Op-ed | New York City faces a loneliness crisis. Volunteering in parks is the answer.

Photo by Daniel Avila/NYC Parks

Our parks are there for us when we need them the most. In times of celebration and in times of trial, New Yorkers turn to their parks as safe havens for social gatherings, healing and restoration. During the pandemic, parks became the central hub for human connection: picnics, performances, protests, community touchpoints were all hosted outdoors in our neighborhood greenspaces. Those years proved that our parks are not just a luxury, they are essential to the health of New Yorkers.

As we rebuild our great city following the chronic stress of the pandemic, our parks will continue to play a vital role in replenishing New Yorkers, restoring their mental health, and fostering community.

In May, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, released an advisory calling attention to an epidemic of loneliness and lack of connection in our country. This side effect of the pandemic has taken a toll on our city’s physical and mental wellbeing. For the first time, young adults are almost twice as likely to report feeling lonely than older people, and people of lower socioeconomic status are even more likely to be affected. It’s easy to dismiss this as an invisible problem, but it has some very serious real-life consequences: disconnection can increase the risk of premature death to levels comparable to smoking every day.

Our city’s parks provide an invaluable antidote, serving as oases of respite where New Yorkers can counteract increasing feelings of isolation and disconnection by joining with others to improve their community.

In his report, Dr. Murthy recommends serving others as a way to both combat isolation and raise your feeling of self-worth. Loneliness can have real impacts on physical health, from longevity to heart disease – and being in nature has invaluable mental health benefits with studies showing positive impacts on depression, anxiety, and more. Volunteering in parks is a great way to invest in your health, meet new people, keep you away from the distractions of constant screen time, and be uplifted by transforming your neighborhood’s greenspace.

As the former president of the Prospect Park Alliance, I saw firsthand how important volunteers are to the care of our city’s parks and the deep connections that were forged between volunteers working together.

This summer, NYC Parks will launch a brand new campaign to engage a record number of volunteers at city parks, bringing together diverse people with a common mission to improve their environment. We’ll also recognize and uplift the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who already pitch in to care for and beautify their local parks. From grassroots “Friends of” groups, to large non-profit partners, to corporate give-back days – New Yorkers can come to parks and join with others to make a difference.

To help New Yorkers connect and thrive, we’re making it easier than ever to find your place of belonging among fellow volunteers. Our new directory launching this summer will shine a light on the many volunteer groups working in our parks – whether extreme athletes, artist activists, surfers, or change-makers– and offer a guide to New Yorkers who are looking to make friends and have an impact. Where else can you find pet lovers who gather with their four-legged friends to help spread mulch in a local dog run? Meet fellow mountain bikers who grease up their wheels to maintain trails? Parks are the nexus between fun and service.

So just like NYC’s parks were there for you during the pandemic, we are here for you now, to help combat feelings of loneliness and isolation, and welcome you into a group of volunteers. Mayor Adams likes to say there are 8.8 million New Yorkers and 30 million opinions – but there’s one thing, as NYC Parks Commissioner, that I think everyone can agree on: how much our beloved parks and greenspaces help New Yorkers thrive. Engaging a record number of volunteers is something that we can only do, by nature, working together. By making it easier and more fun for everyone to beautify their parks, connect with like-minded New Yorkers, and build stronger neighborhoods, our parks will continue to help bring healing to New Yorkers.

To learn how to get involved, visit nyc.gov/parks/volunteer.