By Caroline Spivack
July 23, 2022
In the early months of the pandemic, parks were one of the few places where New Yorkers could safely interact. Lawns, plazas and virtually any public open space quickly became impromptu living rooms for New Yorkers seeking respite from cramped apartments.
But the pandemic also exposed the lack of access to parks, particularly well-cared-for spaces, in neighborhoods hit hard by the coronavirus where those green spaces were needed most.
Department of Parks and Recreation budget cuts in 2020 forced volunteer community groups and nonprofits, some on shoestring budgets, to step up to help maintain these spaces.
Acknowledging that inequity, while campaigning, Mayor Eric Adams committed to the “Percent for Parks" pledge, an effort led by the nonprofit advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, calling for the parks department’s budget to increase to 1% of the city’s total operating budget, among other strategic investments. Adams endorsed the proposal and reiterated his support as mayor. His budget, however, fell short of his promise.
In the June budget, parks department operations received more than $624 million—a hefty sum that represents the largest parks budget in its history but still only about half of 1%. The budget included funding for more than 700 new staffers, but with cuts to nearly 500 parks positions, that boost has limited reach in a city with 30,000 acres of green space. Adams has described it as a “significant down payment towards our ultimate commitment of 1% for parks.”
Parks advocates regard the funds with cautious optimism and say they will continue to push the mayor toward that 1% target. Adam Ganser, the executive director for New Yorkers for Parks, stressed that as green spaces compete against other funding priorities, a relatively little “green” in the city budget can go a long way to improving the city’s green spaces.
“This is such a tiny, tiny part of the city budget and the impact of that investment—it’s like flicking on a light switch for the parks system and when you don't invest, it changes almost as quickly for the worse,” Ganser said.
Now a new report by the Central Park Conservancy’s Institute of Urban Parks in partnership with the City Parks Foundation is doubling down on the challenges green and open space stewards face and explores new solutions to mitigate them
The labor of parks nonprofits and grassroots groups remains a crucial supplement to the city’s work. Yet not every community is fortunate enough to have a well-funded conservancy watching over its parks, and municipal bureaucracy and regulatory hurdles can pose a challenge for grassroots groups that help the city care for parks to access funding, according to the report.
To help address systemic parks challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, the CPF launched the systems change grant program through the NYC Green Relief and Recovery Fund in 2020.
In two years the grant program has allocated $1.4 million in support to 14 nonprofits and community groups. Those efforts include a new public-private partnership with the parks department by the Natural Areas Conservancy to care for the city’s urban wilderness; funding research that lays bare the economic benefits of the city’s parks by the Trust for Public Land; and supporting the North Brooklyn Parks Alliance’s advocacy to city officials on how to plan more equitable open space across the boroughs.
Out of conversations with those groups and some 65 others, the report compiles recommendations on how best to maintain the city’s network of green spaces and support the city’s partners in that work in an equitable and environmentally just way. That starts, as most things do, with money—and making it easier for park groups to access it
Heather Lubov, the executive director of the CPF, said scaling up private fundraising strategies, identifying new sustainable sources of revenue, apart from the city’s budget, and streamlining the processes to apply for such funds are crucial pieces of that puzzle.
Small community groups focused on local parks may not have the manpower and know-how to provide the information necessary for municipal grant funds. For instance, the city’s parks equity initiative—a City Council program that uses city dollars to allocate grants—requires groups to set up a contract with the city and to have 501(c)(3) status to access city funds.
“The contracting process is very challenging for a grassroots organization,” Lubov said. “They have to lay out the money in advance and wait for the state to reimburse them—that could take months—and most just don’t have the ability to front the money. So it can be really difficult to get the money into the hands of the groups and neighborhoods that need it the most.”
To that end, the CPF intentionally designed the application process for grants through the NYC Green Relief and Recovery Fund to be a low lift with streamlined questions and minimal paperwork.
Alternative funding models that other cities have embraced that New York could possibly explore, Lubov said, include issuing ballot measures to create a special tranche of funds for city parks, issuing bonds and creating special park improvement districts to step away from tax dollars in the annual budget cycle.
To complicate matters, management of the city’s green and open spaces are fragmented across city agencies, including with the Department of Transportation, the Department of Environmental Protection and the New York Housing Authority, sometimes adding bureaucratic hurdles to parks advocacy work, according to the report.
One possible solution the brief puts forward is the creation of a city czar in charge of managing all these spaces. The Municipal Arts Society, through support from the CPF, is conducting research on the feasibility of such a role and what that would entail.
In addition, private-sector investment in the city’s parks and stewards, Lubov said, sends an important signal to city officials, and can help plug funding inequities for small volunteer groups who support the less known—but no less important—green spaces outside of the jewels of the parks network.
“If we can get $1,000 or $5,000 into the hands of these groups, that's going to make a huge difference in how they can activate their neighborhood parks,” Lubov said. “The greater awareness for parks and the importance of parks to New Yorkers, the better off we will all be in terms of getting annual tax dollars.”
A 2018 report by the Center for the Urban Future estimates that the city will have to invest at least $5.8 billion in the coming decade to address crumbling park infrastructure. (The parks department’s operating budget doesn't include capital spending.) But investing in park maintenance, Ganser said, can help hedge problems from mounting to costly repairs.
Greater funding for parks is an investment the city gets a return on in multiple ways. In a report earlier this year the Trust for Public Land found that parks annually increase property values for city residences within 500 feet by at least $15 billion—increasing property tax revenue by $101 million—and domestic travelers who visit the city at least in part for outdoor activities typically spend some $17.9 billion. For locals, parks also double as health and social infrastructure.
“The silver lining to come out of Covid is that the narrative, I think, has permanently changed on parks and open spaces,” Ganser said. “Parks are not a luxury, they are a critical priority in the health of our city and our citizens. The conversation around parks has turned to a much broader policy agenda around the future of New York City.”