NYC’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, has been under fire recently for everything from his approach to charter schools to his parks philosophy to his refusal to march in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. The common theme of these critiques is that his quest for equity and equality has already proven ineffective or misguided. Typical of this line of attack is Howard Husock’s recent Forbes editorial, “Parks, Schools and Bill de Blasio: Risking Mediocrity For Fairness.”
Husock takes aim at de Blasio’s concern over the substantial gap between New York’s marquis parks and the remainder of the city’s vast network of 1,900 neighborhood green spaces. The mayor’s interest in this issue arises from the fact that the jewels of the system — Central Park, Bryant Park and the like — are largely financed by private “conservancies” which raise millions in charitable donations to support their upkeep. Meanwhile, parks in less wealthy precincts are able to raise little or no funds from their neighbors of more modest means. The result is a two-tiered system — decried by de Blasio and his allies — with a dramatic disparity in which the poorer parks have more broken playground equipment, cracked pavement and permanently dry water fountains.
Husock compares de Blasio’s discomfort with this inequality in our parks to the mayor’s ostensible attack on charter schools, saying that both cases show the progressive leader’s disdain for public facilities that are successfully managed by private nonprofit organizations. Husock even calls the parks conservancies “charter parks” to emphasize the point. His claim is that the mayor is willing to risk “mediocrity for fairness” in both the parks and education spheres.
But this argument glosses over tough moral questions and ignores the ultimate solution.
The better analogy for private parks conservancies is to parent-teacher associations at public schools in wealthy neighborhoods, which often raise huge sums in private contributions — topping $1 million per school in some cases — to go towards improving their childrens’ learning environment beyond what is possible with tax dollars alone. Parents aren’t operating the school in such cases, they are just dramatically expanding the resources available, in order make extra staff or enriching activities possible.
Similarly, most conservancies in New York City rely on the city to run at least portions of their operations, and the Parks Department maintains full control over city parks in all cases — so the analogy to highly independent charter schools doesn’t hold. Like PTAs in wealthy neighborhoods, conservancies’ main function is to raise private funds to enhance a park’s programming, upkeep and repairs.
Are we comfortable with this private financing? Does it offend our sense of fairness when wealthier communities receive enhanced public services, whether in schools or parks?
People have the right to give to any cause they choose. And we should all celebrate when public facilities — wherever they are — provide better services. But in the case of parks, at least, I believe the inequality inherent in New York City’s two-tiered system demands a response. State Senator Dan Squadron’s bold and thought-provoking plan, which would direct 20 percent of private funds given to conservancies to a fund for under-resourced parks, at least deserves serious consideration.
The ultimate solution to the parks inequality crisis, however, lies in the city’s budget. The most insidious effect of the rise of conservancies is that it dampens the political will of the city’s most influential citizens for robust public funding of the Parks Department, mostly because such high-income individuals live adjacent to parks benefiting from private donations. The result: New York City’s parks budget has been stagnant for most of the past decade, despite a significant increase in acreage in the system and record-breaking spike in parks usage. Today the city dedicates just 0.4 percent of its budget to parks, far less than other large cities around the nation.
It’s not even clear if this limited parks budget is being distributed evenly, since the Parks department does not reveal its spending on an individual park basis. (My colleague in the City Council, Brad Lander, and I have introduced legislation which would require such reporting.) Further clouding the picture is the limited transparency of conservancy budgets, making it difficult to get a picture of the combined public and private funding in any given park.
A healthier and more transparent parks budget would allow the city to lift up the quality of all its parks, while simultaneously reducing the gap between the jewels and the rest of the system. In the meantime, Mayor de Blasio is right to be exploring every avenue to advance an equity agenda for our city’s precious green spaces. Critics who want us to refrain from taking bold steps on this critical issue can go take a hike (preferably in a well-funded public park).
Mark D. Levine represents the 7th District in the New York City Council and is Chair of the Council’s Parks Committee.