The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation
oversees more than 27,000 acres of parks, playgrounds,
beaches and other recreational areas, giving New York
the largest city park system in the country.
But the figures can be misleading. While the number
includes masterpieces such as Central Park and
Prospect Park, it also includes areas so decrepit that
Park Commissioner Adrian Benepe said they should
essentially be abandoned. Even counting those
wastelands, New York City has fewer acres of green
space per person than any other major American city.
THE ONE PERCENT PLEDGE
Advocates blame many of the parks' problems on a lack
of resources. In response, many want the city to
devote one percent of its budget - or about $500
million - to park expenses, almost twice what it
spends now. They have asked candidates to pledge that
they will work toward this goal.
The parks department licenses about 600 businesses
that pay to operate concessions, such as skating
rinks, golf courses and restaurants, on park property.
In 2003, this generated about $60 million. But instead
of being spent on parks, the money goes into the
city's general budget. Many parks advocates would like
to change this and see the money go for parks â€“
assuming, of course, that the city would not reduce
its appropriation to the parks department as a result.
VAN CORTLANDT FILTRATION PLANT
Faced with a federal court order that the city filter
some of its drinking water, Mayor Michael Bloomberg
authorized construction of a $1.3 billion filtration
plant in Van Cortlandt Park. To offset the loss of
parkland - and to mollify Bronx residents angered by
the decision - Bloomberg will spend an extra $240
million on Van Cortlandt and other Bronx parks. This
has not satisfied many parks advocates, who argue that
using parkland for anything other than its intended
use sets a dangerous precedent.
GREAT LAWN PROTESTS
For years, the Great Lawn in Central Park was the
scene of massive rallies, large concerts and other
huge gatherings. But in 1997, the city spent $18.2
million to restore the 13-acre Great Lawn and now the
city says it is too delicate to support the trampling
of hundreds of thousands of feet. The Bloomberg
administration has limited large gatherings on the
lawn to six events per year, at no more than 50,000
people at one time. And four of those would be for the
Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic,
sharply curtailing the opportunities for political
The administration argues that that's not the point â€“
protecting the lawn is. But civil liberties advocates
note the issue arose when demonstrators wanted to use
the Great Lawn for a massive protest against the
Republican convention last summer. The Bloomberg
administration denied the request, citing the need to
protect the lawn.
Parks advocates would like the roadways of Central
Park and Prospect Park to be closed to automobile
traffic 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
While he says he would like to take the one percent
pledge, Ferrer says he cannot do so, given the budget
deficits the city faces in the next several years.
The former Bronx borough president said that using the
money from concessions for parks is one of three
things that any mayor serious about parks would have
to do. (The other two are providing minimum staffing
levels at all parks and offering a completely
transparent and ongoing review of parks operations.)
Ferrer said he would use some of the money from the
fees to hire staff to supervise play after school and
"make parks a welcoming place again. Not in some of
our parks, all of our parks."
At a 1999 hearing on the filtration plant, Ferrer,
then the Bronx borough president said, "I'm here to
personally convey that the Bronx is unanimous in its
unequivocal opposition to the Croton water filtration
plant." This, though, was before the Bronx was
promised the money for parks - and Ferrer has not been
on record as being so unequivocal this year.
At the parks forum, Ferrer said he supported steps
that would have avoided the need for the plant. He
expressed concern about parkland being used for other
purposes, such as parking cars and storage. "That's
got to come to an end," he said. "Parks are for
While saying he treasured the Great Lawn, Ferrer
opposes the policy limiting gatherings on it. "Blades
of grass are replaceable. The first amendment is not,"
he has said.
Ferrer said the United for Peace and Justice, which
had sought a permit for the convention protest, had
offered to put up a bond to protect the city from
damage to the lawn.
The former Bronx borough president told the parks
forum, "I lean very heavily in favor of car-free
parks...There are alternate means to getting around the
The Manhattan borough president says that providing
funding to ensure safe, accessible and well-maintained
parks would be a top priority for her. As part of
that, she says she has signed the one percent pledge
because "it establishes something to work toward."
As borough president, Fields says, she allocated
significant parts of her capital budgets for the
rehabilitation, planning and construction of parks.
Fields says she sees parks not as a luxury but as
essential "equalizers" in a city where many people
cannot afford to leave town on weekends. As a result,
she says, she supports using money from concessions
for parks. "Until recognition of the importance of
parks is embodied in policy, it is important that they
have the benefit of their efforts toward self
support," she said in a response to a League of
Conservation Voters questionnaire. She says she would
use the money partly "to reinvest in the upkeep of the
The Manhattan borough president opposed putting the
filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park in 1999 and, at
a Bronx forum this year, said she is still opposed â€“
but, she says, the facility is probably a done deal.
"In all fairness and candor," Fields told the
audience, "unless you have a different way of
approaching [the plant], I don't think as mayor I
could stop it, as it has been started."
At the parks meeting, she called for more public
discussion anytime parkland is to be used for
something else. "This is public land and the public
should have an opportunity to discuss it, to review
it, and the relevant elected body should have an
opportunity to vote upon it," she said.
At a hearing in May, Fields spoke out strongly against
the administration plan to limit large gatherings in
Central Park. "This proposal is an erosion of a free
society," she said. "Has our city gone so far as to
say: 'Grass -- Yes. Free Speech -- No.'?"
The Manhattan borough president has said she would
continue to try to balance transportation and the use
of parks. She said this has been successful in Central
Park and that she would prefer that to an outright ban
The City Council speaker says having $500 million to
spend on parks "would be great" but he says he does
not think the city will be able to afford to this in
four or even eight years.
"We can't afford 1 percent because that's more than doubling our Parks Department's budget," Miller said in a recent debate.
Miller says that, as council speaker, he has fought
for more funding for parks and worked to restore
programs the mayor wanted to cut.
While he support exploring "such innovative options"
as earmarking concession fees, Miller has said that
dedicating the funds could require state authorization
or an amendment to the City Charter.
While he says that perhaps more could have been done
to protect the upstate watershed and so avoid the need
for the filtration plant, Miller said at a meeting in
the Bronx in May that he had voted to use the park for
The speaker said City Council has introduced
legislation to try to overturn the policy limiting
gatherings on the Great Lawn and said that he would
revoke the policy if elected mayor. While saying the
grass is important, he said groups holding protests
could post bond to insure the city would be reimbursed
for any damage to the lawn.
"As important as the Dave Matthews Band [which
appeared in a city sponsored concert on the lawn} is
to a lot of people," Miller told the parks forum, "I
don't see how it's more important than the right of
the people who wanted to protest the views that were
being espoused in Madison Square Garden during the
Miller says he would be more inclined to not allow
cars in parks than to allow them. He has called for
more studies of traffic patterns and says he expects
that those studies would indicate that closing the
parks to auto traffic would not have the dire effects
on traffic that some anticipate, although he would
keep roadways like the Central Parks transverse open
to cars. "My guess is that New Yorkers will find
another way and that life will go on and our parks
will be safer and people will be able to better enjoy
our parks," he said.
According to the Parks1 campaign, Weiner has said he
would work toward committing one percent of the budget
to parks expenses. "While the country's 50 largest
cities dedicate $88 per resident toward their parks,
New York City provides only $45," Weiner said in
response to a questionnaire from the League of
Conservation Voters. "Park funding has declined for
decades, and the parks and greenery of the city have
suffered because of it.
To address this, Weiner has said he would focus on
reducing waste and inefficiencies to increase parks
However, in a recent debate, Weiner would NOT commit to 1 percent of the budget for parks. "You don't draw line items in the budget here in the context of the campaign," he said.
In response to a questionnaire from the Parks1
campaign, Weiner said he would work toward earmarking
fees from concessions. He did not directly answer the
question when it was presented in a League of
Conservation Voters survey.
As a member of Congress, Weiner says he secured more
than $34 million in federal funding for the
revitalization of Gateway National Recreation Area in
At the Ben Franklin Democratic Reform Democratic
Club's town hall forum in the Bronx in May, Weiner was
the only Democratic challenger who unequivocally
opposed the filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park.
Decrying the mayor's top-down management style, Weiner
said, "There's no better example of that than the
...water treatment plant in a park that has now led to
the destruction of hundreds of trees and a horrible,
During his four years in office, the mayor has kept
funding for parks fairly constant at around $260
million - or, for this year, at only a bit more than
one half of one percent of the city budget. The
administration says it has tried to use partnerships
with private groups and federal and state money to
maintain and operate the parks.
Bloomberg says he advocated earmarking concession fees
during the 2001 campaign, but that this plan was
derailed by the city budget crisis. He says he has
instituted a program that allows concession fees above
a baseline amount to go to the parks department. This,
he said has result in $14 million for the department
Bloomberg's department of Environmental Protection
chose the Van Cortlandt Park site as the preferred
location for the filtration plant and Bloomberg
negotiated the deal with Bronx politician to provide
the additional funding for Bronx parks in return and
so win their support for the project.
The Bloomberg administration has aggressively sought
to limit use of the Great Lawn, with the mayor telling
protestors they can go elsewhere to express their
The administration has extended the hours that cars
cannot use the parks but has not banned auto traffic
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