May 21, 2019
By Eli Dvorkin
As spring finally comes to New York City, residents and visitors alike head to their communal backyard: the city’s more than 30,000 acres of public parkland. These parks, playgrounds, recreation centers and natural areas keep New Yorkers physically and mentally healthy, bring communities together with free open space and play a crucial role in combating the effects of a warming planet.
But record usage – Central Park alone sees more than 42 million annual visits, up from 13 million in 1980 – and decades of underinvestment in maintenance and infrastructure is threatening the long-term sustainability of the city’s parks system.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council should commit to increasing the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation budget by $100 million this year, while identifying creative new ways to generate revenue that can fund parks maintenance and infrastructure investments in the future – needs that will only become more costly if left unmet. The infrastructure challenges facing the city’s public parks have been decades in the making. A 2018 report from the Center for an Urban Future found that the average New York City park is 73 years old. Parks in every borough are struggling with aging assets that are at or near the end of their useful lives – including collapsed drainage systems, crumbling retaining walls and structurally deficient bridges.
Today, the parks department scrapes by with 35% fewer full-time staff than it had in 1976. As a result, New York has a deficit of skilled parks maintenance workers compared to systems in other big cities. That means small issues end up growing into bigger problems.
Revitalizing New York City’s aging parks infrastructure will require substantial and sustained investment. A new citywide advocacy campaign, Play Fair for Parks, is calling for an essential first step: a $100 million increase in the maintenance and operations budget for parks. This will ensure dependable, multiyear funding for desperately needed skilled staff positions – such as masons and gardeners – and increase the number and range of assets that receive regular maintenance as well as allow the city to mitigate infrastructure problems before they grow.
However, de Blasio’s latest executive budget includes no new funding for parks. With slowing revenue growth and an economic downturn likely on the horizon, the mayor is right to seek fiscal restraint. But neglecting the parks system is not the answer.
What’s needed is not just additional funding, but also innovative revenue-generating strategies to fill the gap between the park system’s needs and currently available public funds. After a decade in which revenues generated by the parks are down 22% since 2007, after adjusting for inflation, the city urgently needs to boost revenues and return these dollars to the parks system. Without making revenue generation a higher priority and identifying new opportunities, inflation-adjusted revenues will continue to decline.
New York City has tremendous potential to increase revenues in the parks system, while also generating opportunities for local businesses. In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, busy McCarren Park, for example, and hundreds of other parks across the city have no places to buy a snack or a cold drink. Integrating more concessions into parks would add to the park experience, providing refreshment to park users. And it can give local entrepreneurs a lift, as they can bid to be the concessionaire.
Together with the mayor’s office, the parks department should take steps to increase concession revenues by 20% over the next four years, raising more than $14 million annually for maintenance. The popular local food vendors at the renovated pavilions along Rockaway Beach are prime examples of concessions that add to the experience for parkgoers, support community businesses and raise revenue – all without detracting from the quality of open, noncommercial public space.
New York should also follow the lead of several other municipalities – such as Denver, Santa Barbara and Ottawa – by implementing a small surcharge on tickets to large-scale sporting and concert events held anywhere in New York City, which would be directed to a newly created Parks and Recreation Infrastructure Fund. Even a modest fee, such as the $1 to $5 charge proposed in San Francisco, could raise millions annually for parks in all five boroughs. The city should also consider instituting a small surcharge on dockage fees at city-owned marinas, which could be allocated directly to the maintenance of waterfront park facilities. Likewise, a surcharge on greens fees at golf courses within the five boroughs could be used to support horticultural maintenance. While existing fees generate revenue for the parks department already, additional surcharges would be specifically targeted to growing maintenance and infrastructure needs. In each case, the surcharges are tied to discretionary spending, not necessities, generating new revenue for parks without raising costs on most lower-income New Yorkers.
Lastly, the City Council should advocate for the systematic inclusion of parks funding from property developers as part of new zoning amendments. As in the case of the Midtown East rezoning, which offered density bonuses to developers who sponsored public transit improvements, similar incentives could be created to build, upgrade or repair infrastructure in adjacent public parks. Local leaders and community-based organizations should push for community benefits agreements with developers to include financial support for local parks. In addition, special park districts could be created to allow modest density bonuses for housing development in exchange for parks funding. While these incentives and agreements have been used to address a variety of community needs to date, very few have been designed to fund open space creation, infrastructure improvements or ongoing maintenance.
To ensure a healthy future for New York City’s vital parks infrastructure, the mayor and the City Council should boost parks funding today – and offset future costs with creative strategies to generate new revenue for public parks.
Eli Dvorkin is editorial and policy director of the Center for an Urban Future, a New York–based think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity.