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NYC parks foresee financial losses at a time when we need them the most

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Several New York City parks expect to lose millions of dollars in funding for upkeep and maintenance

Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Prospect Park welcomes over 10 million visitors every year, and right now, it’s more crowded than ever. Beyond the lack of social distancing that has enraged some New Yorkers, parkgoers may not notice another new development: There’s no longer the same level of maintenance, trash collection, and gardening.

The park—along with the rest of New York City’s nearly 2,000 public green spaces—is facing financial hardship.

New Yorkers have flocked to public parks during the pandemic to get fresh air, sun, and exercise. And as the weather gets warmer, they are expected to increasingly head to them, especially as many restaurants, beaches, and pools remain off-limits.

But the role of parks goes far beyond recreation: Urban green spaces help pull tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, lower temperatures, and mitigate the effects of climate change overall. And aside from providing the kind of open space necessary for social distancing in public, parks are also spaces to cool down during warm summers and heat waves, which affect the elderly and low-income communities the most.

“Parks should be seen as critical infrastructure in the city—and that word is an important one because we don’t tend to think of parks and open space as critical infrastructure; we think of internet services and fuel supply and transportation as critical infrastructure, not parks and open space,” says Timon McPhearson, associate professor of urban ecology at the New School. “I think COVID is teaching us that they’re incredibly important for our daily lives [and also] for our mental and physical health.”

We often take our parks for granted. Their upkeep—including cleanups, mowing, educational programs, and horticultural care—is powered by the work of their staff, maintenance workers, and volunteer members, all of which costs money: around $534 million in fiscal year 2019 (less than one percent of the total city budget). For fiscal year 2021, there is a proposed $61.3 million cut to the city’s Parks Department’s budget, even as the department oversees and maintains more than 1,900 parks, 1,000 playgrounds, 650,000 street trees, and 2 million park trees.

And now, according to a new report, park-conservation groups anticipate significant financial losses due to COVID-19.

New York City parks receive funding from the city’s annual budget, but the $534 million in 2019–2020 by no means covers everything. To make up the difference, over 25 nonprofit organizations partner with the city to provide maintenance, community services, and operations to support 50 percent of the city’s public green spaces. Those conservancy groups rely on private funds and earned revenue, which are all now at risk due to the coronavirus.

The report, which surveyed 20 such organizations—including the Riverside Park Conservancy, New Yorkers for Parks, the Bronx River Alliance—shows that these groups are expected to lose an average of 32 percent of their revenue this year, which will impact many areas of the parks’ operations. Overall, the surveyed parks expect to lose $37 million, which could result in 39,668 less hours of maintenance, over 200,000 volunteer hours, and around 541,700 trees and other vegetation that will not be planted this year.

During the city’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s, parks were left unkempt and significantly deteriorated, which led to the creation of these nonprofits that today help maintain and support the city’s public green spaces. The report says there are more than 25 nonprofit organizations for parks and almost 600 formal and informal collectives across the city.

In the case of Riverside Park, which spans 400 acres from 59th Street to the George Washington Bridge along the Hudson River, “it will mean that we will be slower than we hope to be on a lot of our projects to keep the park safe and clean,” Dan Garodnick, CEO of the Riverside Park Conservancy, says.

“We have a staff of gardeners that is out in the field every day, and their role is to take care of an individual zone throughout the park, and we are gonna be behind as a result of this,” he adds. “And, like many organizations, we have put a halt to new hiring, and we [have] not been able to host volunteer groups into the park.”

Sue Donoghue, president of the Prospect Park Alliance, says the 585-acre park is not able to hire seasonal workers “to help and partner with the city on things like trash collection on the weekends or additional staff for our landscape-management operation,” especially at this time of year, in warmer months, when the park gets busier.

Prospect Park’s budget depends on private support but also on earned income from renting a tennis center, the LeFrak Center at Lakeside, and other spaces for weddings and events. But since those spaces are closed, the park’s budget is taking a significant dip, Donoghue says.

“Between the loss of city funding, the hit to our organizations, bottom line, and the inability to bring in volunteers, that is a triple threat to many New York City parks, including ours,” Garodnick adds.

Aside from supporting your local park organization and donating, Donoghue says there are other things New Yorkers can do in the meantime to help support the city’s green spaces.

“Be aware of the fact that we don’t have the same level of staffing ... Help us with litter, and if the trash can is full, maybe walk to a different one or carry your trash out of the park,” she says. “Just partnering with us to help to take care of the park in this period of diminished resources.”