Helping Parks Flourish

Helping Parks Flourish

July 28, 2015

There’s no place quite like New York City when it comes to public parks, with its rich assortment of free summertime concerts, community festivals and athletic programs.

Throughout the five boroughs, 14 percent of New York City’s land—about 29,000 acres—is devoted to the more than 5,000 parks and recreational facilities managed by the Department of Parks and Recreation, ranging from Central Park and Coney Island Beach to almost 1,000 playgrounds and 66 community pools.

But foundations and nonprofits such as the City Parks Foundation, New Yorkers for Parks, and the New York Restoration Project also play a major role in making New York City’s parks some of the best in the world, by sponsoring the programs that bring people into the parks and advocating for the needs of parks during the often tumultuous city budget process.

The City Parks Foundation is probably best known for its free SummerStage concerts, but it is the largest provider of a variety of park programs, notes Executive Director Heather Lubov. The foundation sponsors programs in 350 parks, but Lubov wishes the organization had the money to do more. “Even with all of the work we’re doing, we’re not touching even half of the parks,” she said.

This summer, the foundation launched a pilot initiative in five parks in conjunction with the New York City Football Club to teach soccer to children from ages of 8 to 12. “We jumped on the opportunity to work with their professional instructors,” she said.

Also new this summer is the Get Up & Go! exercise program, aimed at younger children, age 6 and up. It was launched in 14 smaller parks in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty.

SummerStage, which is sponsored by donors such as Capital One bank and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Bloomberg Philanthropies, along with the city Department of Cultural Affairs, has also been expanded this summer, with 25 more shows, bringing the total to 140, Lubov says. The program’s largest venue is Central Park, but the foundation also puts on music, dance and spoken word shows in 15 other parks around the city, including two sites that are new this year: Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens and the newly opened Highbridge Park, which links Washington Heights in Manhattan with the Bronx.

Just $1 million of the foundation’s annual budget of $12.5 million comes from government sources, Lubov says—a small but significant share since funding levels can change year to year.

For instance, the Partnership for Parks program got a smaller allocation in the city’s new budget—$426,000 this year versus $750,000 a year ago, which had allowed the foundation to expand the program, and make four new hires, she says. The program is a joint venture with the Department of Parks and Recreation, and works with an estimated 20,000 volunteers and 750 to 800 “friends of” groups on efforts like park cleanups. Lubov says her organization is now working on raising private money to make up the difference.

This year, there was another big battle over $8.7 million in city funding for 150 gardeners and maintenance workers. That money had been put into the city’s budget a year earlier, and was cut this year—that is, until parks advocates held a rally at City Hall and got it restored.

“We’re very pleased the council did fund it, but it just allows it to be for one more year, and then they have to fund it every year,” said Tupper Thomas, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, a nonprofit that produces park studies, including its Report Card series on park maintenance in all five boroughs.

What’s needed is more permanent jobs, Thomas says. While “there is a huge amount of money in the city’s capital budget for the parks,” they’re also “very underfunded in maintenance and operations,” she said. “They barely have enough plumbers, regular maintenance workers and gardeners.” Using people from welfare-to-work programs to help out “doesn’t create a workforce that learns the job and moves up in the ranks,” she said. “That’s what’s been missing over time.”

And Thomas says more attention needs to be paid to the mid-sized parks, in the range of about 5 to 20 acres.

The Community Parks Initiative, which is now in its second year, is aimed at the smallest parks­—those with less than an acre to maybe an acre and a half—in poor, high-density neighborhoods with the goal of making sure they get an equitable allocation of the city’s resources. Thomas says that what her organization likes about CPI is that the city isn’t just investing capital, but is taking a more comprehensive approach by allocating funds for recreational programs and community organizing and outreach.

Thomas says the city should build on that starting point and focus on the needs of mid-sized parks, especially when it comes to planning. For instance, if a park has 15 acres, she says it’s unlikely that any one political entity would fund a total restoration. But if a master plan were in place, advocates could seek funding from different sources within city government—council members, borough presidents, the mayor’s office—for different parts of the plan, like renovating a playground or ballfield.

The analogy, says Deborah Marton, executive director of the New York Restoration Project, “is that you buy a house upstate” and plan a number of improvements over time, and “you invest in the different pieces so it all comes together, but there’s no mechanism in the city budget to fund master plans for mid-sized parks.” The largest parks have their “friends of” groups and conservancies that “pay for that privately,” she says.

NYRP is a nonprofit with an annual budget of $10.5 million. It was founded by Bette Midler 20 years ago and sponsors a number of green space activities, from its 52 community gardens to partnering with the city on its “Million Trees” program and on the restoration of four major parks in Manhattan, including Highbridge. In July, NYRP unveiled its Haven Project, which it described as a “transformative master plan to design, fund, and build a new network of open spaces for the South Bronx neighborhoods of Mott Haven and Port Morris,” complete with a connector to the Randall’s Island playing fields.

But Marton agrees with Thomas that the biggest challenge facing New York City’s park advocates is how to get more funding for the unglamorous, day-to-day job of maintenance. She says that part of the problem is that politicians can show off to their constituents when they secure funding for a parks project, but it’s harder to impress voters with the fact that a park “hasn’t deteriorated.”

“As a city, our budget for capital improvements is gigantic, but our budget for maintenance is tiny, tiny, tiny,” she said.

Rosalyn Retkwa