What makes up 12% of New York City’s land area, contains 5 million of our 7 million trees, is almost 10 degrees cooler than our streets during extreme heat events, prevents $4.8 million in hospital bills from pollution-induced illness annually, and soaks up as much stormwater as $580 million of new green stormwater infrastructure?
The answer: our city’s 20,000 acres of natural forested areas and wetlands.
Despite the staggering benefits our forests and wetlands provide, they have received very little of the city’s overall operating budget for their care and maintenance. To put it in perspective, a recent report by the Natural Areas Conservancy found that the portion of public funding to support natural forested areas has hovered at just $548 per acre each year, despite the fact that these spaces make up approximately 24% of our entire park system.
In September, Mayor Eric Adams announced a 5% cut to all agency budgets by November, with the potential for additional cuts totaling 15% of each agency’s budget by next April. These cuts will be deeply felt across all aspects of life, and will be catastrophic for the city’s parks. Under this administration, the parks department has continued to receive only 0.6% of the entire expense budget for NYC each year. It’s a meager amount for critical maintenance, operations and program costs, and represents a drop in the bucket compared to other city agencies.
These disastrous cuts mean that the natural areas and green spaces that are already on the precipice will not be maintained at a basic level, impacting their ability to provide the physical and mental health benefits and safe refuge that New Yorkers have come to depend on. We don’t have to look far back in our city’s history to understand or imagine the impacts of a 5 to 15% disinvestment. The 14% budget cuts made during the COVID-19 pandemic greatly reduced staffing of the city parks enforcement patrol, urban park rangers, and key natural areas maintenance staff, resulting in pile-high trash in our parks and generally less safe and secure conditions. We can do better.
NAC spent Earth Day in Alley Pond Park, standing with Mayor Adams as he announced an annual investment of $2.4 million to help formalize and program our 300-mile nature trail system – a key initiative in the 2023 PlaNYC report. This announcement was the culmination of years of advocacy to build a nature trail system that can safely bring more New Yorkers into our precious natural forested areas and wetlands, while also protecting the fragile ecosystems these green spaces support.
The proposed 5% budget cuts means that the trails funding we celebrated just months ago with Mayor Adams will now no longer come to fruition. This allocation promised to fund 26 new positions on the citywide trails team. Not only will these new positions not be filled, but there is now no pipeline to reliable, full-time work for aspiring green jobs professionals, like those in our CUNY intern program.
A 5% budget cut will have a harmful impact in real time on our parks, and in particular the condition of our natural areas, which provide enormous benefits to New Yorkers despite receiving very little funding for their care. If the proposed cuts totaling 15% of the agency budget come to pass, the impacts will be devastating for park health, maintenance and safety, and will prevent the agency from providing essential services and support to New Yorkers. The catastrophic flooding New York City experienced on Sept. 29 was a sobering reminder of how vulnerable our city is to climate change impacts. We’ve long known that investing in our parks, forests, and wetlands will help provide natural solutions to protect our city. Mayor Adams also knows this and had previously committed to 1% budget funding for the parks department and a series of initiatives to boost the city’s sustainability efforts, but has now rolled that back. With increasingly insufficient funding to care for our natural assets, the benefits of these spaces can’t be equitably realized across the five boroughs.
Our parks and natural areas make the lives of every New Yorker better, from longtime residents to our most recent arrivals. While we understand that moments of crisis demand hard choices from our elected officials, we also believe that these choices shouldn’t come at the expense of the shared resources that make our city more resilient and livable, and that provide pathways to good, green jobs amid the worsening climate crisis. We call on our elected officials from every level of New York City’s government to work together to restore the proposed budget cuts, and prevent additional cuts to services that make our city stronger.
Sarah Charlop-Powers is executive director of the Natural Areas Conservancy, which since 2012 has championed urban natural areas in New York City and across the nation through innovative research, partnerships, and advocacy.