Private Report Card on Smaller Parks

by Anne Schwartz, May 20, 2003

There are wide disparities in the conditions of New York City's neighborhood parks, according to a "report card" recently released by New Yorkers for Parks, a non-profit advocacy group for parks. These are the smaller parks and playgrounds, the basketball courts and playing fields, the leafy spots where senior citizens sit on benches and chess players look for a game.

Almost a quarter of the parks received at least 90 percent for their excellent condition, and another 36 percent earned a 70 or above with reasonably well-kept lawns or playing fields, safe and clean playgrounds, and benches and paths in good repair. But a significant number had bedraggled plantings, dusty, uneven or littered fields, and bathrooms that were locked or out of order. Twenty percent of the parks got a failing grade, 59 or below. Parks in Manhattan and Staten Island fared the best.

Overall, the report card found much better conditions in the areas where the parks department has focused capital investment in recent years - playgrounds, sitting areas, and paths and sidewalks. Citywide, these features received an average score of 80 to 83 percent. The areas most in need of improvement were the active and passive recreation areas, as well as the bathrooms and drinking fountains. The average grade for bathrooms citywide was 48. The authors of the report noted, "In too many cases, existing bathrooms were either locked or desperately in need of maintenance and supplies."

The report card was compiled from a detailed survey of 181 of the city's 220 parks that are from one to 20 acres in size, conducted in the summer of 2002. (Parks not surveyed were either closed for renovation or lacking the park features on which the survey focused.) Trained staff from New Yorkers for Parks graded each park for cleanliness, maintenance, safety and structural integrity in eight "major service areas" - active recreational areas; passive recreational areas; playgrounds; sitting areas; bathrooms; drinking fountains; sidewalks, streets and paths; and how well the park is insulated from the surrounding environment. The group developed its rating system through focus groups with community members and park experts, aiming to assess park conditions from a user's perspective.

Some of the report card's conclusions differ from the parks department's highly regarded Parks Inspection Program, geared to improving park management and maximizing resources, and using somewhat different criteria. The department visits 200 parks a week, with 5,000 inspections annually, and finds 85 to 90 percent in acceptable condition. The department's web site posts the citywide results and will be adding park by park data this summer.

Regarding the park amenities that have improved and those most in need of attention, the parks department found the survey in line with their own assessments, according to a parks department spokesman. Deputy Commissioner for Operations Liam Kavanagh provided a statement that said, "Through our rigorous inspection program and direct experience, we know that the condition of our parks is strong citywide. We have identified and launched programs to address the same major service areas identified by New Yorkers for Parks in their report card."

Among the programs under way to address these issues is the renovation of ball fields with artificial turf - so far, 21 such fields have been put in, with 11 more under construction, and 17 in the planning stages. Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe has also launched a large horticultural initiative that includes training parks maintenance staff in gardening basics. The department's "Operation Relief" targets drinking fountains to fix them and make sure they are turned on.

New Yorkers for Parks conducted the survey to quantify the varying conditions at the smaller, low-profile parks, which are mostly dependent on public funding. The goal, said the group's spokesperson, Rowena Daly, "is to use these results to understand where our parks are failing and draw together public and private support to lift up neighborhood parks in greatest need."