Sue Donoghue posing on a rooftop with greenery and city skyline in the background

Commissioner Sue Donoghue on the roof of the Arsenal, the NYC Parks and Central Park Zoo headquarters in Central Park. All photos by Tracey Friedman.

Primary job responsibilities:
I oversee 30,000 acres of parkland across the city, which is just extraordinary. It’s 5,000 individual properties and contains everything from playgrounds and basketball courts to golf courses, pools, and the public beaches. It’s a vast agency that is so important to the health and visibility and quality of life of this city. A daunting portfolio, but an exciting one for sure.

What that looks like, day to day:
A great day involves getting out into the parks! Often my day is filled with meetings, too—for inter-agency collaboration, or meeting with partners and staff. Right now is a very busy time in our season because we’ve just opened the public pools. There are 53 of them across the city, and the opening is timed to when kids get out of school to start summer vacation. The pools are incredibly important, and increasingly so given the challenges we’re facing now with rising temperatures. We always do a big opening event, and so as part of that yesterday I got to jump into a beautiful pool in Highbridge Park in Upper Manhattan, along with kids, elected officials, and all kinds of swimmers. And then this morning, for something completely different, I was out at a beautiful stable in Queens, enjoying the horses and farm-like scenery. That’s where our mounted PEP (Parks Enforcement Patrol) officers deploy from. The breadth of work the agency oversees is incredible, and the people involved care so much about what they do.

exterior shot of the Arsenal building

The Arsenal at 64th Street, just west of 5th Avenue.

From Wall Street to NYU to the parks:
I credit my time at NYU with really opening up a world of possibilities. I was definitely an older graduate student. I had worked for many years in the private sector—I was in the financial services industry and had worked on Wall Street. And in between having child number two and child number three, I decided I couldn’t keep doing that, so I decided to pursue a master’s in nonprofit management at Wagner in order to really change my profession. It was important to me that I worked in something that resonated with my kids. I wanted to show that I could work hard every day at something that was good for the city, and that they could be involved in.

Sue Donoghue at a standing desk working on a computer with two monitors

Commissioner Donoghue at her desk.

Because of Wagner’s close connections to government, I ended up meeting someone at City Hall, and about two weeks later I got a phone call. Mayor Bloomberg was announcing PlaNYC, his plan for enhancing the sustainability of the city, and they were looking for someone to oversee over a billion dollars in capital allocation of a series of projects in the parks, including the million trees campaign, schoolyards to playgrounds, and a number of other significant projects. That was my introduction to city government. I got to see right away the passion and dedication of people working for the parks, and was enamored of what the city can do with good ideas and funding to support them. So I worked for the Parks Department for six or seven years, right out of my graduate program.

an NYC Parks podium and an American flag in front of a large window

NYU mentors and memories:
I feel very fortunate that when I was at NYU, I got to know Ellen Schall. I consider her such an important mentor and a terrific leader. I actually met with her recently—she continues to inspire me, and as someone who was herself a city commissioner, she’s somebody that I can go back to and continue to learn from. I also think about someone like Ingrid Gould Ellen, who is so knowledgeable about New York City government and history. Finding those connections and learning to partner with entities that will help expand your vision—all of that was front and center at NYU. And when I look back on my time as a student, I miss having the time to sit and revel in the intellectual sphere—to read out of intellectual curiosity and delve into subjects that I wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to explore. As you would imagine, my days now are very busy, and what I get to read is very much dictated by what’s going on in my job.

Pride and resilience:
After my first role with parks, I ran the Prospect Park Alliance for seven years, before I got my current job. It was important to me to be able to work right in my community and give back to something that really supported my family. With three kids, Prospect Park was a big reason we moved to Park Slope! I ended up navigating the Prospect Park Alliance through the pandemic, which was an incredibly challenging time to lead a nonprofit. Our budget was cut in half and we didn’t know how we were going to survive. We went through layoffs and furloughs and all kinds of really difficult situations, and from that experience, I feel very strongly that it is in those moments that you really test yourself as a leader, and you test the health and mettle of an organization. I’m pleased to say that we not only survived, we thrived. It showed the perseverance of the team we had built, and the community and the board really rallied around us. We got through it in a way that enhanced the strength and the viability of the organization, and I’m proud of that.

Sue Donoghue posing in front of a map of all the NYC parks

New York City contains 30,000 acres of parkland.

Career advice:
Be open-minded, and give different roles a chance. My path was so circuitous. There are things I learned in the private sector that I never imagined would apply in the public sector, and yet they absolutely do. I have college-age kids now, and I think a lot of students imagine that they’re going to find a clear direction right away. I didn’t. My undergraduate major was political science, just because I loved it and was interested in it. I never said “I’m going to be parks commissioner”—that was never on my radar.

I think there’s something to be said for putting your head down and working hard, but also following your gut. Along the way in my career, I made some bad choices—maybe taking a job for the wrong reasons. But having had that experience showed me that if you pursue something you love and you’re passionate about it, that makes all the difference. Having kids definitely changes things too—it was important for me to do something where I could be a role model for them. What I’ve found is that the idea of service and giving back is really important. If you’re connected to the mission and the people you serve, that will help you as a leader and guide you through the periods in your job that are really difficult. If you believe in what you’re doing and you’re committed to it, it can break down a lot of barriers and help you overcome a lot of challenging situations for sure. 

The commissioner's comments have been edited and condensed from an interview with NYU News.