The COVID-19 pandemic has presented numerous challenges for New York City. Many residents adjusted to spend more time inside their apartments, or outside practicing safe social distancing. New Yorkers are relying on parks and open spaces more than ever as an outlet to maintain their mental and physical health during this tumultuous time. Despite the evident need for park access, maintenance, and improvements, the City made severe cuts to the budget of the Department of Parks & Recreation. Additionally, nonprofits that grant funding for park operations are expected to lose revenue that will lead to the deterioration of certain public parks in the future. Although NYLCV understands that the City’s current fiscal situation necessitated budget reductions, New York City should reallocate its budget to better support parks and open spaces, which are proving to be indispensable for many residents.
The pandemic has also exacerbated the disparity between flagship parks that benefit from private funding and partnerships, and neighborhood parks that lack funding, maintenance, and safety. According to reports from the Independent Budget Office (IBO) and the Trust for Public Land (TPL), low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and related deaths, also have inadequate access to open spaces. These reports show that inequity in underserved communities is costing residents their livelihood. This is being amplified during a pandemic that is disproportionately hurting these communities.
The reports cite several park inequities in low-income neighborhoods. The IBO report found that park space is not equally distributed: Lower-income communities usually have less park space per capita. For example, Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Bensonhurst and Borough Park only have two square feet of park space per resident. Higher-income areas including Pelham Bay, Bayside, and parts of Staten Island generally have larger park space per capita. The TPL report shows that these wealthier areas of the city do not face the challenges associated with smaller parks that are often found in poor, nonwhite, and higher density communities. Finally, there’s a probable safety disparity between flagship parks and public parks. Flagship parks have private funding that affords permanent Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers, while the majority of PEP officers in NYC patrol a route of neighborhood parks. Due to this year’s budget cuts, 80 additional PEP officers will no longer be hired.
In recent years, NYLCV has recognized the City’s efforts to distribute public resources in a more equitable manner. Under Mayor de Blasio’s administration, the Department of Parks and Recreation created new programs, including the Community Park Initiative (CPI), Parks Without Borders (PWB), and Anchor Parks Initiative (API). Under these initiatives, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in needed park reconstruction. For example, CPI is approaching its goal of completing 67 capital projects. While these efforts are commendable, recent data regarding COVID-19 rates and park access shows that there is still much work to be done in many communities to improve park access.
Earlier this month at a City Council Committee on Parks and Recreation hearing, NYLCV testified in support of reallocating funds to the Parks Department budget. Local communities, especially those disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, are in need of these resources, and The City has a responsibility to provide assistance to these deserving areas.