Over the past two weekends, a bit of mild, sunny weather attracted New Yorkers of all ages to their parks. Last weekend, my wife and I spent two hours in Morningside Park, chasing our 20-month-old granddaughter from one side to the other of a beautifully designed, age-appropriate playground. We weren’t alone; there must have been another 200 children and adults enjoying the beautiful weather and newly refurbished playground. Morningside Park wasn’t always so beautiful. When we first moved into our apartment on Morningside Drive in 1990, the sounds from the park were often gunshots, not the shouts of gleeful children.
After a long and difficult effort, New Yorkers re-took their public spaces in the last years of the 20th century and have continued that work throughout the 21st century. The parks are wonderful and full of life. According to a 2017 report of the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), people feel extraordinarily safe in parks during the daytime. Overall, about 85% of CBC’s survey respondents reported feelings of safety in the parks: 89.9% of white respondents and 78.9% of black and Hispanic respondents responded positively when asked about park safety. The city’s park budget has grown from $398 million in fiscal year 2015 to $468 million in fiscal year 2019. That is a tiny share of the city’s overall budget of $92 billion. The department employs 7,836 people as compared to 7,774 in 2015. New York City government’s direct employees total 389,454. But these numbers do not include the large number of people working in parks for nonprofits such as the Central Park Conservancy or the Friends of the High Line. It does not include all the volunteers in our boroughs cleaning the parks or planting flowers and vegetables either.
The tiny investment of city funding is augmented by the time, money and energy of New Yorkers, most of whom rely on the parks for outdoor access. While most of the land in New York City sits beneath single family homes, most of the people in New York live in multifamily dwellings with no private outside spaces. The parks in New York are everyone’s backyard. They are also one of the most diverse and democratizing places in the city. There are no VIP lounges in the parks, no rope lines, and no admission tickets that must be bought.
As New Yorkers head back to their parks, the Center for an Urban Future recently published a study of the need for capital investment in the parks. They estimate that nearly $6 billion in capital investment is needed over the next decade to maintain the current system. Recently, Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director of Center for an Urban Future, testified before the NYC Council Committee on Parks and Recreation and observed that:
“…the average New York City park is 73 years old…,we found that parks in every borough are struggling with aging assets that are at or near the end of their useful lives—including drainage systems, retaining walls, and bridges… While the mounting infrastructure needs are largely due to the age of the system and record usage of parks in recent years, our research finds that the problems have been compounded by decades of under-investment in basic parks maintenance and inadequate spending on infrastructure upgrades. The result is that NYC has fewer skilled parks maintenance workers than other big-city systems— and that smaller issues end up growing into bigger problems.
In total, our report found just 39 plumbers for the entire parks system. Similarly, the city has about 150 gardeners citywide for nearly 20,000 acres of parkland — a ratio of one gardener to every 133 acres… Since the 1970s fiscal crisis, the full-time staffing headcount of the Parks Department has dropped from a high of 11,642 in 1976 to a little over 7,600*— a 35 percent decline. This means not only fewer skilled workers to fix pipes, point masonry, clear catchbasins, and tend to horticulture, but also a lack of capacity to gather data, speed up capital projects, and maintain consistent relationships with community members. Despite these concerns, our report finds that recent investments in chronically underfunded parks are having a meaningful impact, and we commend Mayor de Blasio, the City Council, and Commissioner Silver for launching the Community Parks and Anchor Parks Initiatives, and we urge their continuation. These initiatives are improving parks equity while tackling underlying infrastructure needs, but those needs remain urgent.”
The problem is that as important as parks are to all of us, they must compete with schools, police, fire safety and homeless services for resources. There is a sense that public safety, public education and social welfare are critical issues and that somehow parks are luxury items. Every mayor and city council representative deals with that reality and that is why the parks are underfunded.
The importance and popularity of public space is obvious to every elected official. The economic value of parks is reflected in housing prices. Proximity to parks enhances housing values and a view of a park can add significantly to the price of a home. In wealthier neighborhoods, private funds are attracted to parks, but poorer neighborhoods require public expenditures.
The exception to all this disinvestment may come about due to the role of our parks in climate adaptation. New York City is in the midst of a decade long, $20 billion project to protect our shoreline. Some areas will be added to New York’s shoreline as parks, and some shoreline parks will be rebuilt. In addition, the permeable surfaces and drainage systems in our parks can play an important role in preventing flooding and combined sewage overflow. When an extreme rain event takes place, our sewers may carry too much waste water to allow our sewage treatment plants to process sewage. When that happens, we release raw sewage into our waterways. Parks can be used to absorb and hold waters preventing this form of pollution. Parks also help prevent the heat island effect during hot summer days and can mitigate climate by absorbing carbon dioxide.
There are many reasons why we need to invest in public space and continue to build and rebuild our park system. Park funding is not controversial, but it is often overlooked. Recently, Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams completed a study of Brooklyn’s parks entitled “The Pulse of Our Parks: An Assessment of Brooklyn’s Open Space” which analyzed 270 of the borough’s parks. In testimony to the New York City Council, Adams observed that:
“For too long, we have failed to prioritize the NYC Parks in the budget, and overly relied upon other methods of funding for capital projects and annual maintenance…. While these methods may work for some parks in some neighborhoods, we cannot rely upon a one-size-fits-all approach to address the massive backlog of maintenance to our open spaces. That is why I am calling on the City Council and Mayor to implement a percent for parks model that would peg the NYC Parks budget to one percent of the total annual budget for the City of New York. If applied to the preliminary FY19budget—$88,670,000,000*—this proposal would raise investment in NYC Parks by an additional $384,765,000.”
While the dynamics that keep park funding relatively low seem unlikely to change, parks are more important than ever in the service-oriented, modern, sustainable city. People and businesses are mobile and cities are in a competition for residents, tourists and business. A well maintained, beautiful park system is a key attraction, as well as an important piece of a city’s green infrastructure.
Today I enjoyed a walk from my home on Morningside and West 120th Street through Riverside Park down to West 72nd Street. The dynamism and diversity of park-goers was thrilling. The green aura of spring-time life has returned to the branches of trees and shrubs and many flowering trees were in full bloom. There is little question that parks are a resource worthy of investment and that the investment pays off financially and spiritually.
*Note that the staff and city budget numbers in this piece are close, but are not precise matches. This is because both staff and budget estimates are snapshots in time and the precise number varies by the time you take your picture.