Organizing for More Green

by Anne Schwartz, Mar 2001

The goal of all these efforts is to double the city's budget allocation for parks to $300,000,000 about 1 percent of the total city budget. This would allow the city to restore basic park services, said Richard Greene, the coordinator of Brooklyn Park Advocates. "We're not talking about anything esoteric or extravagant," he said, "We're talking about essential." He noted that there are four park rangers to patrol all 406 parks and playgrounds in Brooklyn. The coalition is calling for the return of the "parkies," the neighborhood-based employees who watched over their parks and ran recreation programs. In the 1970s, there were 2,000 people in the recreation division of the Parks department, most of them working in the community parks and playgrounds. Today there are just 100 recreation employees, who staff the city's 35 recreation centers. Also needed are more park rangers, say the park advocates, as well as more staff to coordinate volunteer and education efforts, and increased horticultural and forestry services.

Since 1986, the parks operating budget, which pays for maintenance and recreational programs, has declined almost 40 percent, while fulltime staff has dropped nearly 60 percent. The city has relied on privately funded groups, neighborhood volunteers, and WEP workers to fill the gap. Nevertheless, park advocates say, neighborhood park facilities and even expensive new capital renovations are not adequately maintained. For next year's budget, Mayor Guiliani again has proposed to cut the Parks department's allocation. (He has, however agreed to assign 350 new workers to help clean up city parks because the latest Mayor's Management Report showed a decline in maintenance of small parks and playgrounds due to the loss of 2,000 WEP workers.) In the usual budget game, the City Council restores most of the cuts, which merely leaves park funding at the level to which it was cut in the early 90s. Park advocates are working to get an actual increase over existing funding. For the longer term, advocates are targeting the September elections, in a non-partisan effort to educate candidates about the importance of public parks to the communities they seek to represent, and about the need for better public funding.

Anne Sounds Off

Six years ago, Bay Ridge residents rescued a neglected 4-acre section of city parkland, cleaning it up and planting gardens of roses, lilies, and native plants. Joan Regan, one of the volunteers, says she and her neighbors do all of the work in the garden, including mowing the lawns with a home lawnmower purchased through their fundraising efforts. The Parks department has been as helpful as it could be, Regan says, given its acute shortage of funds. But volunteers can only do so much. Sidewalk and fence repairs, security, basic maintenance -- these are all things the Parks department should be doing.

There are thousands of volunteers like Regan all over the city taking care of parks and playgrounds the city won't take care of itself. Nonprofit organizations like the Partnership for Parks help them out with information and small grants. But for all the volunteers' hard work, they can't replace the services that a first-rate parks department should provide. Leaving the care of parks to volunteers -- and depending on private fundraising -- has also worsened the inequalities between poor and rich neighborhoods. Central Park, which is funded and run by the private Central Parks Conservancy, has set a magnificent example of what a park can be. Private funding allows Central Park to hire 81 gardeners, while the rest of the system makes do with only 28. So neighborhoods with fewer resources have ended up with the most poorly maintained parks.

Virtually every segment of the community has a stake in the parks: educators, the police, businesses, sports groups, families, senior citizens. Yet somehow, we have lowered our expectations for the park system, and by our political inaction have tacitly accepted the premise that parks can be maintained by the private sector. The growing movement to organize advocacy for the parks is good news. If all those volunteers -- as well as other community members who use and benefit from the parks -- direct some of their incredible energy toward creating a new culture of public support for our parks, amazing things could happen.