During the long months of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the few places New Yorkers could see people in person was in our parks. Most days, for the past 14 months, I’ve walked the parks seeing the changing seasons and the pandemic-colored rhythm of life as experienced by my friends, neighbors and strangers. The parks were a lifeline during COVID: a connection to the real world beyond Zoom.
Parks are an essential part of New York’s sustainability infrastructure. They reduce pollution, reduce flooding, and provide outdoor space for everyone without a fee. In The Sustainable City, I discuss the importance of parks, and last month the Trust for Public Land issued its Park Equity Plan for New York City. Carter Strickland is the head of New York’s branch of the trust and was once the city’s commissioner of environmental protection. He also happens to teach environmental infrastructure development in Columbia’s Sustainability Management Program. My colleague Carter has long been interested in green infrastructure and other natural climate solutions, and this new plan is an example of a practical, realistic, and critical plan to upgrade New York City’s park system. It is a plan that I hope all the candidates for mayor read and come to advocate. Several have already endorsed elements of the proposal, and Kathryn Garcia strongly supports the entire plan.
“… our elected leaders and candidates for office to commit to a targeted expansion of the park system to give all New Yorkers access to high-quality outdoor space. Today, New York City’s park system lags behind other cities in terms of acres per person, park amenities, and the equitable distribution of open space, as shown by The Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore index. But with a strong mayoral commitment, New York City can lead with parks to come back better than ever. By identifying new locations for public parkland—such as asphalt-covered schoolyards, underused outdoor space in public housing campuses, and roads and other infrastructure that can be repurposed—New York City could put every resident within a 10-minute walk of a park. And by “park,” we do not mean any meager open space, but one that becomes the pride of the community for its abundant nature, recreational opportunities, and smart design.”
The plan focuses on equity by proposing the creation of 70 new parks outside of Manhattan in areas that have endured generations of environmental injustice. Abandoned industrial sites, railway tracks and other land can be converted into parklands in these neighborhoods. The High Line in Manhattan and the Domino Sugar factory in Queens are not the only underutilized abandoned industrial spaces in New York. The trust also calls for revitalizing the initiative to convert asphalt schoolyards into green space. Under the current partnership, the trust has worked with the city to convert over 200 schoolyards into green school yards that are open to the community after school and on weekends. The Park Equity Plan calls for the conversion of 100 additional school yards to green yards. In that way, the city could make good on its now broken commitment to convert 290 school yards to green space.
The plan also proposes using parks as part of the effort to rebuild a more equitable, inclusive city. The Trust for Public Land proposes that:
“Over the next four years, the City should build new parks in those communities that fall short of open space standards and have high park needs, as demonstrated by public health statistics, the Heat Vulnerability Index, and other socio-economic indices such as New York City’s Environmental Justice map. The City can and should add open streets that are big enough to accommodate park-like amenities; open more green schoolyards to the public after school hours; rehabilitate the New York City Housing Authority’s open spaces to provide them with well-maintained amenities; and creatively repurpose street ends, traffic islands, rail infrastructure, and waterfront areas. Building The QueensWay, for example, would turn a vacant, abandoned former rail right-of-way that is owned by the City into a new 47-acre, 3.5-mile linear park in Central Queens, giving park-deprived communities like Ozone Park, Woodhaven, and Rego Park an exciting new park destination.”
To pay for this, the trust advocates drawing on federal, state, and local sources to fund a $1 billion additional capital investment in parks over the next four years. For the years 2020-2024, the park’s capital budget has been set at $4.3 billion, so another billion dollars would represent a significant but wholly realistic increase in the current rate of spending. The trust also proposes a long-term increase in the annual Parks budget from the current and completely inadequate 0.6% of the city’s budget to 1.0%. Someone needs to make sure these investments are maintained and fully staffed.
We are in the process of electing a new mayor and while issues of crime, education and homelessness dominate the conversation, the issue of park equity should also be part of this campaign. I have often written about the democratizing role of parks — the fact that they are free and open to everyone. But the Public Land Trust’s NYC Park Equity Plan makes the crucial point that park location and easy access is a central element of the delivery of park services. I am fortunate that I live across the street from Morningside Park and three blocks from Riverside Park. Even Central Park is within walking distance of my home. But for some people, parks are too far from home to be part of their daily life. If you have access to a yard, parks may not be of great importance to you, but over 70% of New Yorkers live in apartment buildings and for them, the parks are their backyards.
Parks do not always compete well in the battle for scarce resources. Capital spending, which allows politicos to cut ribbons at parks, does better than operation and maintenance spending, but in a city in deep crisis like ours, parks are easy to overlook. We see the increase in shootings, homeless people sleeping in front of vacant storefronts, impoverished children and people lined up at food pantries and may question parks as a priority. But we need to take the long view. We are at a moment of reconstruction as we recover from the economic and health crises of COVID-19. “Build back better” needs to be more than a clever alliterative catchphrase. It needs to be done. We are at a moment when we need to reconsider our old habits and patterns. Underinvestment in park construction and maintenance is a bad old habit. Leaving neighborhoods underserved by parklands is another bad habit. The NYC Park Equity Plan provides a blueprint for breaking those bad habits. Let’s adopt it and make it real.
In addition to the spending called for by the Trust, we need to engage our communities to take ownership of their parks. Students in local schools and weekend volunteers should be mobilized to learn about and help maintain the parks. While some of the investments needed by our parks are in the form of cash, some of it needs to be in the form of volunteer labor. Many parks already benefit from volunteers; that effort should be celebrated and expanded. The next mayor should spend an hour each week volunteering in a different park. The Biden administration is gearing up for a major effort to rebuild our old and decaying infrastructure: to invest in the economic well-being of all Americans. Let’s make sure New York’s parks are included in that massive investment effort. If New York is ready with shovel-ready plans, it will help ensure we get our fair share of the new funding. Let’s make sure the next mayor gets that message loud and clear.