Opening Statement: Chair, Committee on Parks and Recreation

Good Afternoon, I am Mark Levine, Chair of the City Council’s Committee on Parks & Recreation.  And I want to welcome you to our hearing on the issue of equity in New York City’s park system.

To understand this issue we have to begin with a little history.  For most of the past century New York City robustly funded its green spaces, helping to make it arguably the nation’s premier urban park system.  In the 1960s the City devoted a healthy one-and-a-half percent of its budget to the Parks Department, but the financial crisis of the 1970s forced severe cutbacks in this funding.  By 1986 parks had fallen to just 0.86% of the budget, and the resulting lack of maintenance and staffing turned city parks into places which many New Yorkers sought to avoid.  

It was in this era that activist citizens jumped in to help save some of the city’s most cherished parks. Groups like the Central Park Conservancy were formed to channel private funds and private operations expertise into the city’s marquis parks.  In Central Park this effort achieved spectacular results, turning the park into a world-class destination, a magnet for New Yorkers, and a source of real economic benefits for the city.  This success sparked the creation of similar public-private partnerships in more than a dozen other parks in the decades that followed.  

But the rise of conservancies--and an improving fiscal condition for the city--did not bring about a rebound in the funding for the park system as a whole.  In fact the opposite happened.  By 1990 parks spending had fallen further to 0.65% of the total budget, and by 2000 it had reached just 0.52%.  Even during the Bloomberg years when hundreds of acres were added to the city’s park system and  usership spiked to record highs, the Parks Department’s operating budget languished at only about one half of one percent.  This amount is low not just by New York City’s historical standards, but is far less than most other big cities in the nation devote today to their green spaces.  April 23, 2013


How did this happen?  The clear downside of the rise of conservancies is that it has dampened the political will of the city's most influential citizens for robust public funding of the Parks Department, because such high-income individuals mostly live adjacent to parks benefiting from private donations.  The clear result is a stagnant public parks budget.

And for the hundreds of neighborhood parks that must survive without the benefit of contributions from deep-pocketed neighbors, this limited public funding has had unmistakable effects.  Even with a small bump-up in the past year, the department’s full-time current headcount of 3,762 is down over 20% since 1987 and down over 37% since 1961 when full-time staff numbered 6,015.  Today New York City’s Parks Department has less than 6 full-time equivalent employees per 10,000 city residents, ranking it 41st out of the 52 largest urban park systems in America, according to a recent analysis by the Trust for Public Land.

This staffing shortfall is partly made up today by thousands of part-time job training program workers who assist with maintenance and other functions, but this workforce completely turns over every six months which seriously impedes their effectiveness.  

One result of the tight staffing is that today the City only has the resources to prune street trees once every 10 years, and it doesn’t even adhere to this limited calendar for most trees inside non-conservancy parks.  

The ranks of the Park Enforcement Patrol (or PEP officers) have been so thinned out that there are only 28 assigned to the 6,000 acres of park land in the  Bronx--and as little as 2 on duty on some shifts for the entire borough.  By comparison the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy has used private funding to maintain a staff of over 20 PEP officers for just 26 acres.  In order to assess the impact such uneven distribution has had on parks we need data on crime broken down to the individual park level, something the Police Department has not historically provided.  To deal with this problem, my colleagues in the Council and I voted early this session to pass Local Law 2 which mandates that the NYPD report crime data in major parks throughout the city.

We also see clear unevenness in parks maintenance personnel.  For example the parks of Washington Heights-Inwood, which total over 600 acres, have permanent staff of only 49 while in comparison Central Park’s maintenance staff numbers over 200--which means that Central Park has three times the staff per acre as its uptown siblings.

In fact we don’t have a complete and accurate figure of just how evenly or unevenly maintenance and staffing resources are distributed throughout the system, since the Parks department does not reveal its spending on an individual park basis. To address this, my colleague in the City Council, Brad Lander, and I have sponsored Intro #154 which would mandate such reporting by the department.

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.  Councilmember Lander and I have sponsored a second bill, to be introduced soon, which would mandate more complete reporting from conservancies on a timeline consistent with the City’s budgeting process.

Without a doubt our biggest challenge, however, is not reporting but actually achieving adequate funding for neighborhood parks.  And to do this there is simply no avoiding the need to begin restoring the City’s parks budget back to historic levels.  Yes, this is a time of enormous competing budget priorities, but the truth, as Tupper Thomas says, is that parks and playgrounds and open space are essential infrastructure for our city, no less important than sewers or subways.     

I also know that the conservancies want to do more to support the many parks in our city that don’t benefit from wealthy neighbors.  And like Sen. Daniel Squadon--and New Yorkers for Parks--I believe that we need to create a new city-wide fund to support local parks in low- and moderate income neighborhoods.

And I believe conservancies need to directly support neighborhood parks around the city through provision of technical assistance, training, and shared maintenance services.  The Central Park Conservancy has been a leader in this area with the creation of its Central Park Institute.  We need more of this type of resource-sharing all around the city.

In today’s hearing we will explore these and other creative ideas for achieving equity in our parks.  I hope we will look at effective ideas being implemented in other cities.  I hope we will learn more about current conditions in parks in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.  I hope we’ll explore ideas like creating a discretionary capital budget for the Parks Department, and allowing the department to keep a portion of the concession income earned in Parks properties.

I look forward to hearing from members of the public today on these and other issues, and I’d like to start by welcoming the administration to present its report on this issue.  

Thank You.

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