Op-Ed | The mayor’s shrinking parks budget is a blow to New York’s most vulnerable

A squirrel in New York’s central park (USA).
Photo via Getty Images

When it comes to the crown jewels of our parks system, New York City has an embarrassment of riches. But the reality is that city parks and their myriad benefits are not equitably distributed or accessible to all New Yorkers.

For every Van Cortlandt Park, Central Park, and Prospect Park, there are dozens of others that are overcrowded, starved of funds, and teetering on disrepair. 

The difference is simple: public funding.  

A handful of city parks have wonderful organizations raising private funds to help maintain the grounds and host community events, while the rest are forced to make do with the crumbs left over from a city budget that for decades has given short shrift to these precious resources. 

While other major cities across the U.S. spend anywhere from 1 to 5 percent of their overall budget on parks, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation receives a paltry 0.5 percent of the City budget, woefully insufficient for an agency that oversees 14 percent of New York City’s land. While you won’t find most of these green spaces trending on Instagram, these are essential spaces that serve our communities and the vast majority of New Yorkers. 

Time spent outdoors, whether engaged in recreational activities or simply enjoying the serenity of nature, has been proven to reduce stress, improve mental health, and boost overall well-being.

Parks are also indispensable tools in the city’s effort to mitigate the impacts of climate change. They improve air quality, mitigate extreme heat, and soak up stormwater that would otherwise flood our homes, classrooms and subways.

On one hand, we have a mayor who claims to understand this. During his campaign, Mayor Adams committed to allocating 1% of the city budget to parks. 

But unfortunately, what we have gotten instead is a series of efforts to slash the department’s coffers. 

In November, the Parks Department faced a $25 million budget cut and, with the Mayor’s FY25 Preliminary Budget released in January, he proposed an additional $55 million reduction in funding and a resulting headcount that is at historic lows. The Mayor’s recently-released Executive Budget made zero progress on rolling back these cuts, despite other agencies having their funding restored.

The city cannot balance the books on the backs of everyday New Yorkers by defunding these places of refuge that are, for most people, their only connection to nature. 

Disinvesting from the agency responsible for our green spaces and street trees is both shortsighted and dangerous. Global temperatures continue to break records as a result of man-made climate change, and studies have found that people of color live in neighborhoods that are on average two, and in some cases up to thirteen, degrees hotter than neighboring white communities. This is true in New York City, where the consequences are fatal. Black New Yorkers make up 50% of New York City’s heat-related deaths despite representing only 25% of the population.   

For the “get stuff done” mayor who committed to “provide open space in every community and expand access to public parksin all five boroughs” and who once proclaimed New York City as “clearly a national leader on public health and climate action,” these draconian cuts to parks rank as a dual betrayal that perpetuate inequitable outcomes for communities of color.  

The City Council’s Preliminary Budget Response acknowledged the vital role our parks have in our quality of life and for environmental justice. Now, as they work toward a final Adopted Budget, we need the Mayor to live up to his campaign promise by restoring the cuts to the Parks Department and getting us on a path to allocating at least 1% of the City budget to parks. 

With the 2025 mayoral election coming up, will New Yorkers look back and say this Mayor cared enough about their well-being to step up and fund these essential spaces, or will they say he let us down and left it to the next mayor to get this stuff done? The choice is his. 

Alia Soomro is Deputy Director of NYC Policy for the New York League of Conservation Voters. Annie Carforo is the Climate Justice Campaigns Manager at WE ACT for Environmental Justice.