As New York City reopens in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, deep questions remain about the future of our schools, offices, shops, restaurants, and so many more places. But one thing has been made crystal clear by the pandemic: the urgent need for NYC parks.
During the current crisis, the city’s parks have provided a vital, and relatively safe, respite from our stressful, often isolating lives in quarantine. They’ve provided recreation when our usual venues—museums, theaters, schools, stores, movies, bars, and just about everything else—have been closed. And they’ve helped us socialize, mingle, and even protest with people of all ethnicities, races, and incomes; an especially vital function in a time of intense social stress.
So it’s troubling that New York is cutting its Department of Parks & Recreation budget by more than $84 million, or 14 percent. The city is, of course, facing huge budget shortfalls, and reductions in most departments are expected. But this deep a cut to an already deeply underfunded agency will hurt New Yorkers at a time when we all—especially those of fewer means—need it most.
With the recent cuts, New York’s current parks allocation will hover at around $510 million, less than one half of one percent of the city’s overall budget. This outlay is a smaller percentage of total spending than in any of America’s five largest cities. The figure is especially egregious because parks take up 14 percent of New York’s land, the highest percentage of those same five largest cities. Looking at a pie chart of the city’s budget, education fills about half, police about a tenth, and you can’t even see the infinitesimal wedge for parks.
This is not to say that the parks department requires the same budget as the city’s largest agencies. But especially now, as parks are experiencing their highest usage in decades, their budget desperately needs shoring up.
According to Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver, who calls parks “sanctuaries of sanity” in the pandemic, the New York Department of Parks & Recreation has been unable to renew work for about 200 existing park staff and recently had to forego the hiring of its customary 1,700 seasonal maintenance and operations staff. Silver acknowledged that with the cuts his department is unable to keep the city’s parks as free of garbage, graffiti, and other detritus, and as free of weeds, deterioration, and overgrowth. If, like me, you live in the city, you’ve almost certainly seen evidence of this.
“Neglect compounds itself,” said Adam Ganser, Executive Director of New Yorkers For Parks (NY4P). “People can start to pay less and less attention to maintaining parks.”
Poor upkeep inevitably attracts crime and other questionable activity, while the upcoming elimination of 80 Parks Enforcement Patrol positions can’t all be picked up by the NYPD. Other impacts of the cuts are still coming to light, including a loss of 50 Urban Park Rangers, a vital part of the department’s educational programs, and major cuts to the Green Thumb Initiative, which provides support to the city’s community gardens.
The impact on the city’s low-income populations, who already have much more limited options for refuge—more than 1.1 million New Yorkers don’t have a park within a ten-minute walk, and many can’t afford to escape the city for greener locales—is especially acute. Parks in poorer neighborhoods typically don’t have the political clout of wealthy and powerful users, and they often can’t fall back on support from private, non-profit conservancies and foundations like the Central Park Conservancy, Friends of the High Line, or the Prospect Park Alliance.
And so many more intangible jolts come with the decline of our parks. One is a diminishment of civic pride: For children and adults alike, if your closest park is not worth going to, or if it’s littered with trash, that can make it seem like the city doesn’t care about you. Or even worse, that you, and people like you, are not worth caring for. Another effect is major damage to our (already hurting) social harmony: parks, which by their nature bring people together, act as mediators to our increasing wealth gap, ongoing racial tension, and damaging polarization. They remove us from our isolating, digitally fueled bubbles. (Even before the pandemic retail, movie theaters, and other sources of social interaction were being marginalized by digitization.) Parks have helped pick up the slack, and have provided valuable economic boosts for all kinds of neighborhoods. (Just look at the effect of the High Line to see how parks can transform neighborhoods; albeit sometimes too well.)
Considering COVID-19’s devastating impacts on its budget, the city needs to more aggressively explore alternative ways to keep its parks intact. Parks officials should continue to coordinate with conservancies, Business Improvement Districts, and other public/private partnerships, which are vital to keeping the city’s parks afloat in a time of limited funding. They should especially focus on giving support—administrative, financial, and otherwise—to the many smaller groups that serve less privileged areas. Many of these organizations, points out NY4P’s Ganser, are not getting the support they have under past administrations.
“This is precisely when you want cities to be stepping up,” added Alan Loomis, a principal at PlaceWorks, a planning and design firm with offices across the country. “The pandemic is really accelerating public space inequities that were already taking place before.”
The city also needs to explore public resources more aggressively. While money from the state and federal government will certainly dry up in coming months, there are still significant funds to be found supporting COVID-19 stimulus, stormwater control, climate resiliency, ecosystem preservation, transportation, affordable housing, and (increasingly) public health; all of which parks can play a role in.
There are also strong models for partnership with other (often better funded) city departments. The city’s Department of Transportation’s Open Streets Initiative, for instance, has opened up 100 miles of streets to pedestrians and restaurants during the pandemic, coordinating with the Parks Department and expanding a program that had previously been rolling out at a snail’s pace. This effort should continue after the pandemic and could be a model for alliances with agencies like the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYEDC, which has already been a major partner in building new parks), schools, police, watershed management, and utilities, to name just a few.
Other potential sources of alternative funding and support include concessions in parks, tax increment financing measures, the issuance of “green bonds” (encouraging private investment in sustainable solutions like parks), and zoning incentives requiring support for parks in exchange for development rights. These solutions are not a fix-all; they can favor wealthier neighborhoods, and in the case of privately-owned public space can create question marks as to what rights parkgoers have. But all options should be on the table.
Finally, the parks department and its partner organizations (like the City Parks Foundation, and the hundreds of local parks conservancies and friends groups) are seeking volunteers, and if you have time there are dozens of options, like the aforementioned Green Thumb and NYC Parks Stewardship, which among many other things helps plants and prune street trees, plants and harvests flora, and monitors local wildlife. One caveat: many programs have been suspended due to pandemic restrictions, so be sure to verify what’s moving ahead.
We’ve all gotten a reminder of the value of our parks to our physical and mental health, and to our public life and stability. They are not frivolous places that look pretty. They are vital resources, and we need to all play our part to make sure they stay that way.
Sam Lubell is an architectural writer and curator based in New York.