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State of the Parks Address ’06

State of the Parks Address ’06

NYC Park Advocates’ First Annual State of the Parks Address
June 15, 2006 - The Cooper Union

Opening Statement

Good morning, my name is Geoffrey Croft. I am the president and founder of NYC Park Advocates. NYC Park Advocates, Inc. is a non-profit, non-partisan watchdog group dedicated to restoring public funding, improving public parks, increasing park services and expanding open space and public recreation in NYC. We are the only city-wide park advocacy group that monitors all federal, state and city parkland and open space.

Today we are releasing preliminary findings from the first public inspection ever conducted of all city, state and federal park land and open space in the city’s history. Four years in the making, our exhaustive research details the devastating effects of more than four decades of government disinvestment and appalling park and open space policies. The event will be an hour long presentation of the deplorable conditions of the city’s park and open space system caused by the tremendous losses in public funding the over the last 45 years. The neglect of these valuable assets has caused a serious underutilization of parks in an overcrowded city and has created significant barriers to promoting health and providing safety.

These issues affect public health, public safety, the environment, ADA, environmental justice, the equal protection clause of the Constitution, the economy, education and basic quality-of-life.

Before we present the visual findings, please allow me to put them into context. Our presentation today will focus mainly on the alarming results of the single greatest issue facing our park, public recreation, and open space system today: the lack of adequate dedicated government funding for their maintenance and operation. Although this affects the quality-of-life for all New Yorkers, those most impacted are the residents in the city’s underserved communities, namely, the working class, the poor and the disenfranchised. NYC Park Advocates will release the first volume of its comprehensive reports in Winter 2007.

The depth of our city’s park and open space system’s problems have never been studied comprehensively. Interested constituents cannot begin to address these challenges without first knowing their extent. With your help, we hope this will become the first step in holding the government accountable. The publication’s purpose will be to provide detailed analyses of the many challenges facing parks, open space and public recreation issues in the city, caused chiefly by poor planning and years of fiscal neglect. It will detail the appalling results of decades of Government disinvestment to help raise awareness. This information will be used to help direct policy, including leveraging long-term funding for all communities.

Adequate funding for parks will help to make every neighborhood in NYC a better, safer and healthier place to live, work and raise a family, as well as encourage economic investment. NYC Park Advocate’s role is to ensure that every community’s needs related to parks, open space and public recreation programs are understood and addressed. We believe if the City of New York is committed to having a park system, then it must be adequately funded. It will require far more political will and collective, focused public participation, much greater than has been demonstrated over the last 40 years. The health and well being of our great city absolutely depends on it. Its quite simple: Safe, properly maintained and well programmed parks save lives. Our goal is to help solve this public health dilemma.

Land under the jurisdiction of the City’s Parks Department occupies more than 14 percent of the city, yet today they receive less than a half of one percent of the city’s annual budget. But that wasn’t always the case. Until 1960, the DPR regularly received 1.4 % percent and higher. However, due to a drastic shift in priorities— coupled with the city’s increased financial responsibilities for other government services— over the last 45 years the park’s department share of the city budget has rapidly declined. The city has routinely allocated less than one half of one percent. That is more than a $10 billion dollar decrease in expense allocations over the last 45 years, had the appropriations ratio remained fixed at 1.4%. In 2004, the City allocated only $ 153 million or (0.38%) of its $ 44.3 billion dollar budget for the parks department, the lowest percentage in modern history. Billions of dollars in capital funding have also disappeared. These funds are also desperately needed to repair a vastly aging and neglected infrastructure. The images you will soon see are a direct result of these dramatic reductions.

Forty years ago, virtually every park and playground had fixed staffing, with most having multiple staff assigned to their maintenance and the provision of recreation programming. Today, less than two percent have dedicated staffing. Almost without exception, the only parks with permanent employees are those with significant private funds.

The City Charter clearly states the Park Department’s responsibilities are to “manage and care for all parks, to maintain the beauty and utility of all parks, playgrounds and other recreational properties, to maintain trees and other plantings, to maintain areas for conservation and the preservation of natural beauty, and to supervise recreation programs.” These are among the many responsibilities charged to the agency. Seeing what I see on a daily bases, I don’t think any reasonable person could possibly conclude these provisions of the City Charter are being satisfied. Not even close.

A great deal of work must to be done, but success can only be achieved if we begin to address these issues honestly, which unfortunately the city has consistently refused to do. The response from the city is always the same: “We have the greatest parks in the world. Parks have never looked cleaner, or better in forty years,” etc. During the last campaign trail the favored phrase was “we are witnessing the Golden age of parks.”

Unfortunately, The city’s long pattern of neglect is quite evident. The exhausting images you are about to see come from every borough. And although this is a city-wide problem that effects virtually every segment of the population, it is no secret that a disproportionate amount of the most severe issues exist in poor neighborhoods, in areas populated by people predominantly of color. This is of course the great irony considering these are the communities that rely on these public services the most. This pattern of neglect must be reversed.

We encourage the press to be diligent and follow up on the many issues presented here today. Each image represents a symbol of a far greater problem throughout the park system.

The solutions to this public heath dilemma can only with solved with the cooperation of our city, state and federal elected officials in partnership with the public at large. Our city is in desperate need of a “sound, basic” park, open space and recreation system, to borrow language from the public education funding fight. This means a much greater commitment and priority, including a far greater allocation of resources. This also means much greater accountability from our elected officials and the agencies charged with the delivery of such services. The city’s elected officials must also come together to demand the equitable delivery of services, based on needs, not politics.

Geoffrey Croft
President & Founder
NYC Park Advocates

Cell #

More than 200 images from dozens of parks throughout the five boroughs showing the deplorable conditions were shown at the State of the Parks Address. A selection of these photos will be available shortly at our web site .

PRESS: Photographs can also be made available via email and CD. Please contact Geoffrey Croft at any of the contacts listed above.

Preliminary Results

What was once a run-down inadequate neglected collection of park properties is now the leading coordinated progressive park system in this country. Its spread of facilities and comprehensiveness amazes visitors of other great cities or those who have been absent from the City for a period of years. The Department of Parks had faced its problems honestly. However, there remains the problem of maintenance, that is, whether the citizens of New York City and those who live on its borders are ready to protect and maintain by their conduct and purses, all these new improvements.” —Robert Moses, 1939

Sadly, we have not. NYC’s public parks, once the most celebrated and unprecedented public works program in the nation, have become dumping grounds and havens for drug use, prostitution, the homeless and criminal activity. Their maintenance and safety have plummeted under the weight of crippling budget cuts. Despite being in violation of the City Charter for decades, the City has been able to get away with this with virtual impunity.

NYC parks are in crisis. For more than four decades, the city, state and federal governments have allocated a fraction of the funds needed to maintain our vast park system. The question is, how much longer will the city’s elected officials collectively be able to ignore this public heath crisis.

NYC ranks last for a high density city in terms of per capita spending on parks for its citizens. By comparison, NYC spends 81% less per resident than Seattle, while Chicago’s proposed budget for parks this year is $ 173 million dollars more than NYC for a population and a park system one third the size. More than 5.5% of Chicago’s total operating budget is spent on parks compared to less than a half a percent in NY.

In a city that prides itself on being world class, this is simply unacceptable. Unfortunately, this problem is not new. The massive layoffs and service cuts that resulted from the City’s fiscal crisis in the ‘70’s only further exacerbated an already troubling trend - the extensive municipal disinvestment in parks, open space and recreation programs. Long before 1975, our parks were suffering from drastic service reductions and poor management, perhaps best illustrated by the national, and not inaccurate impression, of a dangerous, deteriorated Central Park. In fact, for more than forty years New York City’s parks have been starved of their natural resources, that is, adequate money to maintain them. During this time more than $10 billion dollars in operating expenses alone have been diverted to other municipal “priorities.” New York City has never earmarked enough funds to adequately maintain its public parks – not even close. The City’s park system we know today was built and maintained by a series of enormous Federal grants in conjunction with an immense outlay of city funds. These funds were instituted by a tenacious Senator, supported by a sympathetic President and fought for by an obstinate Mayor and an autocratic parks commissioner with unprecedented political power during the darkest days of the depression. The majority of those dollars dried up more than 40 years ago leaving the City’s park system, infrastructure, basic services, and programming defenseless against the ravages of time and competing municipal funding priorities. For decades, the City, State and Federal governments allocate just a fraction of the money needed to maintain the City’s vast park system, and to provide programs for a population that is dangerously out-of shape. The question is, collectively, how much longer will they be able ignore this public health dilemma?

Over the last 40 years, no other city agency has suffered as high a percentage of cuts to its budget and staff as has the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation. The staff cuts and service reductions have been devastating. They betray not only the citizen’s right to a basic and essential city service, but also constitute a reckless public policy. It is only fitting that two of the hardest hit areas are reflected in the agency’s name: horticulture - the parks in Parks & Recreation - and recreation. Over the last forty years the agency has lost 99.07 % of municipally funded horticultural staff and 99.5% of its recreation staff.

Since 1991 alone, full-time municipally funded staffing has fallen 64.5%. Going from 4, 285 positions to 1, 521 today. (FY 06 Actual) A generation has grown up deprived of the benefit of proper care of its green spaces and the gentle guidance and safety provided by a neighborhood “parkie.” In essence, the City’s leaders have crippled this department.

What makes this picture even more troubling is the fact that despite the findings of an array of experts and research over several decades stressing that more physical activity is crucial to combating a number of health related issues, the number of physical education classes, after-school programs and municipal recreational programs and their budgets have steadily declined.

Unfortunately, with few exceptions, this has followed a national trend, and the health implications cannot be overstated. It is no coincidence that these severe cuts to recreation programs and the maintenance of facilities has coincided with devastating decreases in preventive health-related physical activities for children and adults across the country. During this time, according to the CDC, obesity has risen 100%, and the number of children ages 6-11 considered overweight, has increased 300% (morbid obesity has tripled in just the last decade alone). Obesity, the fastest growing major health problem in the nation, costs Americans an estimated $117 billion annually in health costs. The CDC predicts it could soon become the leading cause of preventable death in America. Today, less than 5 percent of the DPR’s budget is allocated for recreation.

Parks, recreation and access to well-maintained green spaces play an important role in both the physical and mental health of New Yorkers. Besides helping to prevent obesity, they can play a significant role in managing asthma, diabetes, and a host of other medical issues that are plaguing our communities. Despite a desperate need for usable park space, thousands of acres go underutilized in the city. Many acres are lost due to the physical and mental constraints imposed on the public due to the lack of maintenance and the correct perception that many parks are unsafe. Recreation centers and swimming pools remain closed, while the majority of our athletic fields’ maintenance has simply been abandoned. The neglect of these valuable assets causes the underutilization of parks in an overcrowded city and creates significant barriers to promoting health and providing safety. “Children are exercising so much less than they were before,” said Dr. Francine Kaufman, President of the American Diabetes Association, “because a lot of school programs have been cut. The parks and places children can go after school have markedly deteriorated.”

NYC ranks dead last for a high-density city in municipal swimming pools and recreation centers per person, yet many remain closed. By comparison, the City of Philadelphia has twice as many pools as NYC, and more than 4 times as many recreation centers, for a population one fifth the size. This is especially troubling for communities with limited resources and increased health risks. Just one example of this impact can be found in the Bronx, where the top five poorest community districts in the City are located. Despite the fact that 60% of Bronx residents in certain neighborhoods are considered obese, in addition to having some of the highest asthma rates in the country, incredibly, for 9 and a half months a year, only 125 of the more than 1.3 million Bronx residents have access to a public pool at any one time. (Swimming is an anaerobic activity that helps open up and strengthen lungs) Additionally, the DPR has only one regulation size gymnasium in the borough of the Bronx.

The City is also failing to provide adequate services for what should be one of their most pressing priorities: citizens with physical challenges. According to the 2000 US census, more than 1.8 million residents in NYC have a disability, including more than 350,000 school age children. Yet these children are conspicuously absent from most city playgrounds. This should come as no surprise as the needs of these children have been largely ignored.

The City continues to actively create barriers by illegally building, and by allowing others to build, park facilities that discriminate against people with physical challenges. In 1974 a small unit within the Department of City Planning was assigned to research the needs of people with disabilities. Among the group’s findings were that “people with disabilities often became isolated from the rest of society because they avoided certain buildings, streets, and facilities that were difficult for them to navigate.”

“Many children with disabilities had also become isolated from the general child population because it was nearly impossible for them to enter many playgrounds, let alone play on the equipment.” Incredibly, today, just five of the DPR’s 997 playgrounds are fully accessible for children of all abilities according to the DPR’s website. A few others have minimum play equipment, often with just one piece in each playground satisfying the City’s definition and legal obligation to the ADA. Independent access to the Parks Department’s own headquarters— the Arsenal in Central Park— was accomplished only a few months ago. A few months ago. More than fifteen years after the ADA was created.

Civil rights laws say all Americans have the right, not only to have access to public facilities, but also to be able to use them. In the City’s sad version of compliance, a child may be able to gain access to a playground, but for most, the sad reality is they will not be able to use any of the equipment.

The City has been able to skirt the intent of the law and its responsibilities for too long. The City must develop and implement a policy where by children of all abilities are able to flourish side by side in safe, healthy, nurturing play environments if we are to help break the cycle of social isolation that affects people who are routinely excluded. This includes installing fully integrated, universally accessible playgrounds in safe, well maintained parks.

People with disabilities from all age groups have also been virtually ignored by recreation and educational programs provided by DPR. For decades, municipal parks and recreation departments throughout the country have offered diverse recreation programming for people with disabilities through therapeutic recreation divisions. Indeed, some recreation centers have been built solely for people with disabilities, but not in NYC, the city with the largest population of people with disabilities in the country. Additionally, less than 5% of the city’s more than 600 public bathrooms in public parks are accessible and ADA compliant. We must reverse this culture of exclusion, and isolation that permeates our society. This discrimination perpetuates the City’s reputation as being uncaring and cold, while sustaining a tiered class system.

All New Yorkers from all socioeconomic backgrounds are affected, but not surprisingly, these cuts fall hardest on the segment of the population with far fewer options— the city’s poor and working class—the foundation of our city. New York City has four of the country’s ten poorest congressional districts. It is a city where more than a quarter of its children live at or below the poverty level, where 1.7 million New Yorkers live below the poverty level and a million of these on $ 8,815 or less per year for a family of four. Now, more than ever, these vital, basic services are needed.

In city parks today, adequate maintenance, programming and dedicated park enforcement now depends on what zip codes you are in, and the willingness and ability of NYC’s citizens to raise and leverage private funds. Increasingly our citizens and the private sector are being asked to shoulder the municipal responsibility of managing and maintaining what is a basic, essential city service.

The growing trend to depend on private money has saved a handful of parks - mostly in wealthy neighborhoods or in those communities willing and able to support business improvement districts - while the majority of parks lack even the most basic amenities. But what about the other 99 percent of the parks and the communities affected by the lack of adequate funding?

Because of the enormity of the problem, this money will never represent more than a fraction of the funds needed to reverse this destructive policy of governmental neglect. The City’s increasing reliance on these private funds has resulted in a vastly inequitable distribution of services. It has become “a tale of two cities.” Experience with public/private partnerships over the last twenty years has proven that private subsidies to individual parks has created an enormous gap between the haves and the have-nots, while ignoring the real problem - that our parks are not funded as an essential city service.

For decades the DPR has been unable to provide even the most basic level of services in many instances. One need not look any further for a prime example of the City’s policy of appropriating grossly inadequate municipal funding and accountability for its parks than the monumental failure of Central Park. The fact that a private organization had to be created not only to combat the City’s neglect of one of its most prized treasures, but also to take over the management and the majority of its financial obligations, speaks volumes. By abandoning its flagship park — one of the most visible and visited tourist attractions in the world — the City proved its lack of commitment to its parks and open spaces. Can the public truly trust the City to maintain the rest of the park system if its responsibility to the world’s most famous and celebrated park was neglected and ultimately abandoned? Clearly not. Not surprisingly, this continued lack of responsibility has led to a serious erosion of the public’s confidence in the government’s ability to provide these services city- wide.

There is no question that private money spent in parks has made a difference to the few parks that have benefited, but what about the rest of the park system? What chance do these parks have to acquire significant private funds when it took the richest people per capita in the world over twenty years to raise and leverage over $ 300 million dollars to partially restore, maintain and provide public programs for just one park, Central Park? A park which represents less than 3% of the City’s municipal parkland. And while the government is allowed to abdicate its responsibility, the Central Park Conservancy was designing and building ornate water fountains for dogs. This, when hundreds of thousands of children across the City are being offered decade-old dirt in their fountains, monuments to public apathy and continued “deferred maintenance.”

Unfortunately the State and Federal governments also allocate just a fraction of what the City’s vast park system requires. It is simply not a priority. Even though 42% of the State’s population live in the five boroughs, the State dedicates just seven million dollars for the operation of its parks in the city. This is $ .95 cents per resident annually for its city parks. State wide, a paltry 1.3 % of the State’s annual budget is allocated to parks, open space and the environment, the lowest of any state in the country.

And even though 80% of Americans live in urban areas, the Federal government commits less than one tenth of one percent of its resources to urban parks, a far smaller proportion than for its national forests and parks. These parks too, are also severely under resourced. Even though the Federal government is responsible for approximately 26,000 acres, representing almost half of the city’s parks and open spaces, they spend only twenty million dollars annually on their upkeep. This amounts to less than $3 per person annually.

In part, our goal is to raise the awareness of both the general public and our elected officials of the need to vastly increase public spending on these vital services. The images to be shown today represent the distressing conditions found throughout our park system due to the historic losses of public funding over many decades. They also represent the striking disparities of park services between the few privately funded public parks and the rest of the system.

Let me please stress once more: The solutions to these problems can only with solved with the cooperation of our city, state and federal elected officials in partnership with the public at large. Our city desperately needs a “sound, basic” park, open space and recreation system. This means a much greater commitment and priority, including a far greater allocation of resources. This also means much greater accountability from our elected officials and the agencies charged with the delivery of such services. The city’s elected officials must come together to demand the equitable delivery of services, based on needs, not politics.

I would like to once again thank you for being here today. I hope this is a beginning of a much needed dialogue.

In closing, these issues are literally a matter of life and death. Parks, open spaces and public recreation programs are not a fringe benefit, they are the life and health of this great city. Parks purify our water and the air we breath. They lower the city’s temperature, and they provide habitat for thousands of living creatures. They are the City’s official backyards, providing refuge for those who cannot afford to escape the oppressive heat of summer and the isolation of winter. They are where life-long friendships are born, where we exercise, take walks, garden, celebrate, contemplate, enjoy nature, fall in love, learn, discover, compete, where we marvel at the coexistence of natural beauty and the imagination and determination of mankind. In short, parks are not only the city’s lungs, they are also the spiritual and artistic lifelines of our great city. Please help.