By Elizabeth Kim
May 18, 2021
New York City boasts some 2,300 municipal parks, spread out over 30,000 acres across the five boroughs. As many have observed, these city parks became even more essential to the lives of residents over the past year —throughout the pandemic, these spaces became the approved setting for socializing as well as a necessary vehicle for mental and physical escape.
Yet when park advocates hosted a mayoral Zoom forum last month, only five candidates—Art Chang, Kathryn Garcia, Shaun Donovan, and Ray McGuire—showed up.
“What all of the candidates should have seen is that this issue is one that has captured literally every New Yorker’s imagination and need,” said Adam Ganser, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, one of the groups that hosted the forum. “Parks have played an outsized role in all of our lives."
But issues of disparity have long plagued the city parks system. An analysis by the Trust for Public Land, a parks advocacy group, found the average park size to be 6.4 acres in poor neighborhoods but 14 acres in wealthy neighborhoods, according to a NY Times story.
As with so many municipal priorities, the issue boils down to both political will and money. Currently, the city spends spends around $500 million on park maintenance. That amounts to less than .60% of the city’s total $88 billion budget, a ratio that compares poorly with other major cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, which allocate between 2-4% of their expense budgets to parks.
Amid the shrunken budget, even gems like Riverside Park have deteriorated.
“This is a moment where for relatively very little money a new mayor can put his or her mark on true change in the city,” Ganser said. Which is why he is asking the candidates to commit to spending at least 1% of the city’s operating budget on parks—which would amount to at least $880 million a year based on the current budget.
So far, six of the eight leading Democratic candidates for mayor have said yes.
Here is what else they have said about how they would improve city parks.
As Brooklyn borough president, Adams has previously campaigned on raising the funding for city parks. In 2018, he issued a report that examined 270 parks in Brooklyn. The study found gaps in amenities: 40% of parks surveyed did not have bathroom facilities and 11% did not have drinking fountains.
“Green and recreation space is the great equalizer,” Adams said at the time.
As a mayoral candidate, Adams has pledged to boost the park's budget and use it toward opening "dozens of new public spaces," closing the park equity gap in underserved neighborhoods, and rebuilding 100 asphalt schoolyards into new green community playgrounds. He is also proposing to create “Safe Routes to Parks” program, which would install protected bike and pedestrian paths to safely connect neighborhoods far from large open spaces or parks. Like other candidates, Adams wants to make the city's Open Streets program—which has closed off segments of public roads in neighborhoods across the city to cars—permanent.
He is among the handful of candidates who has agreed appoint a Director of the Public Realm, a new role that New Yorkers for Parks has requested of the next mayor, which would oversee a more holistic planning of parks, streets, and other public spaces.
Donovan, a trained architect who worked as the former housing commissioner under President Barack Obama, has heavily promoted his knowledge of urban planning as a candidate. One of his major platforms is a concept of "15-minute neighborhoods," a requirement that all New Yorkers live within 15 minutes of a green space, transit, supermarket, health care and a school.
During last month's Zoom forum hosted by New Yorkers for Parks, Donovan said he would require parks to be within 10 minutes walking distance from every resident’s front door. Part of his plan to speed access to parks involves making the city’s Open Streets program permanent.
In addition to increasing the budget for city parks, he has also said that he would redistribute funds raised through parks conservancies and foundations, which often benefit wealthier areas, and direct some of the money to “neglected parks and spaces.”
Another idea he has proposed is establishing a youth horticulture corps, a New Deal-like training program which would task younger residents with working as stewards for public spaces.
As mayor, he is in favor of appointing a Director of the Public Realm.
Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner, has made making the city more resilient to climate change and environmentally friendly one of the core aspects of her campaign. As part of that plan, she has pledged to renovate 100 parks in communities hardest hit by COVID, with special focus paid on new plantings and trees.
She has also said she would transform 100 blacktop schoolyards—starting with those more than a half mile from a park– into new green spaces. Additionally, she would have the city open these spaces to the public on weekends.
All told, she is committing to creating 150 million square feet of new green infrastructure.
Garcia said she would not create a new director to oversee the public realm, but rather "focus on tighter management of existing agencies."
During the Zoom forum, McGuire named the West Fourth Street basketball courts as one of his favorite city parks. He stressed equity in parks as one of his main goals.
In addition to ensuring that city residents are no more than 10 minutes walking distance from a park, he would also make sure that everyone is within 20 minutes of the city's waterfront.
In terms of equity, McGuire has noted that the city must also capitalize on green spaces and parks in and around NYCHA properties. "We should leverage these spaces to encourage our youth and our seniors to cultivate gardens and which builds community and encourages a sense of pride," he said, in response to the New Yorkers for Parks survey.
The former Wall Street executive has made jobs and the city’s economic recovery the centerpiece of his campaign. Along those lines, he said he would use city parks to promote the arts by commissioning artists to create works across each of the five boroughs.
McGuire said he was in favor of appointing a "point person" to plan and make the best use of the city's parks and public spaces.
As noted, Morales has not yet filled out the survey sent by New Yorkers for Parks. Her campaign did not respond to multiple inquiries from Gothamist by publication time. We will update her section once we hear back.
Her website does, however, call for allocating city funding for "park-starved neighborhoods" and building new open spaces with community participation. She said she would also increase pedestrian plazas in low-income neighborhoods and dedicate money to activating those spaces with culturally-appropriate programming.
As city comptroller, Stringer made the conditions of city playgrounds and their scarcity in growing neighborhoods— Bensonhurst, Borough Park, Corona, Richmond Hill, and Flatbush—the subject of a report.
As mayor he has put out an 8-page plan on improving parks. He has promised to build out 200 new playgrounds by 2025 by upgrading and increasing access to underutilized school playgrounds and by carving out space in the middle of city blocks that would be closed off to cars.
By the comptroller's count, only 40% of 1,700 parks, playgrounds, and recreation facilities include a comfort station and only 27% of bathrooms have changing tables.
Stringer has pledged to build a bathroom and changing table at every city park by 2029 as well as increase the existing number of bathrooms in larger parks. He said he would expedite the construction with the use of modern trailer bathrooms such as the one used at Governor’s Island and Domino Park.
He has also proposed that the city conduct an audit of its neighborhood parks, and survey local residents to ensure that the spaces keep up with local interests and needs as well as to address any disparities.
In terms of oversight, he has proposed a new Mayor’s Office of Public Space, which would issue construction permits as well as promoting street redesigns to build new parks.
In her New Yorkers for Parks survey response, Wiley did not commit to increasing the park's budget by 1%. Instead, she has called for a $587 million budget, significantly less than the $880 million park advocates are seeking.
Still, she said she wanted to double the city's open and green space, "including bike and bus lanes, open streets, parks, community gardens, and accessible waterfront areas."
With respect to the waterfront, Wiley said would explore the expansion of access for those in historically marginalized neighborhoods, including Orchard Beach in the Bronx and Red Hook in Brooklyn.
Like Garcia, Wiley has folded her details of her vision for city parks into her climate action plan. Among her ideas is the creation of a new "NYC Green Future Force" that would appoints its members to work on environmental issues with city agencies like the Parks Department.
She is also proposing to use parks as local drop-off sites for a universal composting program.
Wiley said she wanted to create a new Office of Public Space Management, which will be tapped with expanding the Open Streets program among other initiatives. The office will incorporate a mix of staff from different agencies that impact the public realm, including the Parks Department, Department of Transportation and Small Business Services.
She said she looked forward to "exploring how a Director of Public Realm position could fit into the Office of Public Space Management as a department executive leader."
Yang recently put out a plan for parks and open space. In addition to committing to increased funding, he has supported a call from New Yorkers for Parks to allow city parks to keep their concession revenue rather than turning over the money to the city's general fund.
He is also pledging to build 100 new green schoolyards over his first term, and would also look at reimagining the use of outdoor space at public housing developments. Citing 10 districts in Brooklyn that don't currently have a dog run, Yang is also promising to improve the "per capita ratio of dog parks" and prioritize non-canine friendly neighborhoods.
Like the other candidates, he has said he would make the Open Streets program permanent, but would expand the days and times that streets are closed to cars.
Similar to Morales, he is also pitching a plan to increase pedestrian plazas in underserved neighborhoods that would also serve as stages for cultural performances as well as vendors.
Some bigger ideas he has thrown out include resuscitating stalled park projects like the Queensway, an outer-borough version of the Manhattan High Line, and investigating the possibility of underground parks.
Regarding the creation of a director of the public realm, Yang said that as mayor he would seek to build momentum for parks projects "without adding to the bureaucratic processes that sometimes can stymie action."