By Henry Garrido
May 23, 2021
Two milestones next month will be critical for the health of New York City’s 30,000 acres of parkland: first, a decisive Democratic mayoral primary, and immediately after that, the City Council’s passage of the budget for the following fiscal year.
For the past year, New York City’s parks have been victims of the austerity budgeting COVID forced on us during a moment of crisis — and it shows.
Citywide parks conditions reached their lowest level on record since the Parks Department started measuring in 2005, according to the agency. Overflowing trash cans, a shortage of Parks Enforcement Patrol officers, and closed off green spaces all mark the Parks Department’s struggle to ensure safety and access in a taxing year.
Who can blame them? The city cut NYC Parks’ budget by 14% during a pandemic when parks usage skyrocketed. That’s $84 million the agency desperately needed for maintenance and operations. The cut also cost the agency its backbone, with 1,700 seasonal staff, patrol officers and parks rangers not being hired. Further, the hiring freeze has left the Parks Department down nearly 200 critical parks staff, who provide the essential services to ensure our parks are safe, clean and accessible to all New Yorkers.
Amazingly, the mayor’s latest executive budget includes hardly a mention of parks. Once again we seem to be asking this vital department to do more with less.
That would be a stunning error after a year when these spaces became fundamental to New Yorkers’ quality of life and social, emotional and physical well-being — especially now that $4.3 billion in federal stimulus aid is coming to NYC to support infrastructure priorities.
The city must provide the Parks Department the staff and resources it needs to do its job.
As we kick off our second parks season amid the pandemic, all New Yorkers deserve access to quality and safe open space. But that’s only going to be a reality if we do more than pay lip service to parks and pass a budget that honors the importance of these spaces.
In March, the Play Fair campaign, a coalition of 300 advocacy groups we co-founded, called on the city to restore $80 million to parks. Half that number would go to the seasonal staff budget and creating jobs for 100 city park workers and 50 gardeners; $6 million would ensure our parks are safe by restoring 80 Parks Enforcement Patrol officers; and $3 million would mean 50 Urban Park Rangers could be hired to connect New Yorkers with the nature that surrounds us.
Yet two months and a historic federal funding push later, it’s clear that merely restoring the budget is the least we can do — the bare minimum. For decades, NYC’s parks spending has hovered around 0.5% of its annual budget. That number falls many millions short of what’s necessary — and what many other cities spend — to support a robust parks workforce and secure an equitable 21st-century system of green spaces and playgrounds.
What NYC really needs is to increase the parks budget. The good news is there’s an excellent chance our next mayor prioritizes parks more than any leader of this city in a generation.
According to Democratic candidates’ feedback on an open space policy survey by New Yorkers for Parks, the leading contenders in the race have committed to bringing the parks budget up to 1%. That would be a huge policy shift, one that lays the foundation the parks system New Yorkers deserve.
Looking ahead to the next mayoral administration, the NY4P’s Five-Point Plan for Park Equity outlines key steps for ensuring not only that our Parks Department is adequately staffed, but also that NYC reframes its approach to open space holistically.
Several candidates on the Democratic side have committed to core principles in the plan, including leading with an equity-driven lens on open space and prioritizing access to parks in underserved neighborhoods; taking the issue on comprehensively and instituting a citywide office to oversee all open space needs; and overhauling the capital process so we can address our backlog of $6 billion in improvements projects and fix our parks faster.
There’s a lot of promise in the candidates’ open space platforms. And there’s reason for optimism that federal support will help the city achieve long-neglected infrastructure priorities like parks.
Where New York City lands on the budget next month and our next mayor’s commitment to these issues will truly make or break our success in maintaining and enhancing our parks system. Let’s finally set a better course of action on this critical infrastructure priority for our city.
Garrido is the executive director of District Council 37, NYC’s largest municipal employees union.