Op-ed: Parks are critical infrastructure — our next mayor needs to treat them that way

Crowds of people in Prospect Park during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brooklyn, New York
People are seen out in Prospect Park during the COVID-19 outbreak.
REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

After a long pandemic winter, spring is here again. And already New Yorkers are turning out in huge numbers to enjoy their neighborhood parks and open spaces.

Last year, the pandemic underscored what has always been true — that parks are crucial to our physical, mental and social well-being. They’re not only our shared backyards and the foundation for healthy communities, but crucial sources of our city’s environmental resilience and drivers of economic growth.

Unfortunately, COVID also laid bare our city’s chronic lack of commitment to ensure that every New Yorker has access to safe, clean, well-maintained parks and open spaces. Just as people turned out in record numbers, relying on their parks more than ever, the city dealt them an $80 million budget cut and citywide park conditions reached historic lows.

As we head into one of the most consequential election years for our city in decades, now is a golden opportunity not just to undo the budgetary setback of 2020 but to permanently reorient our approach to parks and realize an equitable, 21st-Century system.

For that, we’ll need our next mayor and City Council to invest in a comprehensive and far-sighted new vision for a new era, prioritizing parks as critical infrastructure and a crucial part of New York’s equitable economic recovery and environmental resilience.

What does that look like? Here are the policy actions our city can take right now to start tackling this challenge.

First, we need a citywide plan for parks and open spaces — rather than addressing the issue piecemeal. The city needs a cross-agency open space vision that focuses on parks access and equity, and emphasizes the role that parks play in climate resiliency, public health, and economic development; it also needs a Director of the Public Realm to oversee that program.

Second, we need to take parks funding seriously and commit to the longstanding goal of directing to them 1 percent of the city budget.  Top-ranked parks systems in cities like San Francisco and Minneapolis dedicate 1-2 percent of their city budget to parks; New York has been stuck at less than 0.6 percent for decades. It’s time our elected officials put our values into policy and commit to the funding our city needs for maintenance and operation of our parks and open spaces, and our natural areas and our waterfronts.

Third, we need a plan that ensures park equity for all New Yorkers. Currently, communities with the least access to parks across the city are disproportionately majority Black, Latinx and Asian. We need to build new parks and playgrounds in under-resourced communities and neighborhoods that don’t yet have adequate access.

These are three core tenets for a successful parks program in New York City.

This is an unnerving time, but also one full of possibilities. With a new administration in the White House and a new class of elected officials soon to take over City Hall — this should be the moment to permanently reposition our city towards equity and justice.

That starts with New York’s parks, our shared backyards.

Adam Ganser is the Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks.

This op-ed first appeared on AMNY.com.