NYC Issues 2001: A Vision for Parks?

by Anne Schwartz, April 6, 2001

America's great park systems, like those in Minneapolis or Portland, Oregon, did not happen by accident. These cities have had elected officials and civic leaders who strongly believe that parks are an essential part of a city's vitality. They see well-maintained parks and greenways, protected natural areas, and good recreational facilities as among the most important contributors to a city's quality of life, and therefore to a healthy economy.

In the nineteenth century, New York was in the forefront of the movement to create city parks. Cities all over the country wanted their own version of Central and Prospect parks, which still stand as landscape masterpieces. The next great park-building wave came during the era of Robert Moses. In recent decades, however, city political leaders have considered parks a low priority. Municipal funding for parks has waned, and the reigning philosophy has it that parks should be supported as much as possible by the private sector or by fees charged for concessions or special uses. (And most of those fees go to the general government coffers, rather than being specifically earmarked for parks.) Creating and tending parks has been considered neither an essential public service nor an impetus for economic development, an investment in a city's infrastructure that is ultimately repaid many times over. So perhaps the underlying parks issue for the mayoral campaign is: Do any of the candidates have a real vision for what parks can do to make a better New York?


The most pressing issue that parks advocates want candidates to address is funding. Budget allocations for maintaining parks and running recreation programs have been shrinking for the better part of two decades. Parks operating funds now amount to less than one half of one percent of the total city budget. The parks department has 60 percent fewer fulltime employees than it did 15 years ago. That means that parks that rely solely on city funding - that is, the ones in poorer neighborhoods that (unlike Central Park) cannot raise money from private individuals and companies - have little or no staff to care for plantings, maintain ball fields, run recreation programs, or keep the bathrooms clean. The lack of funds has hit recreation programs the hardest. New York City spends the least amount per capita on recreation of any major city in the United States, resulting in a shortage of playing fields, tennis courts, pools, and other recreational facilities and programs.

Parks advocacy groups want candidates to make a commitment to reversing this trend. They have organized a campaign calling for doubling the city's spending on park operations to one percent of the budget. That would allow the city to hire enough gardeners, tree pruners, plumbers, and electricians to maintain the plantings and facilities in the parks; it would also provide for the return of the parkies, the neighborhood-based employees who maintained and monitored their parks and ran recreation programs. Additional operating funds would allow the parks department to end its practice of using capital money for restoring parks and structures that have fallen into disrepair because of neglected maintenance. Capital funds could be spent instead on reclaiming abandoned parkland and creating new green and recreational space in underserved parts of the city.


While candidates are called upon to address the shortage of affordable housing, especially in the city's poor, heavily minority districts, those very same neighborhoods tend to have the fewest and most poorly maintained parks. It is estimated that 69 percent of the city's Community Planning Districts do not even meet the city's very modest open space standard of 2.5 acres per thousand residents. Often, the only green places are the community gardens created by the residents on vacant city-owned lots. In addition to addressing the community garden issue (see below), parks advocates want candidates to be thinking in terms of neighborhood-based planning that includes recreational and green space along with new affordable housing. A recent study of District 3 in the Bronx, by the Design Trust for Public Space, addressed this issue in depth. Other opportunities exist for creating open space in these areas on former industrial sites (brownfields), small lots, and the waterfront (see below).


City elected officials could also be lobbying much more actively to direct state open space funding to the inner city. New York City has not received its fair share of state Bond Act and other funds for open space acquisition, and the little money it has received has been concentrated in Staten Island, which has far more open space than the other boroughs. The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance is developing a proposal, called "Green Cities," for the creation of a state environmental investment program for urban areas.


Two years ago, in a bizarre twist on the land trust concept, private groups ended up buying public land to prevent the city from auctioning off more than 100 community gardens to private developers. While cities all over the country are promoting the development of community gardens, New York City's remaining 600 or so gardens are in limbo. An injunction resulting from a lawsuit by state Attorney General Elliot Spitzer has stopped the city from tearing down gardens, but the city continues to go through the process of selling lots, stopping short of actual development. The stalemate will most likely be left for the next mayor and city council to resolve. A year ago, legislation was introduced in the city council that would establish a process for reviewing proposed sales of community gardens and for preserving gardens and creating new ones. It has languished because of lack of support from many council members as well as the City Council Speaker, Peter Vallone, who is running for mayor.


The decaying industrial waterfront offers the best opportunity for new parks and open space in the city, especially in many low-income neighborhoods that lack parks. Revitalizing the waterfront would connect New Yorkers to the city's greatest natural resource, the harbor, with its spectacular views and opportunities for aquatic recreation. There is a lot of momentum right now, with large parks taking shape along the West Side of Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn, as well as smaller parks being created in Harlem, Hunts Point, and elsewhere. The Waterfront Park Coalition has developed a comprehensive inventory of 150 potential sites, and is working with local groups to make the parks a reality. What sort of vision do the candidates have for the waterfront and how it fits into the New York City of the 21st century? Among the issues that need to be addressed: access to the water; community involvement in waterfront planning; and how much commercial development is appropriate.


Few people know that New York City has an official greenway plan to create 350 miles of trails for walking and biking. The Department of City Planning created the plan in 1993, incorporating proposals for a Brooklyn/Queens greenway by the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition and a Bronx greenway by Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. The city has received more than $60 million in federal funding so far for this program, under the ISTEA and TEA-21 legislation that seeks to promote alternative modes of transportation. The program requires only 20 percent in state or city matching funds, a great opportunity in an era of scarce money for green space and recreation, and one that city elected officials should be pursuing more vigorously. The state recently committed $11 million for a section of the Bronx River Greenway, which is envisioned to run continuously from Wards Island to the Westchester border. The plan includes restoring land and creating access to the river for the community. At present, New York City has about 70 miles of existing greenway routes, 25 miles under construction, and 80 more miles planned. What would candidates do to speed up the implementation of the greenway plan?


It is delightful to walk down a city street with a canopy of large trees (and perhaps more delightful to live on such a street!) Trees contribute significantly to the quality of life in the city. They provide shade, cool the air and reduce energy use in the summer, filter pollutants, slow runoff, and screen out noise and ugly views. Studies at housing projects in Chicago have even shown a correlation between the presence of trees and fewer incidents of violence. Trees and other plantings have also been shown to increase commercial and residential property values.

Yet New York City's elected officials have given even less thought to trees than to parks. The city's urban forest, which includes trees along streets and highways as well as in parks and natural areas, has been neglected, according to Keeping the Green Promise, a 1998 report by the Environmental Action Coalition and the Regional Plan Association. New York City has less "canopy cover" (the area shaded by trees) than most similar cities. Not surprisingly, trees are particularly scarce in the same low-income, minority neighborhoods that have a shortage of parks. Advocates want candidates to address the need to expand the urban forest in these areas. Also at issue is better management of the existing street, highway, and park trees through better planting techniques and more frequent inspection and pruning. Urban forestry advocates want the city to fulfill an unkept promise to continue a program to restore urban woodlands that was begun with private philanthropic funding. Elected officials could also be doing more to obtain state funding for the city's forestry needs. Last year, after intensive lobbying by city environmental groups, the state allocated money to urban forestry for the first time.


Last year, the city and state agreed on a plan to turn the 173-acre former Coast Guard base into a new civic space, which would include a conference center, educational facilities, and parkland. The plan had wide support. But with the failure to get legislation passed during the Clinton Administration to transfer the island to New York State at no cost, the fate of Governors Island is still up in the air. Part of the island, including two historic forts and the surrounding land, was declared a national monument in an executive order issued by President Clinton in his last week in office, and President Bush is expected to let the order stand. The federal government is now moving ahead to sell the rest of the island at fair market value by the end of the year. New legislation to transfer the island to the state will be introduced; the state could also negotiate a deal with the General Services Administration, which is handling the sale. But before turning the land over to the state, the federal government needs a binding commitment from the state and city to the plan they created. Whoever is elected mayor could make a difference in whether or not Governors Island becomes a new public space. What are the positions of the mayoral candidates on the concept plan announced last year? If elected, would they support placing restrictions on the island in keeping with that plan, either through state legislation or city zoning? And, would they support capital investment to create public spaces on the island?