The Mayor-elect and the Challenges of a More Equitable Park System

Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio supports a proposal to share park funds more widely. (Photo: Kevin Case, Creative Commons)

By Catherine Featherston

Job opening: New York City Parks Commissioner. Responsibilities include maintaining the city’s 30,000 acres of land and championing its 1,700 parks. Interested candidates should know that among the position’s biggest challenges will be addressing the growing disparities in parks and playgrounds within the five boroughs. Warning: it’s sure to be a contentious issue requiring some familiarity with concepts of economic inequality.

As Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s transition team gets to work to find, vet and appoint members of his administration, talk on the street is skeptical about whether or not he can live up to his campaign promise of rewriting the “Tale of Two Cities” narrative that divides New York. Over the last 12 years, it seems where you live and what you earn determine not just your class but also the condition of the places in which your children play.

What will Bill de Blasio do to create a more equitable park system?

Parks and the playgrounds within them provide recreational and educational opportunities for millions of people, according to Holly Leicht, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, a non-profit organization. In an email to supporters this week, she encouraged New Yorkers to stay involved with the issue of park inequity as de Blasio develops his park policies. “Parks enhance mental and physical health and serve as gathering places for family, friends and neighbors,” she wrote. “But all too often, they’re treated like a non-essential luxury–especially when budgets are tight.”

De Blasio has yet to address specific issues and policies surrounding playgrounds, according to the transition team’s communications arm. But he does support a bill introduced by New York State Senator Daniel Squadron this summer that would require well-funded New York City park conservancies to share money with poorer parks.

The senate will not resume session until January, but Amy Spitalnick, Squadron’s communications director, said Squadron is in the process of gathering co-sponsors for the bill in hopes that committee action will be taken on it next year. The bill would establish the Neighborhood Parks Alliance within the parks department that uses money from rich park conservancies—those with budgets of $5 million or more like the Central Park Conservancy, which received a $100 million gift from hedge fund manager John A. Paulson last year —to fund the maintenance of poorer, more neglected parks like St. Mary’s, the south Bronx’s largest park. The alliance sounds like a simple solution, but the problem is more complicated than you might think.

“It’s not as simple as outer borough/Manhattan, or high income neighborhoods/lower income neighborhoods,” Leicht said in a recent City Limits article. “It’s much more nuanced.”

New Yorkers for Parks analyzed the parks department budget only to find that maintenance was evenly distributed throughout the city. The bigger problem, according to Alyson Beha, the organization’s director of research, planning and policy, is a lack of funds as a whole, particularly in terms of maintenance money. “We don’t think the parks department is choosing to maintain parks in certain neighborhoods and not others,” she said. “They just don’t have funding to maintain the system as a whole.”

The way capital projects have been funded for the last 12 years is through earmarking. The parks department does not have a capital budget of its own; Mayor Michael Bloomberg has directed money from his funds for specific park projects. Many of them, like the High Line, received funding at the expense of necessary, but less glamorous maintenance at a wide swath of parks that would have improved conditions city-wide.

Senator Squadron, and by extension Bill de Blasio, believes the Neighborhood Parks Alliance would improve the balance. The legislation includes tennis courts, pools and playgrounds. Plus, its ethos fits de Blasio’s campaign rhetoric to bridge the gap between rich and poor.

But many, including New Yorkers for Parks, are not convinced it’s the right solution.

Peter Sloane, chairman and chief executive of the Heckscher Foundation for Children, which has provided millions of dollars to the Central Park Conservancy for playgrounds, ball fields and other projects, said the alliance would “raise a question in our minds about the stewardship of funds that we committed.”

“In all funding decisions we look carefully at the organization to ensure it follows good governance and not-for-profit practice,” he added.

New Yorkers for Parks is advocating for the mayor-elect to reinstate the Department of Parks and Recreation’s capital budget that Bloomberg took away.

Xiao Ryan, who lives in Washington Heights, is an expert on playgrounds throughout the city. She takes her son Oliver, 2, to a different playground every week.

“Most of the playgrounds in our neighborhood have plaques that say they were built around [the year] 2000, under Mayor Giuliani,” she said. “They are nice but more generic than the ones in Central Park, which all seem to have different themes.”

“Everyone in our neighborhood has high hopes for the new ‘discovery’ playground being built in Fort Washington Park. The opening keeps getting delayed but maybe the new mayor will get it finished.”