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Park saver coming to Rochester

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When urban planner Tupper Thomas first walked into Brooklyn's Prospect Park as its new administrator 30 years ago, she was stunned both by its beauty and its severe neglect, she says. The park's reputation for crime back then made many people afraid to stroll through it, even in the daytime.

"I thought, 'This is so gorgeous,'" Thomas says, and it's still perfectly intact. Too bad more people don't use it.'"

Thomas is the widely recognized force behind the restoration of Prospect Park, a 585-acre site designed by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

"Her success can be partly measured in numbers," the New York Times wrote in a 2010 article. "When Ms. Thomas took the job, fewer than two million people visited the park annually, while today, visitors number more than nine million a year."

Thomas has never visited the parks Olmsted designed in Rochester – Genesee, Seneca, Highland, and Maplewood – a system of landscapes he referred to as an "emerald necklace." But she hopes she'll get the opportunity when she's here later this month. She'll be the Highland Park Conservancy's speaker at a meeting on Wednesday, April 26, at the Rochester Academy of Medicine, located at 1441 East Avenue. Her talk, "Saving the World One Green Space at a Time," is at 7 p.m.

Though Thomas devoted much of her career to restoring and preserving Prospect Park and the Olmsted legacy, she's a fierce advocate for urban parks in general.

"The significance of natural beauty is so important to urban living," she says. "It's a factor in our wellness, our mental health as well as our physical health."

Olmsted understood this, Thomas says.

"The rolling vistas in his plans, the vast openness, he called it 'a sense of enlarged freedom,'" says Thomas. "He knew that we need this in our lives."

When Thomas began organizing the campaign to restore Prospect Park, however, she intentionally avoided talking about Olmsted and the park as a historic landmark.

"I don't think people really care about that initially," she says. That comes later. "I would always say, 'Isn't this beautiful? Doesn't it feel wonderful to be in here?'"

Parks offer an emotional experience that spans generations, Thomas says. When people remember watching the change of seasons in a park, skating, jogging, or reading under a tree, they'll return with their children and grandchildren.

"That's when they'll fight for it forever," Thomas says.

Urban parks today face a number of challenges, she says. Money is always an issue, because city and county administrators tend to turn to parks and recreation departments when budgets need trimming, she says. Parks are often seen as a luxury and an expense instead of a scarce resource, she says.

"We need more of them, not less, especially in our lower-income neighborhoods," Thomas says.

There's also a tendency to think of green space as something that has to be shared with developers.

"A piece of green space is not something waiting to be built on," Thomas says. "Do not view it as vacant land."

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