Parks
Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Parks
Sites For Beginners

The Topic
"Parks" refers to those areas set aside by the city, state, or federal government for public access and protection of natural resources. Issues relate to the creation, preservation, restoration, maintenance, and best use of these spaces.
The Context
With more than 27,000 acres of parks, playgrounds, beaches and other recreational areas, New York City has the largest city park system in the U.S. (Add to that a state park in every borough, the Gateway National Recreation Area and four botanical gardens.) Yet the city has fewer acres of green space per person than any other major American city, and many neighborhoods lack parks. Community gardens on vacant city lots -- there are more than 750 -- are often the only green oases in low-income, minority communities.
The Reporter
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.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Parks.

by Anne Schwartz

Budget cuts and the parks

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent proposal to patch the enormous hole in the city's budget includes the inevitable budget cuts, as well as tax increases and new revenue sources like bridge tolls. The cuts will squeeze all city agencies, parks included. But unlike past eras of austerity, the pain seems to be distributed more evenly, an indication that this administration sees parks as an important factor in the city's quality of life. "Our sense of it is that the parks department has been treated like other agencies," Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said, "where in the past, the parks department was cut disproportionately, treated as if it were a non-vital service."

These new budget cuts, however, fall on a department whose funding has already been reduced to a minimum. According to the Independent Budget Office, money for maintaining and operating the parks and providing recreation programs was never fully restored from the cutbacks of the previous recession in the early 1990's. The parks department's share of the city budget has also declined, from .65 percent in 1991 to .52 percent in 2001. (It was .82 percent as recently as 1986.) "Parks have been cut in the good and bad times, drastically over the last 30 years," said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, a parks advocacy group. "We would hope that City Hall and the mayor would consider exempting further cuts from parks because of this history."

HOW WOULD PARKS BE AFFECTED?

The mayor's proposed adjustments to the parks budget would require combined cuts and new revenues of $8.7 million for this fiscal year and $18.6 million for the next. The department would lose 157 fulltime workers through attrition and reduce the number of street trees pruned by a third this year and by half next. There would also be an increase in the fees charged for the use of ball fields, tennis courts, recreation centers, and parking at Yankee and Shea stadiums. Except for the yearly recreation center fees, which mostly go back to the centers to cover their expenses, the rest of the new revenue would go to the city's general fund and be used as an offset to cuts.

Commissioner Benepe said there will be some impacts - water fountains and sprinklers might take longer to get turned on in the summer because of fewer plumbers, supervisors will be managing more people, and playgrounds that formerly had attendants in the summer won't have them. But, he said, "we should be able to maintain the overall quality of parks; people should not see a diminution of safety and cleanliness."

The funding reductions will further erode a fulltime staff that has declined steeply over the last 30 years. The number of fulltime employees has dropped from more than 6,000 in 1970 to about 2,000 in 2001. This labor pool has been replaced by seasonal workers, as well as by participants in welfare-to-work programs, who are paid by the Department of Human Resources, using federal and state money. The welfare workers fill the parks department's need for large numbers of people to do unskilled work, like raking, cleaning, and painting. "The welfare-to-work program is at the core of how we deliver se rvices," Commissioner Benepe said. The parks department now has 4,000 welfare-to-work participants, although in recent years the number has dropped at times to around 2,000. The department trains the workers and helps place them in jobs outside the department.

What the parks department has not been able to replace with temporary and seasonal staff are the skilled workers needed to tend trees and plantings and to keep plumbing in working order. Decades of staffing cuts have left the department with very few gardeners, tree pruners, and plumbers. According to the IBO report, by 2001, the department had only 12 fulltime gardeners for the entire city, down from 30 in 1991. (Central Park alone, which is funded almost entirely through private donations, has 73 gardeners.) During that time, the number of tree pruners declined from 99 to 55, and the number of plumbers from 30 to 18. The staff reduction slated for this year and next would further deplete the department's skilled staff.

THE SPECTER OF THE 1970s

In presenting his budget plan, Mayor Bloomberg stressed that the situation is not as bleak as the 1970s, when the city drastically cut services, stopped maintaining its infrastructure, and all but abandoned the parks. "This city is not going to cut its expenses below where the quality of life would start to deteriorate," he said.

Still, people are worried. "We're hearing from community groups that they're fearful that parks are going to return to the 70s when people were afraid to walk through dilapidated parks," said Christian DiPalermo. "We do think the commissioner is doing everything to avoid that in the way he manages the parks."

The parks are also in a different position than they were in the 1970s. Having come back from the abyss, in part because of partnerships with private groups like the Central Park Conservancy, the parks now have a vocal and committed constituency. The private sector contributes about $50 million a year for the maintenance and restoration of parks and facilities, and for programs, although the benefits have flowed mostly to parks in affluent areas. A network of 60,000 volunteers, with a core group of 5,000 to 10,000 people who work regularly, provides about $10 million in labor each year.

Although Commissioner Benepe is optimistic that donors will rise to the challenge and increase their support, the city can't rely on private funding alone. If the State Legislature and City Council don't approve the mayor's plans for increasing revenues, there could be deeper service cuts. Parks need regular maintenance, especially those that are heavily used. There is not much room left in the parks budget to cut before the downward spiral of the 1970's begins again.


Sites For Beginners:

  • New Yorkers for Parks -- Informative new site from a coalition of greening, recreation, civic, and economic development groups working for higher funding and an equitable park and recreation system. There are profiles of parks - acreage, staffing, conditions, use - in every city council district, as well as policy papers and advocacy projects.
  • Neighborhood Open Space Coalition's Treebranch Network -- Among the areas covered by this longtime advocate for New York City open space are greenways, community gardens, parks, the waterfront, and Gateway National Park. Subscribe here free to the electronic version of Urban Outdoors Bulletin, an excellent source of news about parks and related issues.
  • NYC Department of Parks and Recreation -- It's easy to look up any park location, facility, program, or event at this site. You can also take a "virtual tour" (actually, more words than pictures) of several important parks in each borough, or design your own park by playing the NYC planner game. The "Daily Plant," circulated within the department, offers an inside look at park programs and events. Various park permits and applications, including a request for a street tree, can be printed and submitted through the site.
  • OASIS -- An interactive site that lets you view NYC land use maps or aerial photos by borough, neighborhood, community board, or zip code, then zoom in on details like open space or buildings and obtain zoning and ownership information. It has been recently enhanced with new layers of information, including historic houses and religious property, as well as more detail about parks and community gardens, and the most recent property and census data.
  • Partnership for Parks -- A joint initiative of the City Parks Foundation and the NYC parks department. Under "What We Do," there is information about the Bronx River and other projects, citywide volunteer events, small grants programs, and many other efforts that help communities support and build constituencies for their parks.
  • Trust for Public Land -- This national open space group has increased its focus on urban areas in recent years. It has helped save community gardens and negotiated the purchase of several new state parks in the city recently. The site provides frequently updated information on the trust's projects and open space issues nationwide. Look under "Research Room" for urban land conservation and federal and state funding.
  • Urban Parks online -- An electronic toolbox for people working on city parks issues, from the Urban Parks Institute (part of the Project for Public Spaces, a NYC non-profit that aims to build community life through public spaces). The site brings together ideas from all over for creating, funding, and maintaining urban parks, and highlights park places and park news from around the country.


Other Recommendations:

  • Americans for Our Heritage and Recreation -- AHR is dedicated to revitalizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund and Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program, sources of federal funding for urban parks and recreation. The site explains how to get funding for specific projects, and lists all the projects, by state and by county, that have received money from the fund.
  • Brooklyn Botanic Garden -- Visiting this site is the next best thing to visiting the garden: Exhaustive but well organized, it offers virtual tours and everything you would ever want to know about the garden, as well as gardening information and access to the resource center and library.
  • Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation -- The organization that is creating the Brooklyn Bridge Park posts the park's master plan, as well as an overview of the planning process and a trove of background material.
  • Brooklyn Bridge Park Coalition -- More information from a coalition of community groups that is working to create a Brooklyn waterfront park. The list of links is an excellent resource.
  • Car-Free Central Park Campaign -- This site for a campaign by the pedestrian and bicyclist advocate Transportation Alternatives lays out arguments for banning cars from Central Park's loop drive and provides the latest news on the issue.
  • Central Park Conservancy -- The official web site of Central Park, with news, events, tours, programs, and more.
  • Green Guerillas -- An organizer of grassroots activism to protect community gardens, this group also offers generous hands-on help: plants, supplies, advice, and volunteers.
  • GreenThumb -- New York City's GreenThumb program has been supporting community gardens for more than 20 years with information, technical assistance, materials, and funding. Check the site for grants, events, information, and links to gardening organization and individual community garden web sites.
  • More Gardens! Coalition -- An organizer of efforts to save community gardens, including protests, pageants, and political action. Posted here is information on the community garden settlement and how specific gardens are affected.
  • New York City Audubon -- Focuses on the city's wilder open spaces: Look here for wetlands and wildlife habitat protection, volunteering, and, of course, birding.
  • New York City Environmental Justice Alliance -- A network of grassroots groups working for healthier environments in low-income areas and in communities of color. Its Open Space Equity Campaign helps community-based groups with land use planning, organizing and advocacy to green their neighborhoods.
  • New York Restoration Project -- A lively site from Bette Midler's group, which has been restoring parks in upper Manhattan and has helped save community gardens.
  • Prospect Park Alliance -- Park visitors can look here for park history, destinations, and recreation information.
  • Take a walk, New York -- Sign up here for free one-hour guided walks in some of the city's great and far-flung parks and greenways, sponsored by the New York City Department of Health and the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition.
  • Waterfront Park Coalition -- A project of the New York Conservation Education Fund, the coalition has created an inventory of waterfront park opportunities, assists local groups, and develops funding strategies.

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