have floundered over their first twenty years. Yet, at one level or another, all 17 designated UCPs areas continue to function and each year a number of urban and regional areas seek state designation. The most demonstrable achievement has been the development of state-of-the-art visitor centres in 13 of the 17 heritage areas. This has given heritage areas a physical beachhead in urban settings where cultural and natural linkages are not obvious at first look. The visitor centre and its sophisticated exhibition tell its visitors how natural and cultural resources have been hidden under auto-centric infrastructure and other modern influences.

In addition, the management plan requires enactment of municipal protections for significant historic landmarks and districts in heritage areas according to national standards. However, no assessment has been made to determine how rigorous implementation of these protections has been and whether the creation of the heritage area affected the protection of local resources.

To varying degrees, the heritage areas have set a new tone for celebrating urban resources and initiating large and small conservational projects that restore the urban fabric. State-level recognition of smaller urban settings through designation has boosted local morale.

Many local leaders continue to believe that economic and conservation imperatives are inherently inconsistent, and that preservation impedes development. Heritage areas have given heritage interests a higher visibility and have become a force for integrating conservation and economic objectives. In Rochester, New York, for example, the heritage area focusing on the scenic and high falls of the Genesee River and neighbouring historic industrial sites has been a catalyst for revival of a decayed portion of the city through a combination of conservation and new economic development.

In effect, heritage areas have been a platform to propel local conservation projects and identify and launch new projects through public and private partnerships. While Riverspark has never had the financial resources to be a strong institutional force in managing the heritage area, it focused attention on under-recognized heritage resources, such as labour and worker heritage, and was able to attract vital support for a variety of conservation projects. The study on Riverspark’s worker heritage led to local Congressmen sponsoring legislation for a National Labor Theme Study. The Kate Mullany House, the house of the organizer of the first women’s labour union in 1860s, was given the status of a National Historic Landmark, and the house will soon be used as a national labour study centre. Other projects that Riverspark facilitated include the Schuyler Flatts Cultural Park (a National Historical Landmark) and the Champlain Canal trail, both made possible with private funding. Step by step, the establishment of heritage areas has fostered significant conservation achievements.


The primary weaknesses of the New York heritage area law include uncertainties regarding the state’s long-term commitment to the heritage areas marked by unsteady funding and failure to develop a physical and programmatic infrastructure to solidify and lead the diverse units of the system. The State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is the agency responsible for organizing and leading more than 160 traditional State Parks, 35 historic sites and the state historic preservation program. State Park officials ignore their partnership role with heritage areas as a primary responsibility. They fear it will deflect financial resources from its primary programs. Americans generally have an anti-urban bias and the notion of celebrating urban cultural heritage is very much undeveloped. Essentially, heritage areas have been considered step-children. The legislative initiative has done what is minimally necessary to keep the system and program going.

In this regard, the organic law failed to adequately address system issues such as how the system would function. It was assumed that New York, state, which had the first state park system in the United States dating from 1924, had an inherent understanding and ability to develop the system features for the heritage areas including standards and material for interpretation and other programmatic elements. However, most part the individual heritage areas have been left to develop on their own.


The homogenizing forces of modernism and globalism are fortunately creating a reaction in the form of greater attention to the recognition, protection and management of local natural, tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Just as Americans have been spawning heritage areas, the Council of Europe has adopted a convention declaring all of Europe a cultural landscape, and UNESCO adopted the Istanbul Declaration of Intangible Cultural Heritage (18 September 2002) that stresses an all-encompassing approach to cultural heritage should prevail, which takes into account the dynamic link between tangible and intangible heritage and their deep interdependence.

As a result, we expect to see new frames of reference to identify and manage urban and regional setting that are cumulative expressions of heritage areas and urban cultural parks with institutional and management arrangements. The New York UCP is one ambitious example. With the complexity of stakeholders and cultural differences associated with applying a heritage conservation strategy, no one strategy or approach may be found. Yet, the UCP experience offers a framework that can be adapted as it was in 1990s by the State of Maryland. As a stalking horse for the notion of the city and region as park, it is worth monitoring for the lessons from its application over time. I suggest one lesson is to think boldly while taking one step at a time.


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