Gotham Gazette

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For Richer & For Poorer: Tying the Park Equity Knot

Thomas Jefferson Park (Katrina Shakarian)

Thomas Jefferson Park (Katrina Shakarian)

"I'd like to just make a plea on behalf of our neighborhood, to help restore [Thomas] Jefferson Park to its previous glory," said Laura, an East Harlem resident who called into a recent segment about New York City parks on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show. During the May 13 segment, Lehrer interviewed City Council parks and recreation committee chair, Council Member Mark Levine, about a new hot topic in New York City: park equity. Park equity refers to the notion that all city parks should be well kept and adequately funded. It's a reality difficult to attain as parks funding languishes at a historically low percentage of the city budget, while a select group of parks benefit from private funding streams.

With the new mayoral administration and City Council touting progressive values, including greater equity on a number of fronts, the issue of park equity is gaining traction. Three aspects are primarily at play: the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) fiscal year 2015 budget; the future of private funding within the parks system; and transparency around levels of public and private funds and resources being channeled into individual parks.

As Levine and others note, the disparities among city parks are vast. Thomas Jefferson Park of Laura's call is a leafy stretch of green sandwiched between 1st avenue and the FDR Drive in East Harlem. It packs a plethora of facilities into just a few blocks: a running track, swimming pool, and playground, a field for soccer and football, and even a recreation center stocked with fitness equipment. In the densely packed neighborhood of about 108,000 people, approximately 40% of whom are 24 and under, Jefferson Park is indispensable.

Despite it's importance to the community, "it sort of feels like the annual upkeep just isn't happening," Laura said. "The grass just slowly, slowly is receding and not coming back because there's such high volume use there....We have a lot of neighborhood networks to help maintain the park, but there's just not quite enough people on the ground to manage trash and just the insane volume of use that happens, particularly in the summer."

Laura's plea for Jefferson Park echoes those made for other green spaces across the city that have popped up sporadically in the news. In his 2013 New York Times op-ed, "Can a Tree Grow in the Bronx?" state Senator Daniel Squadron lamented conditions at St. Mary's Park in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, "where the baseball bleachers don't have seats and the cracked tennis court has no net."

A year later, St. Mary's Park remains neglected. New Yorkers for Parks, a parks department watchdog and parks advocacy organization, reports that in "the once-grand St. Mary's Park, bathrooms flood, bleachers have been ripped out and pathways are deteriorating. The 35-acre park should be a gem for the neighborhood, which is in the poorest community board district in the city and poorest congressional district in the country." The group's description of St. Mary's is part of its larger report assessing open space in Mott Haven.

After years of neglect, parks like Thomas Jefferson and St. Mary's are finally entering mainstream conversations among legislators, advocates and the media. The concept of park equity, specifically, has emerged from the realities of a parks department budget that advocates consider meager and uneven streams of private funding that determine the quality of care among parks.

On April 23rd, much of the recent buzz came to a head at a city council committee hearing, "Equity in Parks: Do Disparities Exist in the Care of the City's Open Space?"

Those who testified discussed the decades-long trajectory that has shaped the current city park system and outlined steps to facilitate fairer parks spending and maintenance across all five boroughs. The hearing took place on the coattails of Mayor de Blasio's recent appointment of Mitchell Silver as the new Commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation.

As the City Council and mayor's office prepare to finalize the city's fiscal year 2015 budget by July 1, issues of parks funding take on particular significance. According to the mayor's executive budget, released May 8th, DPR is expected to keep its $80 million capital allotment from the previous budget. The City Council and its parks committee, however, are requesting at least $27 million more in DPR operating funds and will be going through a final round of public budget deliberations at its May 28th executive budget hearing - at which Commissioner Silver is expected to testify.

A City Parks System
To best examine the current debate around parks, it's crucial to understand the New York City park system's unique history. The city's park system is 300 years old, growing substantially since the establishment of its first official park, Bowling Green, in lower Manhattan in 1733, to what now includes nearly 2,000 parks and playgrounds and about 29,000 acres of parkland across the five boroughs.

The City of New York's Department of Parks and Recreation manages one of the largest urban park systems in the United States. According to a statement by First Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanaugh, it includes roughly 1,941 parks and playgrounds, 1,800 basketball courts, 67 pools and 14 miles of beaches.

Most of these green spaces and facilities are products of a mid-twentieth century burst in public works projects, enabled by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and city planner Robert Moses's vision for New York City. "For much of the twentieth century, the city's public parks represented a robust vision of egalitarian, governmental support for public welfare," wrote George Mason University Fellow Benjamin Soskis in The New Yorker. In the 1960s, for example, the City allotted "a healthy" one-and-a half percent of its budget to DPR, said Council Member Levine in his opening statement at the Council's park equity hearing last month.

Only a few years later, a century's worth of investment would unravel when the financial crisis of the 1970s resulted in dramatic budget cuts across all city agencies. The parks department suffered greatly, and even in 2014, has yet to recover. According to Levine, "by 1986 Parks had fallen to just 0.86% of the budget....By 1990 Parks spending had fallen further to 0.65% of the total budget, and by 2000 it had reached just 0.52%."
Without adequate maintenance and staffing, public parks deteriorated. They transformed from urban oases to neglected outposts. In 1990, a New York Times article described just how far the city's parks had fallen: "Newspapers blow across the dusty, threadbare Great Lawn of Central Park. Abandoned cars block a running path in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx...parks like Tompkins Square, Washington Square and Marcus Garvey Park are notorious sites for drug-related crimes. A recent count found 1,600 homeless people live in Manhattan parks."

Today, a glimpse of New York's most prominent parks, such as Central Park, Prospect Park or Bryant Park, make the dark days of the crisis seem distant and even far-fetched. Not only have these parks rebounded in spectacular fashion, but 871 acres of city parkland were added throughout Bloomberg's three terms. That additional acreage includes new parks such as the High Line, Hudson River Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governor's Island.

Yet despite these sparkling highlights, DPR funds continue to languish at a historically low percentage of the city budget. In its April 23rd hearing report, the City Council's parks and recreation committee reported that DPR's 2013-14 expense budget "only represents 0.5 percent of the City budget." So, how then have the crown jewels of the NYC park system managed to make a comeback?

A Tale of Two Park Systems: The Conservancy Model
The financial crisis of the seventies ushered in a new era of private participation in the maintenance and management of public goods. According to the Council's park equity brief, DPR responded to massive budget cuts of that decade by initiating "agreements with not-for-profit organizations to take on the responsibilities of maintaining certain parks." These public-private partnerships, intended to compensate for a temporary lack of public funds, were never phased out. On the contrary, they've become the status quo in park financing, thereby cementing the decrease in public investment.

Groups like the Central Park Conservancy, established in 1980, attract private funds and management into previously-neglected marquis parks. Today, there are about 20 such conservancies or alliances that partner with DPR to finance and maintain certain parks through a range of public-private agreements. Along with the Central Park Conservancy, the most prominent of these entities are:

  • Prospect Park Alliance
  • Bryant Park Corporation
  • Friends of the High Line
  • Bronx River Alliance
  • Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy
  • Randalls Island Parks Alliance
  • Madison Square Park Restoration Project
  • New York Restoration Project

A stroll through any conservancy-backed park affirms that these public-private partnerships have been successful. In the case of Central Park, the conservancy has channeled an excess of $250 million into the park's revitalization since the group's inception, according to the council committee report.

Since the dark days of the seventies, the city has rebounded economically and so has its capacity to revive the parks budget, although consecutive mayoral administrations and city councils have not championed the cause. Some argue that the influx of private funds into signature parks has silenced political will to restore the parks budget to an independently-operable level. Although advocates of the conservancy model, like former DPR commissioner Veronica White, claim that private partners "do not replace city services or authority," opponents worry about private interests encroaching on public space. Private funds, critics argue, have replaced rather than just supplemented DPR's budget, as originally intended.

In 2013, Steve Hindy, president and co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery and a board member on the Prospect Park Alliance, spoke with The New York Times. "About 10 years ago, the city contributed about 60 percent of the park budget and we raised the rest," he said of Prospect Park. However, "fast forward a decade," The Times wrote, and "the city contributes perhaps 40 percent of the budget for this grandly diverse park. The Alliance scrapes up the rest from corporations and foundations and by insistently shaking a tin cup before city and state legislators."

A result of the rise in private funding, many say, is a "two tier" system, through which signature parks, mostly in affluent communities, are gifted hefty donations that finance staff, upkeep and amenities, while the average neighborhood park, particularly in low-income and outer-borough communities, is left to deteriorate on meager budget allotments. In 2012, for example, $100 million was donated to Central Park in one gift alone and $20 million given to the High Line, while Flushing Meadows Park attracted only $5,000 the entire year in donations, wrote Times parks, recreation and wildlife reporter Lisa Foderaro in "New York Parks in Less Affluent Areas Lack Big Gifts."

Naturally, more affluent communities have better funded conservancies that propagate their parks in ways the City cannot, similar to how PTAs in the wealthiest neighborhoods supplement school budgets. However, legislators and advocates assert that this reality does not excuse the City from providing a dignified minimum of care to all its parks.

In testimony he delivered at the April 23rd hearing, Sen. Squadron said, "In a city as wealthy as New York, it is absurd that parks are allowed to deteriorate in neighborhoods because those neighborhoods cannot afford to pay more for their upkeep. It is a tragedy of the commons when our public spaces are allowed to fall into disrepair, not because the park is not valued or needed, but because it is used to its fullest capacity and the system fails to give it the required attention." Squadron has proposed legislation that would require the wealthiest conservancies to distribute a percentage of their funds to parks in less affluent communities.

Addressing Park Inequity
While DPR's dilemma is clear, action for a more equitable funding system is gaining momentum amongst stakeholders. Thus far, propositions for improvement fall into 3 categories: increasing DPR's budget; capitalizing on private sector solutions; and passing legislation that increases transparency and efficiency within DPR.

Increasing the DPR Budget:
Tupper Thomas, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks (NYP), which issues park condition reports, asserted in both testimony at the April 23rd hearing and a recent op-ed for Gotham Gazette, that park equity reform must begin with the city budget.

In its white paper, NYP proposes an increase in DPR's budget that is two-fold: First, it calls for increasing the agency's expense budget to accommodate full-time staffing needs for maintenance and security on the ground. Currently, "75% of the maintenance staff is made up of Job Training Participants (JTP), who are hired on a temporary seasonal basis and rarely given the opportunity for full-time employment," according to a report compiled by the City Council Committee on Parks and Recreation.

Second, NYP recommends increasing DPR's capital budget for construction and physical improvements in order to supplant the "piecemeal discretionary allocations from council members and borough presidents" that currently characterizes the process of funding capital projects.

Mayor de Blasio's 2015 executive budget retains the previous administration's capital budget figure but does not include additional money for maintenance and operations. The City Council's plea for $27 million to cover additional maintenance, security and staffing was ignored. According to a press release from Levine's office, the request would fund ten full-time workers and five full-time gardeners per borough, an additional 150 Park Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers and 55 new staff to facilitate capital projects. The City Council is scheduled to deliberate the executive budget's DPR allotment at a final hearing on Wednesday, May 28.

Capitalizing on Private Sector Solutions
Although most stakeholders agree that increasing the public budget is the most important part of the equation, the role of private funding is unlikely to diminish no matter what the public budget looks like. Consequently, advocates like Squadron propose capitalizing on the conservancy model by "leveraging philanthropic donations for the system as a whole." In 2013, Squadron and Assembly Member Brian Kavanaugh introduced legislation, the Neighborhood Parks Alliance Act, that would require well-off, private conservancies to share portions of their funds with parks in underfunded communities.

According to Benjamin Soskis, if Squadron's bill passes, conservancies "with operating budgets greater than 5 million dollars, [including] the Central Park Conservancy (58 million dollars) and the Prospect Park Alliance (9 million dollars)...would be required to donate 20% of their budgets to a Neighborhood Parks Alliance, which would redistribute the money to the city's underfunded parks." Soskis examines the relationship between philanthropy and the perpetuation of inequality, or in this case, what many posit as the "general hazards of privatization," like "[sanctioning] the erosion of public stewardship" of public spaces.

Squadron's proposal has attracted mixed reviews. Some argue that diverting private donations to recipients other than those intended by the donors is inappropriate and starts down a slippery slope. In direct opposition to the premise of Squadron's bill in Forbes, an opponent asserts that government involvement in directing private donations "would threaten the future of charitable giving." Philanthropists will be less inclined to contribute to public works projects if their decision-making power is compromised, the argument goes.

Legislation to Increase Transparency and Efficiency
Although most park equity discussions center around achieving adequate and consistent funding for neighborhood parks, there are certain agency-wide shortcomings that politicians would like to address with legislation.The first issue is park safety.

For example, the Bronx has 7,000 acres of parkland but only 26 PEP officers on assignment. On the other hand, Battery Park City has about the same number of officers for just 26 acres, as noted by Council Member Levine during his May 13 appearance on The Brian Lehrer Show. A few weeks earlier, in his park equity hearing statement, Levine mentioned the importance of having precise and comprehensive per park data in order to assess the effects of uneven funding and PEP officer assignments on park safety.

In February 2014, the City Council overrode a Bloomberg veto of Local Law 2. The law requires "the police department to submit to the Council reports of crime in all parks and playgrounds within the City that are greater than one acre in size."

Surprisingly, until 2005, crime in parks was not tracked as occurring in parks at all. Instead, the NYPD recorded incidents as taking place at the nearest street address. This year's Local Law 2 builds on Local Law 114 of 2005, which intended to phase in the tracking of crime in all parks from a small pilot of the 20 largest (to have included all parks by today as originally intended).

In 2012, however, when de Blasio's Office of Public Advocate appealed to the Bloomberg administration for more comprehensive crime reporting in parks, the City was only reporting statistics for 31 spaces and facilities. The data from remaining parks, wrote the public advocate, "is aggregated with general precinct-level statistics, making it impossible to identify crime spikes in a specific park," thereby violating the intent of Local Law 114.

Not only is there not clear, comprehensive data on park crime, there is no record of individual park spending available to the public. DPR does not release its spending and resource distribution on an individual park basis and conservancy budgets are hardly transparent either. Hence, it's "difficult to get a picture of the combined public and private spending given to any park," Levine said.

As a result, Council Members Levine and Brad Lander have sponsored Intro 154, a bill to mandate DPR release its spending per park. And, Levine previewed an upcoming bill, not yet introduced, "which would mandate more complete reporting from conservancies on a timeline consistent with the City's budgeting process," the council member said in his opening statement at April's park equity hearing.

As the council parks committee chair, Levine will be looked to as a leader on parks and park equity for at least the next several years. For him and others, the pleas for Thomas Jefferson in East Harlem, St. Mary's in the Bronx, and other neighborhood parks across the boroughs, are not just pleas for grass, bleachers and basic maintenance, but for healthier communities.

Levine summed up the importance of parks in his May 13 interview, saying, "Parks are about so much more than just aesthetics and beauty, as important as that is. Parks are about healthy neighborhoods; they're intimately tied to the health of their neighborhoods; they promote community building, social capital, [and] even in ways we're only just beginning to understand, our physical health."

by Katrina Shakarian, Gotham Gazette



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