By Ranaan Geberer
May 5, 2023
A drive to increase the Parks Department’s budget to at least 1% of the overall city budget is getting wide support in Brooklyn.
New Yorkers for Parks is leading the campaign, known as Play Fair for Parks, with the League of Conservation Voters and District Council 37. It points out that New York allocates a relatively small share of its budget to parks compared to other large cities. While Minneapolis’ parks budget is 5.3% of the city’s total budget, and Chicago devotes 4.3% of its budget to parks, the figure for New York City is only 0.6%.
People became especially appreciative of city parks during the COVID pandemic, when parks were one of the few places people could go. City Council Parks Committee Chair Shekar Krishnan (D-Queens) told the Brooklyn Eagle that both Mayor Eric Adams and the Council have given their support to the 1% goal, and he categorized the Parks Department’s main needs as maintenance, increasing the number of employees, and increasing the city’s tree canopy.
Adam Ganser, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks and a Brooklyn resident, however, said that despite this declared support, “since the budget [negotiating] process started, we’re seeing movement in the other direction.
“The cuts we’re seeing are not prioritizing this at all. The mayor’s preliminary budget announced in late January had $47 million in cuts to the Parks Department.” While the City Council initially supported Fair Play’s for 1,000 new Parks positions, he said, more follow-up is needed.
Historically, Ganser said, “the Parks Department was funded well above 1%.” However, during the 1970s fiscal crisis, the budget was slashed and “staffing numbers were cut by nearly half.”
The group’s report gives Brooklyn’s Red Hook Recreation Center as an example of a Parks facility that’s been impacted by lack of funding. When the facility is flooded, or there temporarily isn’t enough staff, or the HVAC system is out, the public suffers, Ganser said.
The View from Brooklyn
Prospect Park is the best-known park in Brooklyn (although Marine Park is the largest). The Prospect Park Alliance works with the city to provide staff and resources for the park.
Prospect Park Alliance President Morgan Monaco testified at a City Council Parks Committee hearing in March in favor of the Play Fair campaign. “While we applaud the city for allocating 0.6% of the budget in 2023 (as opposed to the previously announced 0.5%), we are concerned about preliminary budget cuts of $46 million to NYC Parks, which would eliminate hundreds of essential jobs that are already scarce, such as city park workers, urban park rangers and Park Enforcement Patrol officers.
“In FY ‘23, NYC Parks lost more than 1,800 positions, including baselined positions and Cleaning Corps workers. We are asking for funding to baseline more than 1,000 NYC Parks positions in the city budget,” she testified.
One small park with a high profile, because of its location in the Brooklyn Civic Center, is Cadman Plaza Park. Like Prospect Park, it has a support group, the Cadman Park Conservancy, which raises funds and provides volunteers.
The group’s president, Doreen Gallo, supports the drive for more Parks funding, saying the Parks Department is “stretched too thin.” Much of the work in the park is done by herself and her volunteers, raising money for seeds, plantings, plantings and more.
“Still,” she says, “it’s nice to have someone in the Parks Department to work with.” After years of agitating by her group as well as other advocates, the Parks Department provided a gardener dedicated to Cadman Plaza Park as well as adjoining Walt Whitman Park.
Increased funding is also needed because costs often keep rising. Gallo says that for years, her group pressed for the city to provide water for the northern part of the park, above the War Memorial, which entailed digging up the ground and placing new pipes. “At first, the estimate was $700,000,” she says. By the time the city was ready to do the job, they gave her an estimate of $6 million”
Sunset Park is a different kind of neighborhood — working-class, heavily immigrant — and the park that gave the area its name has its own set of problems. Maria Roca, head of Friends of Sunset Park, says, “Many of our families are doubled up in apartments, some don’t have enough money even for long weekends, so Sunset Park is vacation for them.” The park is packed with people up until around 10 p.m. in the summertime, but its comfort station closes at 7.
The group was told there isn’t enough money to provide an attendant to keep it open later. There are few restaurants where people can use bathrooms, she says, so people sometimes urinate or even defecate in the park.
On one occasion, as a result of participatory budgeting, the park received tree plantings, but the city just provided a fence 1 ½-foot fence around that area, although the community wanted a higher fence. “You might as well have burned those plantings” because people walked over them, she says.
Parks in Bay Ridge also feel the pinch. Josephine Beckmann is district manager of Community Board 10, which includes Owl’s Head Park, Leif Ericson Park and Shore Road Park.
“I am a big advocate of increasing funding,” she says. “Within District 10, we have zero gardeners. The parks need grass-cutting, elimination of invasive species that impact the planted area of the park, and weeding.
“Overall, we have a strong need for maintenance, trash collection, tree-trimming, rat abatement in parks,” she adds.
The city’s beaches and boardwalk also are administered by the Parks Department. Danny Murphy, president of the Alliance for Coney Island, a business group, said in a statement, “The Alliance for Coney Island is 100% behind 1% for Parks. … On Coney Island, our beaches and boardwalk anchor an international destination area that provides amusement, entertainment and wonder each year and thousands of good jobs throughout the season.”
Year-round, Murphy adds, “the boardwalk and Kaiser Park provide places for active recreation. The boardwalk is New York city’s largest waterfront park, and its care and cleanliness require resources.”
While a Parks Department spokesman didn’t directly address Play Fair, he said in a statement, “NYC Parks is committed to making our parks greener, cleaner and safer. Under this administration, we’ve made significant investments to improve our parks and keep them safe and clean, including increasing the number of full-time staff, which will allow us to extend our cleaning schedule into the evening.”
Inequities in Funding
While some money has been added to the capital budget for parks, Ganser said, “It is nowhere near the amount of money that is needed. A lot of the capital repair work is being funded by City Councilmembers through their discretionary funds. So a district where the councilmember is active in parks issues will have better parks than one where the councilmember doesn’t really care about parks.”
Ganser reiterates that locations like Prospect Park, Fort Greene Park, Cadman Plaza Park, among others, “have groups that focus on the park being well-maintained, have volunteer cleanups and have board members that are pushing for improvements with the Parks Department or councilmembers.”
The people who lose the most, he said, are those who live in areas “that don’t have capacity to establish such groups, even a friends’ group or a volunteers’ group. Many of these smaller parks don’t have folks who have the time or resources.”
As far as staffing is concerned, Ganser acknowledges that some progress has been made, but in particular, “we have about half of the number we need” for two positions — urban park rangers and Parks Enforcement Patrol officers. “We used to have real numbers of these folks. Now we have so few. They do great work,” he says.
In the most recent developments, he adds, “The administration seems to have ignored our call for 1,000 new workers. There’s been no meaningful move toward past commitments of 1%.”