“While these budget cuts will impact every park and every New Yorker across the city, there’s no secret who will be most impacted: New Yorkers who don’t have resources and who don’t have money to escape the summer heat. Families that depend on parks.”

Jeanmarie Evelly

The lawn at Brooklyn’s Sunset Park in August 2020.

Remember our trash-strewn parks in 2020? Well, New Yorkers can expect part deux this summer, in a park near you.

Lost in the hectic news cycle this fall is the fact that NYC Parks was hit with a 5 percent budget cut and hiring freeze which will result in the loss of hundreds of jobs and the elimination of key programs.

More devastating is that in addition to this 5 percent cut, the Parks Department has lost 1,500 front line positions and nearly 50 percent of its cleaning workforce as a result of the elimination of a program housed in a separate agency, the Human Resource Administration (HRA). The HRA for 30 years has operated the Parks Opportunity Program, which provided thousands of essential frontline maintenance workers annually for the Parks Department. 

The result of these two massive cuts are clear and will be palpable very soon: Parks that were cleaned five times a week will be cleaned one to two times a week. The 17,000 trash cans that parks workers emptied will not be emptied when they need it. Lawns will go unmowed. The agency will be unable to prepare and maintain the city’s 600 softball and baseball diamonds. The list goes on.

Sadly, this looks to be just the beginning of the dismantling of our parks system by an administration that ironically has repeatedly committed to investing more in our city’s parks.  New Yorkers for Parks and the Play Fair Coalition’s call for 1 percent for Parks was a campaign rallying cry for Mayor Eric Adams—and a good one given what parks mean for New Yorkers, our climate and our quality of life.

On the table now is a second cut of 5 percent to the Parks Department, while NYPD, Sanitation, and FDNY are all exempt. That would be an additional $25 million hit to the agency.

What can New Yorkers expect to experience? The Parks Department would lose thousands more workers. The agency would be delayed in opening pools, drinking fountains and spray features, and it would be unable to maintain the 15 miles of beaches that attract millions of residents. These parts of our city are also critical cooling tools for all New Yorkers and are essential for the many residents that don’t have access to air conditioning. Bathrooms, if open, will be virtually unusable.

The agency also annually picks up more than 130,000 used hypodermic needles in our parks. With these cuts, chances are it’ll be unsuspecting children doing much of that work.

While these budget cuts will impact every park and every New Yorker across the city, there’s no secret who will be most impacted: New Yorkers who don’t have resources and who don’t have money to escape the summer heat. Families that depend on parks. 

Just three years ago, we saw similar cuts to our Parks Department. By the agency’s own metrics, conditions in our city’s parks deteriorated within months to the worst in 20 years. There was citywide outrage. The new mayor and City Council recognized the importance of these essential spaces and there was real hope for a change in policy. But now we’re back to square one.

New Yorkers shouldn’t stand for this. In a city that spends more on police overtime than it does on our entire city park budget, residents should be apoplectic. New York City trails other competitive cities in investment in parks per capita and as a percentage of their overall budgets. We used to spend well over 1 percent of the city budget to operate and maintain these treasured spaces. But over the last 50 years, the parks department has seen its budget grow at a slower pace than the city’s budget and slower than all other major city agencies. It’s structural disinvestment.

Currently at just .6 percent, the city is dodging its responsibilities, while thousands of community volunteers pick up trash in their neighborhood parks to try to ensure these spaces are safe and clean for their families.

Ignoring the city’s parks touches on many issues and is catching up with our elected leaders. Continuous cuts and lack of parks maintenance has resulted in ballooning capital repair costs that the city has no plan to resolve. There is greater inequity in access to well-maintained parks, exacerbated by the city’s defunding of green spaces.

At a time when our parks should be well maintained and serve as climate mitigators, they are repeatedly flooded during storm events due poorly maintained infrastructure. And from a basic dollars and cents tax revenue perspective, the city continues to see more residents leave, and fewer people move in. Defunding our 30,000 acres of parks isn’t a good look. It’s tough to sell a city to people when 14 percent of it looks like a trash can.

There is a huge opportunity for this administration: A visionary path that addresses equity, the environment, public health, the economy, and quality of life for every single New Yorker.  Everybody loves parks. Investing in their maintenance is a rounding error for a city with a $100 billion budget. Cutting their funding does next to nothing for the city’s bottom line.

We deserve better.

Adam Ganser is the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, an organization that has protected and promoted open space across the city for over 100 years.