New York City's neighborhood parks showed a small improvement overall this year, according to the second annual Report Card on Parks released by the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, although a quarter of the city's parks still have failing grades. Like last year, the city's worst performing parks are largely in the outer boroughs, while four of the ten top-scoring parks are in Manhattan.
To compile the report card, the group sent inspectors last summer to the each of the city's 195 neighborhood parks (whose size measures one to 20 acres) to rate parks in eight different categories, including playgrounds, passive recreational areas, athletic fields and courts, bathrooms, and drinking fountains. These features were graded for cleanliness, maintenance, safety and structural integrity. Attention was paid to whether repairs, lawn-mowing, painting, and other maintenance jobs were neatly and properly done.
The good news is that slightly more than half the parks received an "A" or a "B" up from 43 percent in 2003. In addition, areas where the parks department has focused capital investment in recent years - the playgrounds, pathways, and sitting areas - scored as well as they had the previous year.
But the other side of the coin is that nearly half of the city's parks were rated "C" or lower, and 25 percent received a "D" or an "F." Sixty-five percent of the parks that received an "F" in 2003 got the lowest grade again this year. The most problematic areas continue to be the bathrooms, drinking fountains, and athletic fields. Citywide, the average score for these features ranged from 52 to 66 percent.
New Yorkers for Parks found that the grades received by many parks depended on how recently maintenance crews had been there and how carefully they had done their jobs. The parks department uses roving crews that move from park to park because it lacks the resources to staff every park. In addition, most of the workers are participants in state and federally funded job-training programs, not parks staff skilled in plumbing, horticulture, or lawn care. "The maintenance is inconsistent," said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. "If you have a person for each park, a fixed position instead of roaming crews, you would see a marked improvement."
Sternberg Park in East Williamsburg, one of the ten lowest scorers for the second year in a row, illustrates the type of problems that led to poor report card scores. On a sunny day last spring, locals filled the benches to eat lunch, relax or watch their children play. But the garbage cans overflowed and trash lined the fences. The drinking fountain was choked with dirt, and the bathroom was locked. A bumpy ball field with large bare patches looked as if it had been neglected for years. A large capital investment is now slated for Sternberg Park, an expensive way for the city to compensate for the shortfall of funding for ongoing maintenance.
"While two years doesn't make a trend, if you look at the last two years of our report card, about 50 percent of the parks have received a 'C' or lower," said DiPalermo. "New York is not a 'C' city in the arts, in finance, in law. But in parks, we seem to be accepting that we are a 'C' city. And I think we fail our communities when we say a 'C' is acceptable."
Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.