By Joseph Ostapiuk
July 12, 2023
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — For the second consecutive year, Mayor Eric Adams failed to deliver on a campaign promise to use 1% of New York City’s expense budget to fund the operations of the city Parks Department, an agency advocates say has been troubled by years of disinvestment.
After a contentious budget cycle between Adams and the City Council, where cuts for public libraries and the Parks Department were on the table, it was hardly a surprise when the agency’s operations budget — used in part to fund its workforce — ended up well short of the “Percent for Parks” threshold the mayor vowed to reach during his tenure.
Budget documents show approximately $638 million has been set aside for the city Parks Department’s expense purse, representing roughly 0.6% of the $107 billion budget agreed upon at the end of last month. The lackluster total has left proponents of increased investment in city parks with a growing sense of frustration.
“We have an administration that is committed to this goal, committed to getting there incrementally, raise the city budget by multiple billions of dollars and basically remain status quo with the Parks Department, which is the opposite of what we want,” said Adam Ganser, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks.
The ongoing push for improved funding for the city Parks Department was met with promise during Adams’ campaign, when he signed on to the “Percent for Parks” pledge, essentially guaranteeing he would meet the goal seen by many as a floor, not a ceiling, of funding for an agency that maintains parkland across 14% of the city’s land area.
Rallies were held during the mayor’s first year in office asking him to come through on that commitment, but Adams ultimately did not stretch the fiscal allocation to levels many had hoped for. Then, over the past year, fraught economic challenges have tightened the city’s wallet, including a crisis spurred by sheltering an influx of asylum seekers.
“I’m sure there are many things we could’ve poured out money into if we had that $1.4 billion and the money we are going to lose in the outyears,” Adams said after the budget deal was reached.
In the meantime, Adams has not backed down from his Parks Department pledge; however, it appears unclear how exactly that goal will be attained during the course of his mayorship.
“Parks are vital oases for New Yorkers, and since Mayor Adams took office, he has made a historic commitment to maintain and improve these urban jewels,” a City Hall spokesperson said in a statement. “Overall, the Fiscal Year 2024 budget for the Parks Department is higher than it was as of adoption last year. As part of the Fiscal Year 2024 Adopted Budget agreement announced two weeks ago, we are committing funding to add 490 new positions to the agency.”
“We also partnered with the City Council to increase urban park rangers, improve community gardens, and boost tree stump removal,” the statement continued. “We will continue to invest in our parks to ensure all New Yorkers have access to much-needed greenspace.”
Earlier this year, the mayor’s office said it remained committed to working toward the goal of 1% for parks but said reaching that threshold “must be done wisely and efficiently to strengthen and improve our parks for all New Yorkers.”
Advocates contend getting to 1% will take significant steps forward that the Adams administration has not yet shown an affinity for taking.
“It hasn’t happened ... It’s not getting the job done,” said Ganser. “I think you’re seeing, across the board, some frustrations from a few different sectors. Within the parks and open space world, I would say, absolutely, we are frustrated.”
The operations budget is the source for boots-on-the-ground labor needed to manage the city’s sprawling green spaces; however, reports have found the Parks Department, after years of disinvestment, is hamstrung to fully meet that task. A larger dollar amount, advocates said, would enable the agency to rely less on seasonal workers and improve efficiency.
From workers that are maintaining the grounds of parks to picking up trash and cleaning bathrooms, Ganser said upping the operations budget would work to alleviate persistent concerns of city residents and improve the quality of the parks system.
The larger goal, said Ganser, “is to build a larger permanent park staff to develop professional parks workers that have a better understanding of the work they’re doing, build competency and expertise in the work they’re doing and build careers within the Parks Department with living wages that allow them to to live in New York and have families in New York.”
Parks in New York City offer billions of dollars in benefits, said a report issued last year. It found residents visit the 50,000 acre-network of city, state and federal parks a combined 527 million times annually, with 99% of people living within a 10-minute walk to a nearby park.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for green spaces as city residents flocked to parks for exercise and an escape from work-from-home routines. Studies have found green spaces are tied to positive health impacts that reduce long-term healthcare costs.
Additionally, parks serve as vital buffers to flooding by absorbing runoff that would otherwise be pumped into sewers, streets and waterways, offering up to $2.43 billion in avoided stormwater treatment costs, the report said.
Those benefits cross socio-economic and demographic boundaries, according to research, magnifying the importance of adequately funding the workforce centered on maintaining the parks system.