‘Now is the time to realize a new era for parks, a vision for recovery with green open spaces at the center of our new urban landscape. The first step towards doing that is restoring the devastating budget cuts that have brought us to this inflection point.’
We’ve seen two contradictory things happen with our city’s open space over the course of the past year.
First, parks emerged during the pandemic not just as New Yorkers’ backyards and kitchens, but essential spaces for our physical and mental health, forums for urgent protests against racial injustice, and outlets for the cultural vibrancy of this city during lockdown. Across the city people congregated in unprecedented numbers in their neighborhood parks to feel a sense of community during a time of isolation.
At the same time, COVID-19 ushered in a year of austerity budgeting. Mayor Bill de Blasio dealt the NYC Parks Department a crushing blow in the 2020 budget—cutting the agency’s funding by 14 percent, $84 million our city parks stewards desperately needed. This was the second largest cut to any city agency.
Where has this coincidence of mass popular support for parks and city disinvestment left us?
In a dangerous and untenable position. Citywide parks conditions have reached their lowest point of disrepair since NYC Parks started measuring in 2004.
Parks are critical infrastructure—not just for quality of life in New York and healthy communities, but for making our city more resilient to climate change and as drivers of economic growth. In this year’s budget, the city must prioritize them that way.
Last year the mayor asked the Parks Department to do more with less. Especially now, with New Yorkers coming out in record numbers to their parks, we know that’s a losing strategy.
The consequences of defunding the Parks Department are immediately tangible. Nowhere is this clearer than in the mountains of uncollected trash, unmowed lawns and cordoned off spaces that greeted New Yorkers in parks across every borough last summer.
Now is the time to realize a new era for parks, a vision for recovery with green open spaces at the center of our new urban landscape. The first step towards doing that is restoring the devastating budget cuts that have brought us to this inflection point.
The Play Fair Coalition, which includes more than 300 parks, transportation, environment, social justice and infrastructure advocates from across the five boroughs, is proposing the city reinvest the funds lost last year. The Coalition is calling on the City to restore over $79 million in this year’s budget to address critical gaps in funding for parks maintenance and operations.
Parks in every corner of the city should be safe, clean, and accessible. How the mayor prioritizes parks in his budget will determine if NYC Parks has the resources it needs to help us achieve that baseline goal.
Reversing last year’s cuts would ensure the city has the parks staff it needs to do its job; restore critical parks contracts for basic upkeep like tree pruning, sidewalk repair, and invasive species control; support parks safety with the hiring of 80 additional parks enforcement patrol officers citywide; and re-start the Parks Equity Initiative, aimed at increasing parks access in communities of color across the city.
The city must reassess its priorities and commitment to parks and open space.
It’s important to say that COVID didn’t create this problem; the pandemic has only brought chronic disinvestment to a boiling point.
Compared to major cities across the country—San Francisco, Chicago and Minneapolis, among others—New York traditionally devotes a significantly smaller fraction of its budget to parks. Park land makes up 14 percent of all city land, but NYC Parks receives only about 0.5 percent of the city’s budget. The last time NYC Parks received at least one percent of the city’s budget was in the 1970s.
Let’s imagine what the agency could do if the city allocated just one percent of the budget to parks.
That funding would support the herculean task of emerging from the pandemic to ensuring all parks throughout the city are safe and well maintained. It would help us strengthen the resilience of our natural forests, wetlands, and trails so they receive the proactive care and maintenance they need to remain healthy in our changing climate. And it would support equitable economic development and position parks as key to New York City’s recovery.
New Yorkers came out to enjoy their parks in record numbers last year. We know they will again this spring and summer as the weather warms up. With parks season just a few weeks around the corner—let’s make sure the city’s budget this year reflects the urgency of our parks and open space needs.
Peter Koo is Chair of the New York City Council Parks and Recreation Committee. Adam Ganser is Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks.