Betsy Head Park in Brownsville (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
Four candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to become New York City’s next mayor appeared at a virtual forum Monday night to share their visions for the future of the city’s parks and open spaces. The coronavirus pandemic has both added attention to the importance of the city’s parks and had a negative impact on its green spaces, which have a history of under-investment, neglect, and inequitable distribution across the five boroughs. New Yorkers’ increased demand for open space during covid highlighted those disparities, exacerbated by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to slash the Parks Department budget by $84 million last June, the second-largest cut of any other city agency.
The next mayor, due to take office in January, will play a critical role in shaping the future of the city’s parks and open spaces. Most leading Democratic mayoral hopefuls, including Scott Stringer and Maya Wiley, have outlined detailed parks platforms, but others including Eric Adams and Andrew Yang have yet to release policy on the future of the city’s parks. Neither Stringer nor Adams nor Yang were in attendance Monday night.
The mayoral forum, “A New Vision for Parks & Open Space,” was co-hosted by New Yorkers for Parks and the Play Fair Coalition, a group that includes more than 300 parks advocates across the city. NY1 political anchor and reporter Juan Manuel Benítez moderated the discussion, presented by New York Law School. Much of the forum’s discussion centered around New Yorkers for Parks’ Five Point Plan for Park Equity, which was released a month ahead of the forum and outlines what the parks system needs from the city’s next mayor, according to the group. The plan broadly calls for increased funding for the city’s parks, green space equity in historically underserved communities, cross-agency coordination and comprehensive planning, capital process reform, and meaningful support for not-for-profit partners and volunteer groups.
Participating candidates included Art Chang, a former managing director at JPMorgan Chase who has had a wide variety of civic roles, former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan, former city sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, and former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire.
“Our next mayor must treat parks as critical infrastructure. It was encouraging to hear the candidates who participated in our forum come out strongly in support of a more robust and equitable parks and open space system in New York,” said Adam Ganser, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, in a post-forum statement to Gotham Gazette. “We heard unanimous agreement for significantly increasing parks funding to at least 1 percent of the City budget; improving park access and creating new parks in underserved communities; and instituting a Director of the Public Realm to oversee a comprehensive, citywide strategy. As we near the June primary, we hope to see all the candidates go on record with a similar commitment to reverse NYC’s decades of underinvestment in its parks and open spaces.”
In his opening remarks, the dean and president of New York Law School, Anthony Crowell, emphasized the critical role the city’s parks system played in people’s lives during this year of isolation and shutdowns brought on by COVID-19. “Last year has shown parks have been both a place for relief as well as a crucial part of our city's public health, environmental, and economic infrastructure.” Crowell said. “Investing in our parks as infrastructure must be a part of this city's recovery and the future. We must do so in a way that addresses the systemic inequities in park access that have been decades in the making.”
Asked what they would do within their first 100 days as mayor to help the city achieve a more robust and equitable park system, candidates broadly agreed to expand greenspace in the city.
Chang honed in on the unequal access to open greenery in the city, saying, “The first thing I would do during my first 100 days is to start a comprehensive open space planning project that encompasses all five boroughs,” which would examine the distribution of park space across the city and be conducted “bottom up — engaging with communities and non-profits, like New Yorkers for Parks and Fair Play Coalition.”
Donovan spotlighted his signature “15-minute neighborhood” plan, which would remake New York such that all residents live within walking distance of greenspace, in addition to transportation, health care, good schools, and more. “In fact, I would go to 10 minutes as the standard within your front door on parks because they're so important,” said Donovan. He went to on say, “I would create an Office of the public Realm at City H to coordinate all of the work. We know the capital process is broken. We know that it is far too hard to get parks built.” Donovan concluded by saying that he would expand the Parks Department budget from half of 1% to at least 1%, before saying he would leverage his connections with the Biden-Harris administration to secure “the capital that we need.”
Garcia emphasized how the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need for additional green space in the city. “It was essential before; it is more essential now,” she said. “I have committed to 150 million square feet of green infrastructure,” said Garcia, who pledged to replace 100 blacktop schoolyards with brand-new green spaces, green all school roofs, and expressed support for Green New Deal for NYCHA, as well as Renewable Rikers, which would convert Rikers into a renewable energy zone.
Garcia cited her extensive experience in city government, adding, “I understand capital budgeting. I've done $8 billion worth of capital budget work in my time in city government,” before saying she would ensure “that we have Open Streets, that we are using those to create active areas in the city,” at least while her proposed green policies are going into effect.
Candidates cited their professional backgrounds and experience when asked what set them apart from other mayoral hopefuls in the race.
“I'm trained as an architect and planner,” said Donovan, who went on to stress, “I've been a leader in innovative ways to create green space.” Donovan cited Via Verde, an eco-friendly affordable housing development in the Bronx he helped create while working as the city’s housing commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and where he launched his mayoral campaign, as well as Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which he spearheaded during his tenure in the Obama administration, and his work with Rebuild By Design “to make our waterfront not just more accessible and to create more parks, but to do it in a way that really accounted for climate change.”
Garcia called for expanding the Parks Department budget to 1% of the city’s $90-plus billion budget, which she said would ensure that parks are fully staffed with workers, as well as outfitted with park rangers and patrol officers, and that GreenThumb gardens are supported. “You can't just build it, you also have to manage it,” said Garcia, citing her 14 years of experience in city government at the Department of Environmental Protection and Sanitation Department, and in other roles.
Citing his architectural and design background, Chang said, “I'm the only one who's actually built waterfront parks, who's built community parks, and who's actually thought about coastal resiliency, to adapt to climate change and the relationship that has the softening the waterfront, and allowing for waterfront parks to exist, which I think should be expanded greatly throughout the city.”
McGuire then joined the forum and cited his “leadership role” with the Hudson River Parkway, where he said he helped implement artist David Hammons’ public art installation piece “Day’s End,” for which construction is well underway.
McGuire half-joked about not having an architecture degree, and made the argument that he doesn’t need one in order to solve the city’s equity problems when it comes to green space. “We don't need to create new [parks],” he said. “We need to fix the ones that we have, especially in communities that don't have parks, that don't have open spaces.”
Benítez prompted candidates to formally pledge to commit 1% of the city’s budget to parks, and all four agreed.
“I want to invite all the viewers tonight to join me when I announce that I will support New York City parks with 1% tomorrow at the basketball courts at Owl’s Head Park because that is an area that actually also desperately needs a new park,” said Garcia, referring to Bay Ridge, where Owl’s Head is located and where Garcia has pledged to build a new park, among other underserved communities, particularly parts of the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. “I believe that if you build it, you've got to take care of it. I understand what it means to take care of capital infrastructure over the long haul,” said Garcia.
Chang promised to go further, saying, “Absolutely. I'm not sure that 1% is enough, though, because, as we know, the range in the world for park budget is 1% to 2%, and so 1% is just at the very bottom of that range.” Chang went on to decry the city’s “very poorly coordinated capital process.” To maximize the Parks Department budget, Chang said, “We need to be able to bring cross-coordination between the different agencies who are responsible for parks.” He added that he’d like to see “1% of this capital budget for the parks also being spent on arts in the parks.”
At this point, Garcia jumped in to clarify that the budget to which she had been referring to in her response was specifically regarding the city’s expense budget. “There already is a percent for arts in all of the capital budget that is already required by the City Charter,” she said.
Donovan made the argument that he is the best candidate to acquire and utilize all available federal resources and other means citing federal conservation climate funds as examples.
“We should make sure that we're doing everything, not just directly through the budget, but through other ways to harness the power of parks in people's lives, to bring the private sector to the table to do this in an equitable way, where we're sharing the resources we can raise through value capture, and through friends and conservancies across the city and building partnerships that will provide technical assistance to many communities that don't currently have those groups and need to build them,” Donovan concluded.
“In the firm in which I've transitioned, we manage $4 trillion a day,” said McGuire, referring to Citi. “I’ve been held accountable for 13 years, which is the longest any person in that job in the history of the corporate world,” he said of his position leading the company’s global investment portfolio.
Candidates unanimously agreed to expand the number of park rangers and parks enforcement patrol officers in the city’s parks, though they specified different number targets, while pointing out other parks-related issues, as well.
“We need to at least double the number of parks rangers that we have,” said Chang, who pointed out that parks rules and regulations can’t be properly enforced without adequate staffing. He also suggested making better use of the city’s 311 system. “The park rangers — even doubling that is not going to be sufficient. So providing people with the real way to actually complain, to talk about things, and offer suggestions in a real customer service type of response is going to be critical to actually making this work,” Chang said.
Donovan also agreed that the number of positions should be doubled, at least. He used his response time to spotlight his Youth Horticulture Corps plan, a smaller component of his larger jobs plan, which guarantees the city will connect every high school student to at least one paid job or internship opportunity by 2026. “We have to be training and developing the next generation of leaders on parks, those who will work in our parks, those who will value our parks,” he said.
McGuire emphasized utilizing the city’s parks to cultivate the arts. “Let's commission five artists by borough to create different outdoor spaces and experiences for the parks. Let's make sure that we can create art fairs for our children in each one of the parks during the course of the weekend and during the course of the summer.” He also called for using parks to host summer camps for children.
Garcia stressed infrastructure upkeep in her response. “We also do need to ensure that we are investing in the capital infrastructure for parks and increasing. I think it's a little bit shy of $5 billion over the next four years in city parks. That needs to go up by a significant amount,” she said. She also pointed out that it was important parks projects are completed “in a timely fashion,” citing their track record of delayed delivery, “which costs time and costs money.”
Asked how they would allocate appropriate funding for community gardens and how that funding would be assessed through the lens of structural racism, Donovan reiterated his involvement on Via Verde, which grew community gardens on the roofs. He also flexed his connections to the Biden-Harris administration again, saying, “I’m the only one, really, in a position to be able to work closely with them to find new models like that.” He restated his earlier suggestion to utilize different federal funds and city partnerships “to build a more equitable financing system outside government funding directly.” Lastly, he highlighted his “15-minute neighborhood” proposal, which he argued would deliver funding and resources equitably across the city, especially for historically marginalized communities.
McGuire and Garcia didn’t directly say how they would allocate funding, but they both emphasized equity in their responses.
“We need to make certain that as we distribute the funds that it’s done equitably, and so that it has a conscious design in mind,” McGuire said vaguely. Benítez pressed him to address the issue of community gardens in his response, to which he said, “I would especially invest in community gardens in the lower-income neighborhoods where we have not invested.”
“I have a long relationship with the community gardens and they have been my partners on many fronts, particularly as master composter sites,” said Garcia, who went on to discuss the soil quality of the gardens. “We need to ensure that in every neighborhood, people have open space. And when I'm mayor, I'll ensure that we are looking at that lens of where's the money going, so that we can support and protect our community gardens.”
“The budget has grown by $18 billion,” said Chang, referring to the city’s roughly $92 billion budget and its growth under Mayor de Blasio, adding that “there is at least $10 billion of wasted overhead and administrative costs and duplicate services that can be cut down. Some of that money can be transitioned to support the neighborhood gardens.” Chang also suggested using the city’s first lien position to take over properties with property tax delinquencies and then convert them into community gardens.
Candidates were asked how they would utilize NYCHA’s available inventory of green space not suitable to build additional housing and create sustainable parks, gardens, and flood protections.
Garcia, McGuire, and Chang generally agreed that the fenced-in nature of much of NYCHA’s green space was a detriment to the housing authority’s residents, as well as the community at large.
“I would integrate NYCHA into its community and use its green space,” said Garcia. “There are opportunities to use that green space like they are doing at Red Hook; they're creating lily pads, which is actually to protect the structures from flooding using landscaping.” Garcia also pointed out that seniors residents at NYCHA are “aging in place” and “the structures that we have there are not conducive for our seniors to be able to gather in a park-like setting.”
McGuire also emphasized the importance of green space access for seniors, saying, “I would create parks and make sure that the seniors are able to plant in those parks.” He added, “ I've gone to a number of the NYCHA homes where they take so much pride in the garden that they've created. We need to do more of that. And we need to get the NYCHA residents involved.”
“The fact that there are fences indicates that there is a very poor relationship between the tenants and their feeling of ownership over the space,” said Chang, who suggested “converting NYCHA into some form of social housing.”
Donovan said he would “organize a worldwide design competition with billions of dollars available to our public housing resident organizations” to come up with “bold new solutions to reimagine what the landscapes in public housing cna be.” President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, which Donovan spearheaded, launched a similar initiative. (Donovan said he had to leave for another appointment at the end of that answer.)
Asked how they would reform the capital construction process, which is known for delays and high costs, McGuire and Garcia cited their budgetary experience, while Chang pointed to the 2014 Survey of Capital Projects Management document assembled by New Yorkers for Parks and Public Works Partners.
“I am uniquely positioned because this is what I've had to do for a living,” said McGuire, who cited his experience managing over 50 budgets. “You have to have discipline and a budget process, you have to eliminate the waste, and you have to make it more efficient. And so I have a track record of having done that.”
“There are too many oversights on the capital process,” said Garica, who noted, “because we are that bureaucratic, it costs us more money.” She continued, “I understand how to hold these agencies accountable and cut down on where they are spending time and money.” Garcia also pointed out, “We also need to have more innovative delivery processes,” citing the Department of Design and Construction for delivering projects more quickly during covid “because they were skirting all the rules,” which they were allowed to do because of emergency declarations suspending procurement laws. She suggested partnering with different non-profits for delivery, but did not go into further detail.
Chang summarized the survey’s main recommendations as ones he would follow as mayor: “A new project management capability within the Parks Department,” “the need for technology to support project management, to support integrated design and construction, to support planning,” “the need to bring in in-house design, so the city has control over its own fate,” as well as revising the City Charter so that funding for the city’s parks is less reliant on discretionary allocations from City Council members and Borough Presidents.
For the final question of the forum, candidates were asked how the city’s parks featured in their respective plans for the city’s recovery from the devastation wrought by covid.
“Parks are at the core of my climate agenda in terms of ensuring that we are protecting New York from what is possibly going to happen around the corner,” said Garcia, citing recent severe weather in California and Texas. “One of the best metrics I've heard recently is when they did open spaces in the Meatpacking District, the revenue at all those businesses went up 30%. These two things go hand in hand, a more livable city is a more prosperous city.”
“I would have a director or deputy mayor for the public realm, who would be responsible for the intersection between streets and our urban spaces,” said Chang. “It is so clear that for future resiliency of our city, we need to think about those spaces as something that can adapt and flex as unanticipated things come up.” Chang also called for “bringing the arts in a much more robust way back into the parks.”
McGuire spotlighted his plan to foster 500,000 jobs in the city, which would include bringing back 50,000 small business jobs through wage subsidies that would cover “50% of their wages for one year.” As part of his larger recovery plan, McGuire reiterated his intention “to hold a comeback festival in June of 2022, where we include all of the artists, we include the outdoor spaces.” McGuire also said he would award grants to 1,000 artists to create projects in vacant commercial spaces and outdoor venues, including the city’s parks.