Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected to City Hall on his pledge to fight back against New York City’s inequality crisis—to turn the “Tale of Two Cities” into the Tale of One. In his determined pursuit to do so, the mayor has been unveiling policies that manipulate and reshape New York’s built environment. The first, and most ambitious of those plans, is to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade. With pieces of that housing agenda taking shape, de Blasio has introduced the “Community Parks Initiative,” a $130 million plan to root out inequality of maintenance and design across the city’s 29,000 acres of park land.
As the mayor sees it, the city’s small playgrounds and parks—often located in poor neighborhoods—were gravely overlooked as the city focused on bigger, headline-grabbing spaces like Brooklyn Bridge Park, Governor’s Island, and, of course, the High Line.
“It’s truly a necessity in urban life to have a great parks system,” said Mayor de Blasio when announcing his initiative at Bowne Playground in Queens. “But again, not all parks have been treated equally. Not all parks provide enough, [and] are maintained the way they should be. So for some people, the experience of the park is great. In other neighborhoods we have a long way to go.”
To address these vast disparities, the city looked across its entire parks inventory to see which individual sites had the most need; it found that in 20 years, 215 parks had received less than $250,000 in capital improvements. According to Parks Commissioner Mitchel Silver, it would cost $1 billion to improve all of them, so the department went through a prioritization process. “We looked at density, poverty, growth and then we looked at some other factors and went out to visit each one,” the commissioner told AN.
At the end of that process, the department selected 35 parks and playgrounds to receive about $3 to 4 million each in upgrades. That money will go toward new play equipment, horticulture, and green spaces including turf and artificial turf. The Department of Environmental Protection is also investing an additional $36.3 million into the plan for green infrastructure projects. Silver said stormwater capture will be the primary focus of those efforts. Fifty-five other sites have also been identified by the city for quick-fix improvements like painting and fencing.
The mayor’s plan was praised by Tupper Thomas, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, who said the money will provide flexibility for park improvements. “This is a whole different way of looking at parks,” she said. “It looks at them from such a great neighborhood-building perspective.” Currently, funding for smaller parks has to filter through city council members and borough presidents who may want to spend money elsewhere. This sum money will go directly to the parks already selected by the administration.
At the announcement, de Blasio said that he will also ask the city’s larger parks conservancies, like the Central Park Conservancy, to chip into his effort. During the campaign, he supported legislation that would require conservancies to do this, but has since softened his position. Silver told AN that the administration is in “active discussion” with the conservancies to see how they could support the mayor’s effort—whether through funds, or expertise in management, fundraising, programming, or design.
The story of park inequity is, of course, not confined to New York’s five boroughs. In cities around the world there are the highly-visited and well-maintained public spaces and then the parks and playgrounds that crumble in poor neighborhoods. But in unveiling his parks initiative, Mayor de Blasio took an opportunity to specifically knock Mayor Bloomberg’s parks legacy—a legacy that is widely respected in the city and beyond.
“I think [fighting inequality] is front and center in the philosophy of this administration and it applies to everything we’re doing–doesn’t matter if you’re talking about schools or job creation or parks–it’s the way we see the world,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say the previous administration didn’t see the world that way. So it just wasn’t a priority.”
The former mayor’s team was quick to respond to de Blasio’s assessment. “The Bloomberg administration made $5 billion in capital investments in parks, the largest capital investment in the city’s history, with the vast majority invested in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Northern Manhattan,” wrote Bloomberg Parks Commissioner Veronica White on mikebloomberg.com.
It has also been noted that $80 million of de Blasio’s $130 million initiative was money secured by Bloomberg. When asked about his boss’s criticism, Silver told AN that the press had misread the mayor’s comments. “I was at the press conference and I did not hear that,” he said referring to de Blasio’s supposed swipes at Bloomberg. “We took a 20 year snapshot, not a 12 year snapshot. A lot of people drew that conclusion, but what we’re saying is that $6 billion had been spent, but for some reason, over the past two decades, 215 parks got lost.”
For her part, Tupper Thomas tried to see past the political back-and-forth and praised both mayors’ efforts to improve parks. “In my mind,” she said, “parks have done very well already with the new administration and ended very well under the last one.”