Everyone's Backyard: Parks in New York City

Like millions of my fellow New Yorkers, warm and sunny spring days draw me into the city's parks for fresh air, a touch of green and some relaxed conversation. New Yorkers love their parks and all of our Mayors have understood the importance of parks in this crowded place. Recently, New York City agreed to take on the costs of developing and managing Governor's Island, a small 172 acre island off of the southern tip of Manhattan. The City plans to develop 87 acres of the island as a public park.
According to NY Times reporters A. G. Sulzberger and Michael Barbaro:

The acquisition of Governors Island would be a major contribution to the physical legacy of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's administration, which has made the development of public parks a priority.

With the recent addition of Brooklyn Bridge Park and a wide variety of smaller projects and renovations, the Mayor and his Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe have continued a long tradition of excellent stewardship of the city's parks. This has not been easy given the competing demands on the city's scarce resources. Parks Commissioners since the 1970's have faced diminished resources and have engaged in creative partnerships with everyone ranging from the wealthy folks on 5th Avenue and Central Park West to community groups in middle class parts of Queens to volunteers in some of the city's toughest neighborhoods. In the City's sustainability PLANYC 2030, the Mayor set a goal of ensuring that every New Yorker lived within a ten minute walk of a park. He also set the goal of planting 1,000,000 trees within the five boroughs. With these actions and the recent addition of two major parks, the Mayor and his team have demonstrated their commitment to parks in this city.

For over four decades the parks have suffered from the competition for resources with services that were seen as more urgent. Police and fire services, of course, deal with issues of life and death. Education, health and welfare programs were considered essential to survival while libraries and parks were often seen as frills. When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn in the late 1950's and early 1960's, most parks had a "parkee" staffing a building to lend you equipment and make sure the place was under control. With the fiscal crises of the mid 1970's, these folks disappeared and parks became unstaffed places rather than facilities. Before too long they became run-down and dangerous places. While parks still do poorly in the battle for public resources, they have learned to generate cash and in kind-services from communities and private parties. While this means that parks in wealthy neighborhoods tend to have more resources than parks in less wealthy neighborhoods, private resources have made it possible to allocate more public money to those places not able to generate private cash. The parks inspection system reports acceptable levels of condition and cleanliness in about 90% of the city's parks.

The fact is that while most of the land in New York City sits beneath single family homes with backyards, most of the people in New York City live in apartment buildings. For most New Yorkers parks provide their main access to outdoor spaces; they are everyone's backyard. When my children were growing up here in Manhattan, they were constantly making use of the city's parks. Bringing up kids in this city would be unimaginable without our parks. My family has been fortunate to live across the street from Morningside Park, one of the city's true treasures. It is a park that has been brought back to life over the past two decades by the constant efforts of a dedicated collection of people living in Harlem and Morningside Heights working alongside capable professionals in the City's Parks Department. Morningside Park's revival is one example of the quiet victories being seen all over New York and is important because it represents a true partnership between the city's government and its communities

The paradox of parks in New York is that there are a lot of them, but as the city grows, we need more of them. According to the Parks Department's web site:

Parks & Recreation is the steward of about 29,000 acres of land -- 14 percent of New York City -- including more than 5,000 individual properties... more than 800 athletic fields and nearly 1,000 playgrounds, 550 tennis courts, 66 public pools, 48 recreational facilities, 17 nature centers, 13 golf courses, and 14 miles of beaches. We care for 1,200 monuments and 23 historic house museums. We look after 600,000 street trees, and two million more in parks.

Still, New York only provides 36 acres of parkland for every 10,000 people. So of major American cities, only residents of Chicago have less park acreage per capita than New Yorkers. Even more crucial is spending on park facilities. New York spends about $25 annually per capita on its parks, and ranked 20th of 25 major cities in a 2004 study by the Trust for Public Land. In contrast, Chicago spent $108, Seattle spent $145, and even Washington D.C. managed to more than double New York's per capita spending.

Now to some extent, these data are a little unfair to New York. The city's large population means that even sizeable budget allocations can look quite small when divided by the population. It may be that the amount of land devoted to parks in a city reaches a point of diminished returns, rendering acres per person a poor measure of parks adequacy. The city's goal of parks proximity may be more important than the issue of total acreage. While many New Yorkers find athletic facilities like ball fields in short supply, few complain that the parks are too crowded. In fact, urbanites like New Yorkers seem to prefer crowded park areas like Central Park's Great Lawn and avoid more secluded spots. While it might be an issue of safety, I think it has more to do with the fact that urban parks are public spaces designed for social interaction. One piece of utilization data bears that out. Park experts estimate that 90% of the time spent in the city's parks takes place on less than 10% of the system's total acreage.

The Mayor and his team correctly understand the importance of parks to the city's quality of life and its competitiveness as a global city. Public spaces are critical resources that raise the value of nearby property and make the city a healthier and happier place to live. The new Governor's Island Park is a wonderful step forward.