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

STATE FUNDING FOR CITY PARKS

New York City has the largest municipal park system in the country -- some 28,000 acres, including parks and playgrounds, as well as tennis courts, ballfields, beaches, pools, recreation centers, and natural areas. A city agency, the Department of Parks and Recreation, runs this green realm. The department even has jurisdiction over the stadiums and the botanical gardens, although it doesn't operate them. It would seem that the state has little to do with parks in the city.

But every borough has at least one state park or preserve, and the state has been adding to its city holdings in recent years. City funding for parks has shrunk over the last few decades; New York City spends just half a percent of its budget on parks, less per capita than most major cities in the country. At the same time, the state has taken on an increasingly important role in protecting natural areas and creating new parkland in the city. So how much money the state spends on open space and parks -- and where it chooses to spend it -- has a significant impact on the green space and recreation available to city residents.

Money for state purchases of open space, both for the city and upstate, has come mostly from two sources. The 1996 Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act included about $150 million for open space and parks. That money has all been spent. The other source is the Environmental Protection Fund, a dedicated trust set up in 1993 that receives revenue from the state real estate transfer tax and is supposed to be spent only on environmental projects, including land acquisition and parks. The state has been appropriating about $125 million from the fund every year.

The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance analyzed how Bond Act and Environmental Protection Fund money was spent from 1996 to 2000 for all environmental programs, including open space. New York City received 23 percent of the funds available, even though the city has 40 percent of the state's population and contributes 44 percent of the revenue statewide from the real estate transfer tax.

ON-THE-GROUND RESULTS

Although the city receives a disproportionately small share of the state's open space money, state funding has been crucial in protecting some of the few remaining natural areas in the city as well as in acquiring land and creating parks along the waterfront. In some cases, the acquisitions have been added to the state's park system, operated by the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, or become nature preserves under the aegis of the Department of Environmental Conservation. The ambitious new Hudson River and Brooklyn Bridge parks are being built by a trust or development corporation run jointly by the state and city. The city has also benefited from a smaller matching grants program in which nonprofits or municipalities apply for grants for land acquisition, park improvement and renovation, wetlands restoration and other park-related projects.

The lion's share of state money for New York City parks has gone to the two large waterfront parks now being developed. The state has committed half of the $300 million cost of building the Hudson River Park, with annual appropriations of around $15 million to $20 million. Governor Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently signed a memorandum of understanding in which the state pledged $85 million and the city $65 million toward the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge Park. To avoid burdening the state and city with future maintenance costs, both parks include commercial developments -- 30 percent in the Hudson River Park, no more than 20 percent in the Brooklyn Bridge Park -- that are expected to cover their upkeep.

The state has also made smaller but significant land purchases. In late 1999, the state began the process of buying scenic Mount Loretto on Staten Island from the Archdiocese of New York for $25 million. One of the last remaining natural areas in the city, with woods, meadows, wetlands, and shore, it is now a state nature preserve. In August 2000, the state announced the purchase of two city blocks at the former Eastern District Terminal along the waterfront in Williamsburg. The land is to become a state park in a community that has had very little access to the water or open space. The purchase agreement (which, like Mt. Loretto and other acquisitions, was brokered by the Trust for Public Land), involves a partnership with New York University. The school is to develop and maintain athletic fields and a waterfront esplanade. The fields will be available to the community when not in use by the university. This July, the state acquired a tiny but key piece of land within Soundview Park along the Bronx River, where efforts are under way to create a greenway corridor.

SHORTCHANGING THE INNER CITY

State funding over the last decade will soon make a dramatic improvement in the lives of city residents who live near the new waterfront projects. But it has had far less impact on low-income minority neighborhoods -- the areas with the lowest ratios of open space per resident.

The state Open Space Plan, which guides the state's land purchases, has been criticized for neglecting the needs of urban areas. In the plan's most recent revision, urban open space advocates have made headway in increasing the priority of under-served areas, but the recommendations have yet to be realized.

There are several reasons for insufficient funding of New York City's open space needs. According to Dave Lutz, director of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, a New York city non-profit, there is a consensus in Albany, in cluding among New York City lawmakers, for protecting natural areas in the Adirondacks and the wilder areas of the state. But there is no such agreement about the importance of making green space available to city residents. "The upstate people need to begin to understand the needs of the people who live in New York City," said Lutz.

Another reason, according to John Stouffer, legislative director of the Atlantic chapter of the Sierra Club, is that the pot of money for all of the state's needs is too small. "In New York we are misers when it comes to spending on open space protection and parks," he said. Stouffer noted that New York state ranks dead last of all 50 states in total environmental spending, as a percentage of the state budget and per capita, according to U.S. Census data analyzed by the Institute for Southern Studies. New Jersey, a state roughly one-seventh the size of New York with less than half its population, provided $115 million this year for open space programs, including urban parks. New York plans to spend about $40 million.

Many environmental groups credit Governor Pataki with putting a priority on open space acquisition, and hundreds of thousands of acres have been protected during his years in office. Yet he has been very conservative fiscally, and has not always matched his rhetoric with funding.

Last year, the governor refused to approve the annual appropriation from the Environmental Protection Fund (even though there was plenty of money in the fund) because of a disagreement with the legislature about how to spend that money. In this year's budget (2002-2003), the governor and legislature agreed to appropriate $125 million per year for two years (which is less than the $135 million appropriated in 2000 and the $150 million originally proposed for last year). But Governor Pataki also orchestrated an agreement to "lend" $235 million that had accumulated in the environmental fund to the general fund to help balance the state's budget. That leaves the environmental fund with just over $100 million in cash to cover this year's $250 million in appropriations. Lawmakers acted on the assumption that the money would come in by the time the state needed it and promised to repay the "loan" if the fund ran short. However, there are no guarantees or deadline for repayment.

It is not at all clear how New York City will meet the needs of its under-served neighborhoods for open space and recreation, or even the cost of maintaining its existing parks equitably in all parts of the city. The state and the city are facing enormous revenue shortfalls. Creative legislative solutions on the state level are unlikely given the dysfunctional system in Albany.

A number of people involved in park and environmental issues have expressed the view that -- given he low priority of parks in the city budget and the limit on money available from the state -- funding will have to come from some sort of new city tax. The new tax would be dedicated solely to the purchase and upkeep of parks.

All over the country, voters have been approving such proposals, including sales and property tax surcharges. According to Christopher Wells, director of the conservation finance program for the Trust for Public Land's Mid-Atlantic region, 90 percent of such ballot proposals have passed. A number of New York State counties and several municipalities have dedicated property tax surcharges to parks or raised money specifically for parks through bond issues. Here again, however, Albany has a role. If New York City were to propose a tax dedicated to the support of parks, the state would have to approve it.


Sites For Beginners:

  • 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 parks, community gardens, or vacant lots and obtain zoning and ownership information. There are some inaccuracies, but users can help update the information.
  • 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 strengthening the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, an important source of funding for urban parks and recreation. The site also has links to the House and Senate web sites, and a listing of all the projects, by state and by county, that have received money from the fund.
  • Brooklyn Alliance of Neighborhood Gardens -- Up to date information on community garden issues.
  • 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 -- This site has information on efforts to protect community gardens and a list of NYC gardens with links.
  • 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. Download a draft of its Green Cities proposal for a state urban environmental investment program.
  • 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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