State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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It’s Time to Invest in New York City’s Parks

This is a recurring theme of mine, but today I will add my voice to New York City’s five borough presidents who have agreed to call on Mayor Adams to commit to planting another million trees, adding to the million trees planted by his two predecessors. They are also calling on the mayor to fulfill his campaign promise to allocate 1% of the city’s budget to our parks each year. In fiscal 2022 the city’s stimulus swollen budget reached $102.8 billion, and the Parks Department’s budget was $618 million. One percent would be a little more than one billion dollars a year, which would have an immediate and visible impact on the operation and day-to-day maintenance of our parks system.

In a New York Times report on the tree and parks initiative, Dana Rubinstein observed that:

“New York now has roughly seven million trees, or fewer than one tree for each of its 8.8 million residents, according to a recent Nature Conservancy report. About 650,000 trees line the streets, but they are not evenly distributed — much like the parks themselves. The Trust for Public Land, a conservation group that helps create public parks across the United States, found that low-income New Yorkers and people of color have significantly less available park space than residents of neighborhoods that are mostly white and wealthy.  The allotment of trees somewhat follows that pattern. Vanessa Gibson, the Bronx borough president, noted that while the Riverdale neighborhood and the area around it have a higher-than-average tree density, sections of the South Bronx like Hunts Point have less than their fair share.”

According to Rubinstein’s report, the city learned a lot from Mike Bloomberg’s million-tree program. First, we learned to vary tree species and, when planting street trees, avoid the types that have roots that destroy sidewalks. We also ended a law that requires the city to receive permission to plant trees from adjoining property owners. Most (750,000) of the million trees would be planted in parks. Even a casual look at wooded areas in the city’s parks today provides evidence of tree loss due to recent storms and long-standing poor maintenance practices. There’s plenty of need for new trees in our parks. In addition, an effort to plant 250,000 new street trees provides an opportunity to impact communities that historically have not been the recipients of tree planting.

While trees are vital, they are not sufficient. The city needs to make capital investments in paths, stairs, fences, playgrounds, ballfields, recreation facilities, restrooms and all the other elements of a huge set of physical facilities. According to the website of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation:

NYC Parks is the steward of more than 30,000 acres of land — 14 percent of New York City — including more than 5,000 individual properties ranging from Coney Island Beach and Central Park to community gardens  and Greenstreets. We operate more than 800 athletic fields and nearly 1,000 playgrounds, 1,800 basketball courts, 550 tennis courts, 65 public pools, 51 recreational facilities, 15 nature centers, 14 golf courses, and 14 miles of beaches. We care for 1,200 monuments and 23 historic house museums. We look after 600,000 street trees, and two million more in parks. We are New York City’s principal providers of recreational and athletic facilities and programs. We are home to free concerts, world-class sports events, and cultural festivals.”

According to the New York City Building Congress, the capital budget of the City of New York is $17 billion for fiscal 2022. Of that, 8% is allocated for parks and cultural institutions. City Council data on recent parks capital expenditures reports budgets of between $600 million and $1.2 billion per year but notes that the city has trouble getting capital budgets spent. While in fiscal 2019 they were able to commit 86% of about $628 million in capital dollars, the year before, the level of commitment was only 46.8%.

Anyone who watches the city try to build anything notices the slow and halting pace of construction. Procurement and design processes are over-regulated and poorly managed. When something new is finally opened, it is often well built and well designed. But before long, what was once sparkling and new is poorly maintained and ages before its time. With additional damage from more intense storms due to climate change, the city’s physical infrastructure will require even more maintenance than it has received in the past.

While money is a key element of parks enhancement, so too is management. Most parks do not have dedicated staff but share maintenance workers who move from park to park, typically within a community board district. While I’m certain that this makes sense for some functions, park-specific staff are also needed to build relations with park users in the community and to identify and “own” the needs of specific parks. Many years ago, New York City parks had such dedicated staff, and when I was growing up, we called them “parkees.”  These folks lent kids basketballs and other equipment and kept their eyes on the safety and maintenance of “their” parks. These staff were eliminated during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s but should be brought back to enhance park use and management.

The capital construction process is a deeper, city-wide mess. Building anything in New York City is complicated. It’s a crowded place and many rules and regulations are there for good reason, but we need to figure out a way to streamline the process. Modern communication and computer technology should be coupled with modern supply chain and operations management techniques to move projects from approval through design and construction with greater speed.

There are many needs competing for city funds: crime, education, sanitation, homelessness, and hunger are just a few of them. But parks are a resource used by all New Yorkers, and during the pandemic, they were our backyards and social gathering places. There are no VIP suites like at the Superbowl, no rope lines like at the Oscars and no admission fees. This past Saturday, we took my granddaughter to a few of the playgrounds in Morningside Park, and the diversity and energy of the kids was, as always, inspiring. Since the start of the pandemic, I have spent more time in New York City parks than at any time in my life. I saw physical trainers meeting clients, families hosting birthday parties and musicians keeping their art alive. The borough presidents understand how important these places are to their constituents. As Dana Rubinstein reported in the New York Times:

“Borough presidents typically do not wield much in the way of formal power, as Mr. Adams, the former Brooklyn borough president, can attest. But the position does provide a bully pulpit, and the five current borough leaders are betting that they can wield more influence together than individually. This initiative is the first test of that proposition. “A lot of people are tired of polarizing politics and fighting about everything,” said Vito Fossella, the Staten Island borough president. He is the lone Republican among the five…The borough presidents have been speaking for about a month, Mr. Fosella said. They communicate via five-way text. Although their political views run the gamut, they have discovered that they can agree on at least one thing: Trees are good, the more the better.”

On February 4, Mayor Adams appointed Susan Donoghue, head of the Prospect Park Alliance, as the new parks commissioner, and Iris Rodriguez-Rosa, currently the Bronx borough commissioner, as her first deputy commissioner. The announcement event was inspiring (check out the video), and it is clear that Mayor Adams understands the importance of parks and is committed to enhanced parks equity. As he said during the announcement of new parks leadership, “parks are a necessity and not a luxury.” I am profoundly hopeful that his administration’s performance will match its promise.

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