All the recent news coverage and social media posts about New York City parks ridden with trash focus on the symptoms—not the system—which has historically underfunded our parks.

Harry DiPrinzio

Overflowing trash and other maintenance issues at city parks will worsen thanks to $85 million in cuts in this year’s Parks Department budget, the author writes.

All the recent news coverage and social media posts about New York City parks ridden with trash focus on the symptoms—not the system—which has historically underfunded our parks.

Except for 2019’s historic $44 million increase, secured by New Yorkers for Parks’ Play Fair for Parks Coalition, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s (DPR) budget continues to be cut to the point of being unsustainable. For decades, the Parks Department’s maintenance and operation budget decreased as park usage and DPR’s property increased.

Since the 1970’s fiscal crisis, DPR’s staffing headcount dropped from more than 11,600 to just over 7,600, and over the past four decades, expense spending on parks decreased from 1.3 percent of the overall city budget to just more than .6 percent, a 2018 report from the Center for an Urban Future found. This year the city cut almost $85 million from DPR’s budget, accounting for 14 percent of the agency’s budget and including the loss of 193 park staff. This includes the 80 Park Enforcement Patrol Officers (PEP) and 50 Urban Rangers hired last year with the increased funding secured by Play Fair for Parks coalition, as well as the loss of 1,700 seasonal maintenance and operations staff.

The loss of seasonal workers results in overfilled trash cans and garbage left spewn all over our parks’ grounds. The loss of our Parks Enforcement Patrol and Urban Rangers will predetermine the dire fate of our parks for future generations to endure.

Urban Rangers are educators who teach young park goers to appreciate nature and the importance of green spaces. Park Enforcement Patrol Officers educate residents and encourage them to follow the rules, as well as protect park properties. Without this outreach and enforcement, our parks are open to misuse and damage, some of which could be irreversible.

In our Pelham Parkway, frequent illegal barbecues have not only generated more trash but killed trees when charcoal was dumped in the tree pits. As many know, trees provide fresh air, habitat for wildlife, absorb pollution and provide cooling and shade. Our residents can’t sit on the benches surrounding the Rose Garden because there is no shade, and it is hot. Likewise, the nearby Bronx Park dog run is often not used when it’s too hot and sunny because there is no shade. Many park goers bring canopies for their own shade since the Parkway lacks sufficient trees to provide it. A park goer even commented on how the squirrels here live densely in trees due to scarcity. The recent trees downed by Tropical Storm Isaias revealed how some of our large, strong-looking trees were hollowed—perhaps due to neglect and decay.

The “do more with less” approach is not working, and has burdened both the community and the park’s ground workers. Several Bronx Parks employees have stated that at least half of the staff has or will file for retirement. Some workers have stated that the high demand has put a greater toll on their bodies, and yet the public continues to scold them, which only hurts their morale. Our community lies in zip code 10467, one of the hardest impacted by COVID-19 in the Bronx.  Friends of Pelham Parkway continues to help maintain and do weekly cleanups, as opposed to the monthly ones done in the past. Volunteers aren’t easy to come by. Yet the community bears some responsibility for the litter, and our weekly cleanups include engaging park goers to join us for 15 minutes so the limited number of volunteers don’t always clean up after others, and it encourages others not to litter as well.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.” Our city needs to treat our parks as assets for the community and future communities, as refuge from a pandemic, as relief from a hot day, as a habitat for wildlife, and to make our city more resilient to climate change.

Our city should heed the United Nation’s call to “think globally and act locally” in addressing climate change. If this is done, then our parks won’t be systematically underfunded, but should receive at least 1 percent of the entire city budget to maintain and preserve parks for future generations. In the meantime, capital money for new park amenities should be reallocated to maintenance and operations, and no more cuts should be made to Parks’ budget, as anticipated and recently reported. The cuts made today will cost more tomorrow, and it can’t be repaid.

Roxanne Delgado is a member of Friends of Pelham Parkway.

The Parks Department responds: Recent budget reduction impacts on our park system as a result of the COVID-19 health crisis are an unfortunate reality. This summer, some of our one-year FY20 contracts, including Urban Park Rangers and Parks Enforcement Patrol, were not able to be extended through PlayFair in FY21. Unfortunately, we are also are facing 1,700 fewer seasonal maintenance and operations staff compared to the same period in 2019. This equates to 45 percent fewer staff working to clean parks than during the same time last year.

 Despite this, our staff have continued to serve on the frontlines during the pandemic and ensuing fiscal crises, going above and beyond to keep this city healthy, safe, and strong. Park workers are currently distributing face coverings and educating park goers on maintaining a safe social distance; assisting at food distribution sites in our Recreation Centers; cleaning excessive trash left at our green spaces and working to maintain our parks experiencing a significant increase in usage due to the pandemic; and caring for our city’s vast urban forest whilst responding to emergencies and priority sites as a result of Tropical Storm Isaias.

 We remain committed to maintaining our City’s parks for the health and safety of all New Yorkers. Now more than ever, we need everyone to do their part and show their parks some love by taking out what they bring in.