Recreation for Youth In Short Supply

by Anne Schwartz, Jun 30, 2005

On a Friday afternoon in Prospect Park, a Little League team looking to practice finds that all the diamonds are full. In the South Bronx, a principal says her students go home after school and stay indoors because there’s no safe place to play outside. Parents wait on line for hours to sign up their children for private swim classes, if they can afford them, unless they live in one of the few neighborhoods with a public pool.

Ask parents about sports and recreation in New York City, and they are likely to say, "There’s not enough." Whether in minority neighborhoods that have disproportionately fewer parks and sports fields or in affluent areas with a growing demand for the kind of sports programs found in the suburbs, there are not enough facilities and programs to meet the needs of the city’s 1.5 million school age children.

Addressing these needs has become increasingly important as a growing body of research demonstrates that exercise and organized recreation can promote the healthy physical, social, and emotional development of children.

A 1996 report by the U.S. Surgeon General found multiple health benefits from engaging in regular physical activity, including weight loss and a reduced risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. A study by the Department of Education found that 43 percent of New York City students from kindergarten through fifth grade are either overweight or obese. Obesity rates were highest in central Brooklyn, East and Central Harlem, and the South Bronx, low-income areas with few parks and recreational facilities.

Sports and organized recreational activities can also have a positive impact on social and emotional development as well as educational achievement. Teens who participate in organized recreational activities are less likely to drink alcohol, take drugs, or get pregnant. In several cities, the availability of recreation for youths has been found to lower crime rates. In Fort Worth, Texas, for example, crime fell 28 percent within a one-mile radius of community centers offering midnight basketball, but rose an average of 39 percent around five other centers that did not have the program. Studies have also shown that students who participate in physical activity on a regular basis do better in school.

The Decline Of Recreation in New York City

Parks have traditionally played a major role in providing sports and other recreation to city dwellers, especially youth. Under the City Charter, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation has the "power and duty" to build and operate recreational facilities and offer programs, as well as to review and coordinate recreational activities conducted by other city agencies and to make agreements with government or private organizations for that purpose.

Advocates say that the department has been hampered in this goal by inadequate funding and by the low priority that the city placed on recreation for many years.

For decades, New York City let its recreational infrastructure crumble, both in the parks and in the schools. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the city all but eliminated funding for school sports and lowered the priority of physical education and fitness in the schools. Until recently, most high school teams and coaches have had to fend for themselves on bumpy, litter-strewn fields, buying their own uniforms and equipment and scraping up cash for transportation.

New York City’s schools once produced a steady crop of athletes for the major leagues, but by the 1990s the city had the lowest percentage of students participating in team sports of all the nation’s big cities, according to a 1999 New York Times series, Dropping the Ball (in pdf format) .

During that time, funding to maintain the city’s parks, courts, and fields also declined, reaching a low after the fiscal problems of the early 1990s, when the city shuttered recreation centers and let baseball and soccer fields wear down to dirt and rocks. The city built almost no new recreational facilities between the 1970s and the 1990s. Data compiled by the Center for Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land show that New York City has fewer recreation centers, pools, and tennis courts per capita than nearly every large city in the country.

Although things have improved tremendously over the last decade, there are still fields and courts that are not in good condition, especially in the smaller parks in the outer boroughs. The 2005 Report Card on Parks, an annual survey of neighborhood parks conducted by the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, graded 29 percent of athletic fields and 33 percent of courts unacceptable for maintenance work.

Sports on the Rebound

In recent years, the city has increased capital funding for building and restoring sports fields and other facilities. The private sector has also been pinch-hitting for the government, providing the energy, expertise, and funding to fill gaps in the city’s recreation network, particularly in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

The parks department has fixed up soccer, baseball, and football fields all over the city. On more than 40 fields, it has replaced grass (or what was left of it) with more durable artificial turf, and plans to convert 35 more. "As fast as we can build them," said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, "they fill up, like building highways."

In April, the department inaugurated a $42 million track-and-field stadium on Randall’s Island, with half of the cost raised privately by the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation, including a $10 million naming sponsorship by financier Carl Icahn.

More new recreation centers have been opened or are in the works since the late 1960s or early 1970s, said Commissioner Benepe, who ticked off a list including the reopening of the Chelsea center after three decades; the near completion of another center in Flushing, Queens; the new nature center in the Staten Island Greenbelt; and the construction of a senior center in Marine Park.

If the city succeeds in its bid to play host to the 2012 Olympics, dozens of new facilities will be built or renovated, although there is debate about whether, when the Olympics are over, there will be enough demand for, and the city will be willing to maintain, such specialized venues as a shooting center, a whitewater course, and an enclosed bike track.

To meet some of the most pressing recreational needs of the city’s youth, a number of nonprofit groups have stepped up to the plate:

A Patchwork of Programs

The parks department has focused mainly on building and maintaining the infrastructure for sports, either directly or through concessions. Commissioner Benepe said, "The primary way we provide recreation is by creating facilities — clean, safe and well-run —that allow other groups to program them."

In the absence of a coordinated citywide recreation program, possibly hundreds of different organizations have developed programs to fill the gap, including volunteer sports leagues, neighborhood-based organizations, school and after-school programs, private non-profit groups, and profit-making recreational centers.

Per capita and as a percentage of its total budget, the New York City parks department spends less on programming (including sports, nature, art and other recreational activities) than most other major U.S. cities, according to data compiled by the Center for Park Excellence. According to the Independent Budget Office, in 2004 parks department recreation spending totaled just $16 million, out of an operating budget of approximately $260 million. Of that amount, about $9 million came from the state and federal governments and other city agencies and private sources. This does not include privately run recreation programs whose funding is not channeled through the parks department.

Funding for full-time recreation staff has fallen 69 percent since 1980, according to the parks advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, although some of the difference has been made up by seasonal and temporary employees, including the job-training program workers who now make up the majority of the parks department work force.

Funding, Places and People All In Short Supply

Every year at budget time, there is uncertainty about funding for the playground associates, who keep the playgrounds clean and safe and organize activities in the summer. Typically, the mayor’s proposed budget reduces the number of positions for these and other seasonal workers and the City Council eventually restores them. At present, there are 171 playground associates for the city’s 991 playgrounds, according to the parks department.

"There’s a short supply not only of places to play but of people to supervise," said Maura Lout, research director at New Yorkers for Parks. The difficulty of getting a complete picture of recreation in the city because there are so many different providers, Lout said, "speaks to the dilemma."

Although some wealthier parts of the city, as well as formerly industrial areas like Tribeca, lack recreational fields and programs, residents in these neighborhoods tend to have the time and money to sign their children up for private classes and for sports leagues outside the immediate neighborhood. Some families in affluent areas of Brooklyn, for example, don’t think twice about enrolling their kids in a hockey program at the for-profit Chelsea Piers in Manhattan.

Targeting Poorer Neighborhoods

In large part because of the lack of facilities, the largest gaps in recreation programs are in the poorer neighborhoods with mostly minority or immigrant residents. In these areas, the cost, time and travel involved in getting to activities outside the immediate neighborhood are significant barriers to participation in many sports.

The parks department has made an effort to target its limited recreational resources to youth in these neighborhoods. Benepe noted that all of the department’s recreation programs for children, from swimming lessons to nature walks, are free.

The department organizes several athletic leagues and tournaments, often with support from corporate or non-profit partners. One innovative program directed toward underserved youth is the Star Track youth cycling and mentorship program in the newly renovated Kissena Velodrome in Queens. "Shape Up New York," a program run with the city health department, offers exercise for all ages at ten locations with high rates of high obesity and diabetes.

Free instruction in tennis, golf and track and field is also available at a number of parks from the City Parks Foundation, an independent non-profit that supports parks without access to private resources.

Working with the Schools

The parks department has also begun to coordinate its efforts with the Department of Education. "This is the first time in recent memory, maybe ever, that the parks and education departments are actually sitting down and talking to each other," said David Rivel, executive director of the City Parks Foundation.

Benepe said that with so many new schools being opened, the two departments have been discussing the use of park facilities during the day for physical education. They have also talked about expanding learn-to-swim programs using pools operated by both the schools and parks, as well as by colleges, non-profits and other organizations. "We could probably teach every kid how to swim if we put our minds to it," Benepe said. "If I could do one thing in the next four years it would be to teach every child, if not how to swim, at least to know what to do if you go in the water."

Under the leadership of Chancellor Joel Klein, there has been a new emphasis on fitness at the Department of Education. The department hired its first citywide director of fitness, Lori Benson; began providing professional development for physical education teachers; and instituted a new citywide physical education curriculum that emphasizes health-related fitness. With $1 million each from The Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation and the Snapple sponsorship, the department expanded a middle school sports and fitness program it piloted last year to 180 schools, many of which use parks for practice and games. "We are in the midst of a complete renaissance of the physical education program, which has not seen a lot of support over the last few decades," Benson said.

"There is a long way to go," said Rivel, "but things are clearly going in the right direction."