New York City Needs a Parks System Which Is Both Fair and Fabulous

Huffington_Post.pngBy Council Member Mark Levine

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.

Read the full piece here.

Sign up for our mailing list!

Report a Problem Participatory Budgeting Events

Mark In Action

Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council members on Friday afternoon announced an agreement on the city's $92.8 billion budget for fiscal 2020, with initiatives to improve health care access at its forefront. The budget includes $26 million to place 200 additional social workers—including 85 working within the city's mental health initiative, ThriveNYC—in public...

Under legislation drafted by the City Council, the de Blasio administration would have to report on its efforts to notify school staff and the students who attended dozens of public schools during the 2001-02 school year that were not far from the World Trade Center site about programs available for...

The city is trying to have tenants sign new leases that only list one official occupant. By Noah Manskar, Patch Staff NEW YORK — New York City is forcing tenants of beleaguered buildings that it owns to sign new leases — and the conditions have raised hackles among lawyers and lawmakers....

By Brian M. Rosenthal The New York attorney general’s office said Monday it had opened an inquiry into more than a decade of lending practices that left thousands of immigrant taxi drivers in crushing debt, while Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered a separate investigation into the brokers who helped arrange...

City Councilmember Mark Levine has announced the 2019 winners of participatory budgeting in his district, which includes parts of the Upper West Side, Morningside Heights and Washington Heights. The projects to receive funding are: $250,000 for air conditioning upgrades and new water fountains at P.S. 165 Robert E. Simon School...

By Sabrina Mallot Last fall, the City Council introduced a package of 18 bills aimed at preventing tenants from being displaced due to aggressive tactics from landlords like exploitative buyout agreements or nuisance construction. On Wednesday, May 8, all but one passed. They still require the mayor’s signature, but he...

By Eddie Small The hallways of Bronx Housing Court are crowded and chaotic on a typical weekday morning. Lawyers and tenants scurry across the white tile floors and lounge on the worn-down benches of the Grand Concourse building, where occasionally the sound of one person shouting out a name will...

By Elizabeth Kim A collaboration between a group of housing rights advocates has produced the most comprehensive database yet to measure evictions across New York City and identify many of the landlords responsible for them. Three advocacy groups — Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, JustFix.nyc, and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project —...