By Len Maniace
Most New Yorkers need only take a walk in the park to find an example of Mayor de Blasio’s “Tale of Two Cities.” Our high-profile parks – Central Park, Madison Square Park and High Line Park to name a few – are under the extraordinary care of a large and well-trained army of gardeners. In contrast, too many of our less-blessed parks look like dustbowls come summer.
This no knock on our Parks Department. We know the reason: the well-tended parks are bankrolled by their affluent residential and business neighbors. For instance, the Central Park Conservancy received a $100 million donation in 2012 from a hedge-fund magnate who lives across Fifth Avenue.
Meanwhile the rest of our parks scrimp by with much less support from city government. As a result, one of the city’s largest and most significant parks – it was the home to two World Fairs and the first home to the Unitedd Nations – faces dismemberment. Conditions had gotten so bad at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park that in 2013 some city officials viewed construction of a $300 million soccer stadium, a huge shopping mall and the expansion of the National Tennis Center as opportunities to improve the park.
So what’s to be done? The parks need more money – private and public. State Sen. Daniel Squadron of Brooklyn has proposed a share the wealth plan, requiring well-endowed conservancies to direct 20 percent of their income toward parks without similar financing. That idea was rejected by the affluent conservancies who called the plan a violation of donors’ intent to assist specific parks, and they charged it would reduce future donations.
In the aftermath of Squadon’s proposal, several nonprofit groups are considering a plan for a citywide park group to take on role as champion for the rest of the parks with its own high-profile fund-raising mission. Models for such an effort already exist in New York City. The City Parks Foundation successfully raises funds for sports, arts education and music programs in city parks, as well as for building community involvement in them.
This idea is not without risk, however. Once private funds come rolling in, city revenues that would have gone to parks could be shifted to other uses. That would leave our parks in essentially the same shape – but more beholden to wealthy and powerful interests providing the donations.
Thus the need for more public money, a commitment by the city to provide sufficient park funding from its annual budget. That’s not happening now. In recent years city funding amounted to no more than 0.5 percent of the city budget, down from 0.8 during the 1980s. That’s far less than other major cities, according to the Trust for Public Lands.
Some advocates say it’s time to revive the “One Percent for Parks” campaign, which called for one percent of the city budget to go to parks. The push was gaining ground in 2001 until Sept. 11 when many similar concerns were suddenly wiped from agenda.
to be sure the need will only increase. With a growing population living in a denser city, New York will need more and better parks. And with the city facing rising sea levels, our parks – especially those along the water – will do double duty, serving as places to play and places that defend the city. It’s time to make our parks places all New Yorkers – now and in the future – can be proud of.
Just so you know: I am one of the advocates in favor of more private and public money going to New York City parks, and spoke in support of both at a City Council budget hearing March 27.