The Riverside Park Conservancy announced last Tuesday that Merritt Birnbaum will join the organization as its new president and CEO.
The Riverside Park Conservancy cares for 400 acres of parkland stretching from 59th to 181st Street along the Hudson River. “Riverside Park is really one of the most spectacular parks in New York City,” says Birnbaum. For her, the park is especially important because of the many neighborhoods it serves.
“It’s over 6 miles long when you encompass other parks that the Conservancy cares for,” points out Birnbaum. “There are so many different neighborhoods on the West Side that the park touches.”
Prior to her appointment as president of the Conservancy, Birnbaum has worn many hats throughout her varied career. She is currently executive director of the Friends of Governor’s Island, where she has endeavored to support the island’s transformation from a defunct military base to a lively area open to the public. The island is also known to many as the home of Governor’s Ball, an annual music festival held there each summer.
Birnbaum told the West Side Spirit that while her work at Governor’s Island was fulfilling, she anticipates significant differences between that and her new position.
“Working with Friends of Governor’s Island, a lot of what I’ve done is trying to build a community for a place that doesn’t have a neighborhood. It’s an interesting change for me to go from a place that really exists in the harbor, not adjacent or connected to a neighborhood.”
“We did a lot of work there to build a community of volunteers and members and people who care about the public space. What I hope to do at Riverside Park is bring the lessons I learned about bringing communities into the park.”
She points to this sort of community-building as one of her main objectives in the new role.
“We’d like to have people in the community take a degree of ownership over the space,” Birnbaum explains. “Removing invasive species, tree care, mulching, a lot of these projects that can take months of work, can be accomplished in a much shorter time when you have 60 to 100 pairs of hands working on them.”
She also hopes to focus on improving sustainability at the park.
“I’m very excited to build up the sustainability work that Riverside Park is already doing. One of the first things I was looking at is the waste cycle, and how we can be reducing the amount of waste in the park.”
According to Birnbaum, one concrete example might be “taking a stance on single-use plastic. Food and concessions also creates a lot of waste.”
“We have a lot of runoff from areas throughout the city, including parks along the edge,” she adds. She’d like to consider ways the park might be a better filter for the Hudson, examining how the park is controlling waste and runoff from the dog runs.
Birnbaum also previously worked for five years as Chief Administrative Officer and Chief Development Officer at the New York Legal Assistance Group, which provides legal services to low-income New Yorkers. Before beginning her career, however, she was a classically trained figurative painter who studied at Vassar College.
A cornerstone of the Upper West Side and other neighborhoods along the river, Riverside Park is host to many community events. Its staff maintain a summer sports program which serves over a thousand children, as well as one of the city’s largest park volunteer programs.
In addition to the park for which it is named, the Conservatory cares for nearby Sakura Park, West Harlem Piers Park, and parts of Fort Washington Park.
“The Riverside Park Conservancy is one of our oldest park conservancy partners, and we look forward to working with Merritt and the conservancy as we continue to collaboratively work towards our shared mission to maintain and improve this historic Manhattan green space,” said NYC Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue.
“I’m honored to be selected for this role,” says Birnbaum. “Really looking forward to diving in in September and working with the board and especially the volunteers.”
“We’d like to have people in the community take a degree of ownership over the space ... a lot of these projects that can take months of work, can be accomplished in a much shorter time when you have 60 to 100 pairs of hands working on them.” Merritt Birnbaum