By Joseph Ostapiuk
May 2, 2022
Mayor Eric Adams made increasing funding for the Department of Parks and Recreation a tenet of his campaign, pledging to allocate 1% of the city’s budget to operating the agency that maintains more than 30,000 acres of land throughout the five boroughs.
He reaffirmed that commitment when he was elected mayor and has remained resolute on coming through on that promise.
Only, so far, he hasn’t.
Months after Adams released a preliminary budget proposal that fell short of reaching the 1% threshold — a number that advocates have maintained should be a floor for funding, not a ceiling — his latest fiscal plan released Tuesday still remains well under the total needed to satisfy his outward sentiments toward the Parks Department and calls from advocates who say the monetary allocation is long overdue.
With his latest 2023 fiscal year budget proposal totaling $99.7 billion, Adams would have to put around $1 billion toward the city Parks Department’s operating budget, a funding source that is centered on upkeep and services.
That total, however, stood at just over $601 million in the latest fiscal documents released by Adams and registers even lower than last year’s operating budget as one-time federal funds granted by the pandemic dry up.
New Yorkers for Parks, a nonprofit advocacy group that championed the “Percent for Parks” pledge that Adams signed on to, made the campaign in an effort to bring New York City up to par with the level of funding other municipalities throughout the country give to their parks departments.
The increase would enable the agency to rely less on seasonal workers and ensure the city has the workforce necessary to maintain its green spaces, a shortcoming that has been highlighted in recent reports.
Adam Ganser, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, said that while the latest commitment is the largest sum the city has solely promised for the Parks Department’s operation budget, it still falls relatively short of figures from decades ago in terms of overall percentage.
“The New York City Parks Department was about 1.4% of the city budget back before the recessions of the 1970s and 80s, so our park system has really been operating under a 40-year austerity measure,” said Ganser.
While he expressed positivity that Adams has not backed off his promise, Ganser said advocates are seeking a specific commitment as to how his administration plans to reach the 1% threshold. He noted the 1% commitment is not the final goal of advocates but needs to be reached before additional negotiations can continue.
A ‘DOWN PAYMENT’ ON 1%?
During his State of the City speech, Adams appeared to conflate the Parks Department’s operating budget with capital spending — two separate sources that advocates say should not be combined to reach the 1% bar — calling his latest proposal “a significant down payment toward our ultimate commitment of 1% for parks.”
Speaking of Adams’ comments concerning the capital budget, Ganser said, “he referenced $488 million in capital investment. That is great, and we’re happy that he’s doing that, but that is not what the 1% for parks budget is about. The 1% is an expense-side maintenance and operations number, not a capital number.”
Adams’ office noted he will be in office through the end of 2025 and therefore has time to reach his “Percent for Parks” pledge.
“As the mayor said during his speech earlier this week, the significant investments we are making in the Parks Department as part of the Executive Budget represent a down payment on his ‘Percent for Parks’ pledge,” said Kate Smart, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office.
“Reaching this goal must be done over time to ensure the money is being spent wisely and efficiently to improve parks equity,” added Smart. “He remains committed to ensuring 1% of the city budget goes to parks during his mayoralty.”
Budget negotiations between Adams and the City Council will remain ongoing into June, just before the start of the new fiscal year.
Advocates said the Parks Department’s allocation may creep closer to 1% during that time, partially bolstered by items typically funded by the City Council called “play fair positions,” named after the Play Fair Coalition, an advocacy group that includes hundreds of groups and organizations.
Still, Ganser noted a significant gulf remains to fill in the space between current proposals and public promises.
Aaron Sanders, the associate director for advocacy and policy for Natural Areas Conservancy, said the organization’s recent report outlining the discrepancy between the natural expanses throughout the five boroughs and the city’s ability to maintain those spaces underscores the need for the Parks Department’s operations budget to be increased.
“By investing in New York City Parks Department’s operational budget, we’ll be able to sustain staff capacity, we’d be able to get additional resources to to continue conservation efforts,” said Sanders. “And so while we recognize the value of the 480 million in capital investments, we realize that for the next upcoming fiscal year, we need that 1% to the great work that New York City Parks does as an agency.”
THE VALUE OF PARKS
The COVID-19 pandemic shed a stark light on the importance of the city’s parks, which served as a haven for meet-ups, decompression and relaxation when gathering inside was deemed too risky.
A recent analysis of the network of parkland operated by varying levels of government in New York City found nearly all residents of the five boroughs live within a 10-minute walk to a park. The report calculated parks give $9.1 billion of recreational value to adults and children, with the most popular activities including walking or hiking.
The outsized benefits of parks make adequately funding their preservation not only an obvious need, but a necessary one, as well, said advocates.
“We recognize the value that natural areas have had during the pandemic and how we’ve seen increased visitation,” said Sanders. “And so we want to continue to manage natural areas as a climate-resilient resource, but we can’t do that if we don’t have baseline operational funding.”
Removing vines, keeping grounds maintained and up-keeping parks throughout the five boroughs also enables the city to maintain a vital piece of green infrastructure that help mitigate the effects of climate change — most prominently rising temperatures and increased rainfall.
The city’s street trees, akin to its parks, work to combat high temperatures and subsequent heat-related illnesses, which disproportionately affect minority communities. Staten Island’s more-diverse North Shore was found in a separate report to have significantly lower “stocking rates,” a measure of the percentage of living trees of an estimated capacity, compared to the South Shore.
And as environmentalists and other officials push for a new million tree program to be initiated, advocates note it is even more necessary to maintain already-grown trees to maximize the benefits they offer.
“These resources can’t just be left alone to do their job,” said Tessa O’Connell, public outreach manager for Natural Areas Conservancy. “They need active management to continue to provide especially environmental benefits to New York City.
“So, I think by not having that funding in this proposed budget, he’s kind of missing an opportunity to show strong leadership and climate change and really fortifying how we care for and prioritize the resources that really gives so much to the city, especially in the lens of climate change,” added O’Connell.