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Special Series: Syracuse Parks Celebrate 100 Years, But Many Pre-Date Creation of Department

Scott Willis

The Syracuse Department of Parks, Recreation, and Youth Programs is marking 100 years of operation this year, and WAER News is embarking on a special series of stories over the next few weeks that will take you to just some of the city’s 170 green spaces.   We'll start with a primer on how the department got its start, years after some parks were already established. 

It was the spring of 1917, Walter Robinson Stone was mayor, and the United States had just entered World War I.  But in Albany, lawmakers passed legislation that allowed the city to establish a parks department separate from the DPW.  Parks staffer Julian Chaplin fills in the rest…

" maintain and preserve a group of playgrounds, and maintain all public monuments and fountains, and in general provide an opportunity to  people to play outside.  When you think of that, it doesn't seem that it was really that long ago, just how they thought beyond where they were, but about the future, and thought it not robbery to set aside a branch of city government that was devoted just to city parks."

But Chaplin says the city’s collection of parks actually started forming through gifts and acquisitions long before the establishment of the department.  Take Burnet Park, for example, one of the city’s oldest.


"In 1886, Burnet Park was founded on 100 plus acres of farmland donated to the city by John Barber Burnet.   He anticipated the park would educate people to a love of natural scenery, decorative art, give health and vigor to the mind, and prove a blessing to the sick, and solace to the poor."

That foresight isn’t lost on landscape architect and retired SUNY ESF Professor George Curry, who’s studied the city parks system for decades…

"When you start thinking about the significant research that's been done  between open space, parks, and community health, we should be so grateful to those that came before us who really were concerned about us having these kinds of spaces."

Credit Scott Willis / WAER News
SUNY ESF Professor Emeritus George Curry stands in Hanover Square, one of Syracuse's 170 parks and green spaces.

Curry says for a city its size, Syracuse is very fortunate to have this amount and variety of park space.

"The uniqueness of each of the individual pieces makes a wonderful, rich group of open spaces within the city."

In our next installment, we’ll start our visits to select city parks at Thornden Park.  Miranda Hine is a founding member of the Thornden Park Association.

"I'm really proud of the lily pond; it was one of my passions at the beginning.  Just seeing people come up for graduation...nobody came up here.  There was no water in the pond, there were no plants here.  It was overgrown trees, vines, there was nothing here."



Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at