May 22, 2019
By Lynn Kelly
Parks are critical urban infrastructure. Parks don’t just make New York City tolerable – they make it livable. They are the soul of our city. And they are at a breaking point.
Parks give us places to relax, build community, and for our children to play. In a city where so many of us live in small apartments without backyards, parks are quite literally the only places where we can gather friends and family for birthday parties and barbeques. For the innumerable New Yorkers for whom even a weekend trip upstate is not financially feasible, parks are their vacation destination.
All the while, these green spaces are simultaneously reducing the urban heat island effect, taking carbon out of the atmosphere, cleaning our air and water, providing habitat for wildlife, and helping to protect us from the effects of climate change.
In a city that claims to be committed to equity, one would expect these spaces to be treated as critical urban infrastructure, protected and maintained for current residents and the generations to come. Sadly, that is not always the case.
The New York City Parks Department manages 30,000 acres of land, accounting for approximately 14% of the entire City. Yet last fiscal year NYC Parks received only 0.59% of the City expense budget. The last time NYC Parks received more than 1% of the expense budget was in the 1970s. This was a decade that saw the City’s hardest economic times - when agencies were funded at an all-time low – but even then the parks budget was higher than it is today.
According to a report by Center for an Urban Future, in 1976 NYC Parks had 11,642 full-time staff; today it has a little over 7,600. New York City has approximately one gardener for every 133 acres, whereas San Francisco has one gardener for every 20 acres. While New York spends $178 per capita on parks, Minneapolis spends $233, and Washington D.C. spends $270.
In our decades of working with communities across the city, New Yorkers tell us over and over again the consequences of this underfunding: overflowing trashcans, broken play equipment, flooded walkways, overgrown gardens, shuttered bathrooms and much more. The message they receive is that the City doesn’t value their neighborhoods, and that their communities aren’t worth the investment.
We believe this is unacceptable, especially in light of our growing population and the tremendous number of visitors our parks receive. Over 100 million people visit New York City parks every year. With the population projected to reach 9 million by 2050, this number will only increase. Even in their current state, New Yorkers treasure their parks, which is all the more reason to invest in them.
Mayor de Blasio has done some truly wonderful things for our parks system. The Community Parks Initiative and Anchor Park investments in long-neglected parks have been transformative for many parts of the City. But without proper maintenance, these capital investments will inevitably deteriorate.
That’s why we joined District Council 37, the parks workers union, and the New York League of Conservation Voters to form the Play Fair Coalition, now with over 120 organization members representing thousands of New Yorkers across every neighborhood of the city. Play Fair is a multiyear campaign for parks that, with the support of a supermajority of New York City Councilmembers, is calling on the City to increase the NYC Parks expense budget by $100 million in its first year.
$100 million is equal to just 0.10% of the Mayor’s recently-released $92 billion proposed budget, but this modest increase would give parks of all sizes permanent, full time staff; help protect NYC’s forests from climate change; increase parks security; fund improvements for every NYC Parks community garden in the city; and create permanent jobs for hard-working New Yorkers.
Meanwhile, for the past five years New Yorkers for Parks has had to call on the Administration to baseline, or provide permanent funding for, 150 parks workers and gardener positions that are currently temporary. Every year the people in these positions, who do essential work maintaining our open spaces, have to wonder if they will still have a job the following year.
The City Council stepped up and provided temporary funding for these jobs in prior years, and this year they heeded the call of the Play Fair Coalition and asked the Mayor to permanently fund them once and for all. And yet, in the proposed budget, the Mayor chose not to. It is abundantly clear that we need more maintenance workers, not less, and yet here we are still fighting to keep those we do have.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only case where the Administration’s practice doesn’t follow its vision. The recently released OneNYC 2050 report outlines ambitious and necessary steps for creating a healthy and equitable city. Many of these would fall to NYC Parks, such as ensuring access to nature, increasing and protecting our urban tree canopy, giving all neighborhoods access to high quality open spaces, and reversing decades of underinvestment in public spaces in low-income communities of color, among others.
But there’s just one problem – the Administration isn’t providing nearly enough of the funding required to make it happen. The Play Fair Coalition’s asks would go a long way toward bringing these goals to fruition.
On February 28th we launched the Play Fair campaign on the steps of City Hall, surrounded by over 200 New Yorkers. We rallied at City Hall again on May 14th, joined by Council Members, union workers, youth advocates and everyday residents. Together we are fighting for increased funding for parks on behalf of the hard-working New Yorkers who maintain them, the environment they sustain, and the millions of residents who depend on. It’s time for the Administration to back up its calls for equity and sustainability with action.
It’s time to Play Fair for parks.
Lynn Kelly is the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks.