By Joseph Ostapiuk
March 14, 2023
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — New York City’s sprawling 30,000-acre parks system cannot be maintained under budget constraints imposed by decades of disinvestment in the vital resource, advocates contend, and a new report details the need for additional funding.
New Yorkers for Parks, one of the environmental organizations calling for around $1 billion of the city’s budget to be allotted for the operations of the city Parks Department, on Monday issued the 1% for Parks Impact Report — a 46-page publication outlining the need for increased investment in the city Parks Department, commissioned by HR&A Advisors.
From mowing lawns and cleaning up trash to pruning trees and policing parks, the report outlines the physical benefits of providing the agency with allocation totals closer to the budgets of parks departments in major cities, coupled with the economic, health and climate mitigation boosts offered by abundant green spaces.
“This is a problem that was made 30, 40 years ago that needs to be completely reconsidered at this point,” said Adam Ganser, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. “You look at the growth of the city budget, and then you can look at the growth of these other agencies, and you look at the anemic growth of the Parks Department — that’s a clear policy failure.”
Parks serve as vital spaces for New York City residents and offer billions of dollars in annual benefits. Nearly everyone in the five boroughs lives within a 10-minute walk from a park, which provide recreational value, help avert healthcare costs and assist in the effort to subdue growing impacts posed by climate change.
Around one-in-eight people in New York City uses a park to get in weekly exercise, and the total number of residents who use parks for occasional exercise is likely far higher.
Trees and shrubs help filter harmful air pollution, creating a nearly-$30 million annual value for the city, and mental health has been observed to improve among those who regularly use parks.
Those same resources help cool the surrounding air and reduce the impact of high-heat days that are forecasted to increase in number in the coming decades. Parks also hold the potential to be natural absorption machines during heavy rain events, which are likely to increase as global temperatures insidiously rise.
And those benefits would only increase under heightened levels of investment, said Ganser.
“If you’re talking about making all of our parks cleaner, safer, greener, more accessible, that leads to more visitation,” said Ganser. “That leads to more people spending time in their parks, so obviously the health benefits increase.”
Mayor Eric Adams made the 1% threshold a promise in his initial campaign, though he did not come through on that commitment during his first budget cycle.
His next opportunity in the first iteration of the proposed 2024 fiscal budget was tens of millions of dollars less than the $624 million set aside for Parks Department operations the previous year.
Adams’ office, however, said it remains committed to fulfilling the vow of 1% for parks.
“The mayor, if he’s a one-term mayor, has a couple years left here,” said Ganser. “To get to that number, you need to do a hell of a lot more than a few million dollar increase. You certainly can’t be cutting or standing put. You need to be increasing by significant amounts.”
Those increases would largely go toward personnel for the Parks Department. The latest report indicates three-fourths of the agency’s operating budget is dedicated to its frontline staff, which cares for an area larger than it can effectively handle.
Reaching the 1% marker would enable the Parks Department to hire more full-time forestry staff to manage the city’s natural areas, some of which contain areas in a high-risk state of low health.
Higher staffing levels mean better response times to 311 requests, according to the report, along with improved ability to address the public’s safety concerns. Repairs can also be made faster, requiring lower capital costs down the road.
The funding would also bring New York City closer in line with other major metropolitan areas. Chicago puts aside 4.3% of its operations budget for the city’s Parks Department; Los Angeles sits at nearly 3%; Washington, D.C. registers at 1.1%.
“New York City can do better,” reads the report’s executive summary. “But we need meaningful investment in our parks system to get there.”