One could argue that the current dispute over funding for New York City’s parks is a microcosm of an important global issue in our ongoing battle against climate change.
It’s universally known that parks, whether in an urban setting like New York, or in a suburban or rural setting, provide innumerable benefits to the millions of people who use them. The benefits include the obvious beautification that comes from a leafy park; the creation of quality, outdoor jobs; recreational enjoyment and exercise and the health benefits that flow from it; increased community engagement and viability by strengthening property values; and the environmental benefits that advocates and scientists so often tout. All of these are crucial to our well-being, but this article will focus on the environmental benefits, because, to many people, these are less obvious benefits and easily overlooked.
The world is desperately trying to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions, but it keeps rising. In 2022, the International Energy Agency reported that global emissions grew by 0.9 %, to 321 billion metric tons. Drastically reducing fossil fuel use, like coal and oil, are essential, as are replacing them with renewable energy. But part of the equation includes parks, aka trees and plants, and the scientific benefits that come with them. Every year, forests worldwide have removed an average of two billion metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere. In New York City, its seven million trees, in parks and outside them, remove more than 1,100 tons of air pollutants every year, according to the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.
“Trees and other plants pull CO2 out of the atmosphere as they grow, storing it in their stems, leaves, roots, branches, and trunks. Forests in our parks’ natural areas store more than 2.1 million tons of carbon and sequester 50,000 tons of carbon each year!” the NYC Parks website explains. “By providing shade and blocking wind, trees can also reduce the air conditioning and heating demands of nearby buildings, reducing the emissions associated with power production.”
Environmental advocates, including the New York League of Conservation Voters, are pushing Mayor Adams and the city of New York to allocate 1% of the city’s fiscal year 2024 budget to maintain, enhance and staff the city’s more than 2,000 parks. But Mayor Adams has proposed a budget that cuts $46 million from the parks budget from the previous year. This cut would negatively impact maintenance in the city’s parks by reducing park maintenance workers, park enforcement patrol officers and urban park rangers.
At a rally at City Hall on Wednesday, NYLCV President Julie Tighe said, “For too long, the Parks Department has gotten short shrift come budget time. If the city is serious about climate resilience, about protecting public health, about achieving equity and ensuring we have enough workers to get the job done, then now is the time for Mayor Adams and the City Council to … invest 1% of the city budget in Parks.”
The city’s parks – from the 2,765 acre Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, the city’s largest park, to Central Park, the city’s most famous, to the hundreds of much smaller, local parks scattered throughout the five boroughs – cover approximately 14 % of New York City, yet still only get 0.5 % of the city’s budget, said the New Yorkers for Parks, a non-profit.
The organization’s executive director, Adam Ganser, speaking at the City Hall rally, said, “Without this one percent, the Parks Department won’t have the adequate resources to properly fix, maintain and improve our parks.”
And even if the city raised the budget amount to one percent, it still would lag percentages from other major U.S. cities. According to New Yorkers for Parks, in 2021, San Francisco allocated 1.6 % of its budget for parks; Los Angeles, 2.9 %; Chicago, 4.3 %; and Minneapolis, 5.3 %.
This debate in New York City comes at a time when park use across the state is booming. According to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office, statewide attendance at the approximately 180 New York State parks in 2022 hit a new all-time high of 79.5 visits. Niagara Falls State Park drew 9.4 million visits, while Jones Beach State Park drew 8.5 million. Bear Mountain drew 2.4 million visits. (The 79.5 million figure does not even include the state’s two largest parks, the Adirondacks and the Catskills, because those parks are managed by a different state agency and attendance statistics were not available. Clearly, they drew millions of visitors. For info about New York state parks, click here.)
The official website of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation extols the environmental benefits of our city’s parks, which, with other open land, totals 20,000 acres of forests, wetlands and grasslands.
“Not only do trees and plants improve air quality by producing oxygen via photosynthesis, their leaf surfaces also absorb gaseous pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and ozone” the NYC Parks Department wrote on its website.
Clearly, we need our city parks, and all parks, to be fully funded and adequately maintained, so that all New Yorkers can reap the maximum benefits. It’s a quality-of-life issue, an economic issue, and perhaps, most importantly, an environmental issue.
For more info on the importance of trees in the fight against global warming, see MIT.edu.
For statistics on state and federal parks, which state has the most and how states rank, visit playgroundequipment.com for a comprehensive report.