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PARKS & PUBLIC SPACE

A basic human need, open space is not here for one generation to sell or rent and the next generation to do without. Our market-based approach to government does not assign a value to public space. Because it is cheap to build on, the unbuilt land that remains in our almost fully developed city, including mapped parkland, is often threatened.

In NYC, government has no idea of what the public needs are, or what it would cost to meet them. There are no studies of how our increasing reliance on the private sector to finance our public space system influences civic choices or how private sector influence forces public space needs onto the back burner of governmental priorities. With privatization of parks an increasing responsibility of park administrators, elected officials must decide if the current governmental course of fiscal abandonment of parks is the correct one.

 

FIFTY BAD YEARS

The fiscal abandonment of Parks has gone on for fifty years. Parks budgets have eroded more quickly in bad times than good, but unlike other areas of government, the Parks department never fully recovers from bad-year budget cuts, and in recent years suffered cuts even in good years. Part of the reason for this is in the way government is structured. Parks, unlike most government responsibilities, is almost entirely financed with local tax money. Higher levels of government provide little match money for parks, nor are there unfunded mandates to provide park services as there are for other governmental programs. Given the choice of spending 100 cents on the dollar for parks and 20 cents on the dollar for highways, what would you choose?

The result of fifty years of making those choices is a two-tiered park system. Government has learned that people with money to spare will make contributions for the care of their parks. Central Park has become a manicured gem. Bryant Park and other business district parks benefit from Business Improvement District taxation or solicitations. Battery Park City parks benefit from special city taxation exclusions. Prospect Park muddles along, finding funds to make improvements over extended timelines, which would be unacceptable in Manhattan. Parks in neighborhoods without deep pockets wait for special legislative appropriations and those in neighborhoods with many needs find those appropriations harder to find than those in communities with fewer needs. Major park developmental needs are just never met, leading local residents to be thankful when a private developer comes forward with ideas to build a park with profit in mind.

 

MAKING EVERY PARK A GEM

The difference between Battery Park City Parks and most neighborhood open spaces is a dedicated source of revenue: the rents of surrounding buildings. Other cities, Chicago for instance, have dedicated taxes that provide funding for their entire parks systems instead of singular parks. In this way, funds are available to provide park services throughout the city, instead of just those neighborhoods best able to pay.

Neighborhood Open Space Coalition has suggested an environmental tax to improve NYC Park (and public space) environments. We have proposed a 15-cent tax on plastic shopping bags and plastic fast food and beverage containers that would be dedicated to public space improvement. In Ireland, where a similar tax has gone into effect, it has led to a 95% reduction in plastic bag waste, cutting the cost of garbage hauling. Although we have not thoroughly investigated the revenue potential of this voluntary tax, we believe it could double the present Parks budget, bringing it closer to the long held target of 1% for parks.

Proposals exist for other dedicated sources of income for parks and Neighborhood Open Space Coalition would be flexible in supporting them IF the total revenue generated from those sources would be greater than the present parks budget. Experiences in New York in other areas of government indicate that dedicated revenue sources that are less than current expenditures just lead to cuts from regular tax revenues, leaving the agency no better off than before the new funding was dedicated.

 

QUALITY PARKS FOR EVERYONE

New Yorkers deserve quality parks whether they live in Brooklyn Heights or Jackson Heights. It is incumbent upon our elected representatives to find a way to bridge the park quality gaps between our communities, and create new parks in those neighborhoods that are least well served. This will not happen without an effort to fund all parks, a prospect that is unlikely given the pressures of unfunded mandates and match-money funded programs. Other government priorities deemed important have dedicated funding sources. Parks, critical to solving a citywide obesity epidemic that is leading to a major crisis in our entire public health system, deserves no less.


For continuing coverage of the needs of NYC's Parks aand Public space system subscribe to URBAN OUTDOORS, Neighborhood Open Space Coalition's FREE monthly newsletters

Urban Outdoors
March 2008
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