If you doubt that New Yorkers love their parks, consider this past Saturday. On what was the nicest day of the spring so far, more than 300 park advocates chose to sit inside NYU classrooms learning how to make their parks better places. Oh, and did we say they were volunteers?
They were an amazing slice of New York, with seemingly every segment of our diverse city, including all five boroughs, represented. The event was sponsored by Partnership for Parks, a program of the City Parks Foundation. P4P serves as the essential connective tissue between an understaffed Department of Parks and Recreation and a public that craves parks and is willing to labor to improve them.
An army of volunteers keep city parks in shape
These volunteers are a determined and practical group. They clean, plant and paint their neighborhood parks, all the while knowing that there is no shortage of money from wealthy donors to lavish these services, and far more, on New York City’s premiere parks.
But after decades of a growing divide in the city’s park system that picture may be changing. City government seems to recognize the problem; Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver speaks openly of the need for equity in a system that numbers more than 1,700 parks, 1,000 playgrounds and covers 29,000 acres.
In his talk to the volunteers, Silver cited some shocking statistics; 215 city parks had received less than $250,000 in improvements over the last 20 years. That figure is especially disturbing when you realize how little $250,000 gets you in park improvements: new playground equipment, sprinklers, new surfacing and benches can cost several million dollars.
To overhaul all 215 parks would cost $1 billion, something not possible without a dramatic infusion of money. As a first step, however, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Silver last October announced that 35 of these parks would divide $130 million for renovations. And because the work isn’t expected to be completed until December 2017 Silver said Saturday that the department carry out some smaller improvement more quickly.
Parks get a smaller share of budget
Clearly this should be the start of bigger changes. The fact is, when it comes to parks, New York City aims to be world class, but lags behind when it comes to investing in our parks. As someone who has volunteered in parks for more than two decades, it’s clear the fault is not with the Department of Parks and Recreation. The blame goes to our elected officials and ultimately us – the people who elect them.
New York City spends less per person than many other American cities. What’s more park expenditures have declined as a New York City government priority through the decades. Our parks get 0.56 percent of the city’s budget, less than half the figure of 50 years ago, Heather Lubov, City Park Foundation executive director, told the assembled park volunteers Saturday.
In recent years, many park advocates and some elected officials have called for a more spending to close the gaps between parks in wealthy neighborhoods and the rest of the city. It’s been a long time coming. The last concerted effort to increase park spending was in a 2001, a campaign to increase city spending on parks to one percent of New York’s budget. The effort seemed to be gaining ground until September 11, when the city’s priorities suddenly changed.
Park spending in Mayor de Blasio recently proposed city budget would increase 3.6 percent, the same amount as the overall spending plan. The Gotham Gazette reported, however, that the budget would cut the number of the department’s park enforcement patrol officers, gardeners, urban park rangers, and maintenance workers. This is clearly a first draft and subject to change before the city’s overall budget for the coming year is approved. We will keep you posted on park spending and how you can have your say.