For decades, New York City has put our parks on the fiscal chopping block, consistently dedicating between just 0.5 and 0.6 percent of the city budget to these critical green and open space resources. In comparison, other cities with first-rate parks systems typically contribute 1 to 4 percent to their parks.
New Yorkers bear witness to this issue every time a park’s gates are closed, waste bins overflow, or there are no parks employees in sight when illegal activity is happening in our parks.
But as we inch toward a general election and learn more about Eric Adams’ priority issues, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reposition our parks and open spaces as critical infrastructure.
Recently Adams took to Twitter to reinforce his support for New Yorkers for Parks’ call for 1 percent of the city budget for parks, committing to significant and decades in the making investment in critical maintenance and operations while reversing 50 years of chronic underinvestment.
Adams knows how important our parks have been for New Yorkers seeking a safe, healthy refuge from quarantine, telling us at New Yorkers for Parks as much in our survey ahead of this year’s primary.
“We need to support our city parks that provide so many vital services to this city. In the moments of this pandemic our green spaces provided a place for us to gather, express ourselves, and too simply catch a breath of fresh air. We need to do everything we can to preserve the future generations of New Yorkers the right to these essential parks,” he wrote at the time.
NY4P has been calling on our elected officials to make this investment for 20 years, starting with our Parks 2001 campaign. There is an extraordinary opportunity for our next mayor to make funding for parks a priority and act on it.
Increasing the city’s Parks Department budget to 1 percent signals a new direction for the city that prioritizes people, open space equity, sustainability, economic development, and green jobs. This funding is foundational to a 21st century parks system that is sufficiently staffed and tended to so they can remain safe and accessible for all New Yorkers to enjoy.
One percent for parks would begin to address an untenable scenario where the Parks Department is woefully underfunded and understaffed, which as an example is tasked with maintaining 30,000 acres of parkland with a staff of just 350-400 Parks Enforcement Patrol Officers and 1 gardener for roughly 133 acres of park land.
We’ve seen what neglected parks and budget cuts lead to, especially when the Parks Department budget was again sacrificed due to the pandemic and shrinking budgets. Despite a capable and dedicated Parks Department, the physical spaces showed the impact of chronic neglect and crumbling infrastructure. The conditions of our parks were the worst seen in 15 years with an understaffed agency, and inequitable conditions depending on where you live and your immediate community’s resources.
Thanks in part to a brighter short term financial outlook following federal investment, and the efforts of New Yorkers for Parks, the New York League of Conservation Voters, DC37 and the Play Fair Coalition, our City Council was able to temporarily restore the budget back to pre-COVID-19 levels this year. But we cannot simply return to normal; normal was not working for everybody, especially low-income communities and communities of color across the boroughs.
Earlier this year, New Yorkers for Parks laid out a vision for a parks system that better serves all New Yorkers called the Five Point Plan for Park Equity, the cornerstone of which is 1 percent of the city budget for parks. The plan outlines our path toward a thriving, healthy, and climate-resilient New York.
We need to address how we spend taxpayer money on our vital capital projects, reforming a slow and expensive capital process with a new system that ensures every dollar is spent responsibly and efficiently. We need a comprehensive plan for parks that prioritizes equitable access and centralizes governmental leadership with a unified vision of open space. We need to build new open space in under-resourced communities and invest in our natural areas, including waterfronts across the boroughs. And we need to support the community organizations and volunteers who play a crucial role in the stewardship of our parks and open spaces.
The past few years have highlighted both how essential our parks infrastructure is and what happens when our policymakers neglect it. Soon it’ll be time for the next mayor to turn rhetoric into policies and we are confident that Adams will deliver a robust financial commitment to our city’s parks.
Adam Ganser is the Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks and Julie Tighe is the President of the New York League of Conservation Voters.