New York City isn’t often celebrated for its nature. But for those of us who work at the Natural Areas Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy, we know the city best for its impressive parks system, expansive natural areas, and urban forest. These pieces of parkland make city living more enjoyable and bearable, especially during a global pandemic. And we’re astounded that the city is proposing to significantly disinvest in its parks, just when they are needed the most.
In the last few months, New York City’s parks have received a lot of press and attention, and with good reason. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, our open spaces and natural areas have more than proven their worth. Residents are turning to local parks, including the city’s extensive network of hiking trails, in search of socially distanced respite from increased time indoors.
But these resources, specifically natural areas, provide even more to New Yorkers than just the immediate benefits we’re seeing right now. And as we start to recover from this pandemic, it’s clear that New York City’s investments in natural areas need to be sustained for both their short-term benefits — like recreational space to socially distance and hundreds of green jobs — and long-term benefits — like climate change mitigation and adaptation.
NYC Parks cares for the majority of the city’s seven million trees that exist inside and outside of our natural areas. These trees — an asset valued at $5.7 billion — clean our air, mitigate extreme summer heat, and provide essential habitat for wildlife. They also reduce urban flooding and help manage stormwater, keeping pollutants out of waterways. From a public health perspective, spending time in local natural areas can reduce stress, and even lower blood pressure. All of these benefits are cost-effective improvements to the quality of life in our city, and they’re enjoyed by every New Yorker, even those who don’t visit parks.
New York City’s parks reached a low point during the late 1970s, when continued disinvestment led to an extended period of insufficient maintenance. This then led to excessive dumping, illegal encampments, crime, and vandalism. In the decades since, the City of New York, many nonprofit partners, and tens of thousands of volunteers have made great strides. Most recently, in 2019, Mayor de Blasio and the New York City Council showed their commitment to supporting and improving New York City’s parks by investing an additional $44 million into the NYC Parks budget. This included $4 million for the management of the city’s forests, which exist in every borough and cover an area eight times the size of Central Park.
But as we look to the city’s FY21 budget proposal, it disappointingly includes cuts that would leave NYC Parks with staffing levels below those of 1977. Last year, New York City’s parks received 0.6 percent of the city budget — and now they’re set to bear cuts that are 3 percent of the city’s budget savings plan.
That’s why, alongside New Yorkers for Parks and the 250 member organizations of the Play Fair Coalition, we are calling on the New York City Council and the mayor’s office to invest an additional $47 million in NYC Parks in the upcoming fiscal year budget. This includes funding for 340 parks maintenance and safety staff, including natural areas staff, whose jobs will be cut on July 1, 2020 if the Mayor and City Council don’t act now. These are unprecedented circumstances, but this investment would simply be a common-sense renewal of funding appropriated in the last fiscal year to further New York City’s critical need to maintain its parks and open spaces. And, it’s also a common-sense way to retain hundreds of green jobs when many New Yorkers are facing financial concerns and unemployment.
Now more than ever, New Yorkers need increased access to well maintained parks — not a fiscal plan that puts them on a fast track to disrepair and degradation. Our parks, natural areas, and trees are critical pieces of city infrastructure that contribute meaningful public health and environmental benefits to city residents. They should be elevated in the recovery plan for New York City. We need to protect the very resources that make our city livable by giving NYC Parks the funding it needs to keep our open spaces thriving so New Yorkers can thrive too.
Sarah Charlop-Powers is executive director and co-founder of Natural Areas Conservancy. Emily Nobel Maxwell is the Cities Program director at The Nature Conservancy in New York.