Grading Neighborhood Parks 2007

by Anne Schwartz, May 23, 2007

Conditions in New York’s small, neighborhood parks vary widely across the city. And despite some areas of improvement, overall the parks are in worse shape than last year, according to the recently released 2007 Report Card on Parks, from the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks.

For five years, the non-profit advocacy group has been evaluating conditions in local parks, from one to 20 acres in size. Trained surveyors assess eight different "service areas" used by park visitors, like conditions of sports field, benches, and bathrooms. They rate each feature following criteria developed from a park user's point of view.

As in previous reports from the group, parks with access to private funding earned the highest grades. Bryant Park, which is maintained by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, got a near-perfect 99. But the report also found that maintenance levels vary widely among parks relying only on public funds, that maintenance can be inconsistent even in the same park from one year to the next. A number of parks have chronically poor conditions.

In this year's report, the average citywide grade dropped to 70 percent, down from a rating of 80 percent in 2005.

"We don't get consistent maintenance year to year, month to month, or even day to day," said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. "And that's because the system has been underfunded.”

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, however, called the report card a case of "grade deflation" and said that ratings for many parks were lower than the department's own inspection data indicate. "It flies in the face of reality, which is that parks continue to get better."

Problem Areas: Trees, Drinking Fountains, Graffiti

In addition to rating individual parks, the New Yorkers for Parks report looked at how the different elements fare citywide.

Among the areas that performed poorly this year were the "green" features: lawns, natural areas, and trees. The report recommended a greater investment in horticulture and forestry, areas that have received little funding in recent decades. At present, for example, park trees are pruned only on an emergency basis.

Once again, surveyors also found a litany of problems with drinking fountains, including lack of water pressure, leaks, mold, and basins filled with trash or broken glass. The average grade for all the drinking fountains surveyed was 40 percent.

Careless workmanship - sloppy paint jobs, poorly done repairs, and chipping or peeling paint - gave more than half of playgrounds, courts, fields, and sitting areas an unacceptable score for maintenance work.

The report also noted an upsurge in graffiti, which Commissioner Benepe confirmed. He suspects the increase is tied to a recent court ruling voiding the city's prohibition on selling spray paint to minors. The department has been working with the police and its Parks Enforcement Patrol to reverse the problem.

"Another thing we found is that playground conditions are starting to slip," said DiPalermo.

Ten years ago, the parks department made significant capital improvements to many playgrounds, he said, but wear and tear is starting to show because of insufficient maintenance.

Good news: Pathyways, Bathrooms, Budget

Parks do get some positive marks. Higher scoring park features included pathways and sitting areas, similar to previous years.

And despite the use of a more rigorous standard this year, the average grade for bathrooms held steady from 2005, a result of the parks department's focus on improving bathrooms through Operation Relief. More than 90 percent of the bathrooms inspected were open, compared with 50 percent four years ago.

Also this year, for the first time, the mayor's proposed budget for parks maintains last year's funding for areas like playground associates, tree pruning, and other maintenance, items that are usually eliminated and then restored during negotiations with the City Council.

As part of Mayor Bloomberg's ambitious greening blueprint, PlaNYC, the city is beginning to commit more funds to care for the city's trees and natural spaces.

Park advocates are lobbying for an additional $10 million for 250 to 300 new playground associates for parks that currently have no staff assigned. They are also asking $5 million more for forestry and $3 million to hire 60 full-time gardeners for specific parks.

The Parks Department Responds

The parks department does its own ratings of green spaces through its Parks Inspection Program, which conducts 5,000 formal and 10,000 informal inspections a year.

Parks Commissioner Adriane Benepe said that the program, which allows the department to identify and fix unsafe conditions and other problems, has documented an upward trend in park conditions. Inspection reports can be found by park on the department's web site.

Commissioner Benepe agreed that some of the playground equipment was reaching its natural lifespan, but said that the department's inspection and repair program addresses problems quickly. He noted that a recent budget increase has allowed the department to hire 40 workers specifically to care for playgrounds.

"Contrary to the assertion that there is poor maintenance resulting from a declining workforce, the workforce is growing dramatically," he said. "By the next fiscal year, we will have added 1,000 full-time staff since Mayor Bloomberg took office, a 25 to 30 percent increase."

And although he disputes specifics, Benepe still sees value in the New Yorkers for Parks' annual report card.

"Although we feel we are doing better than the report card would indicate, it's good to have an organization that fights for parks and for better standards," said Commissioner Benepe. "We don't take umbrage at the overall message, which is that parks should be getting better and better."