It's a familiar refrain among outer-borough parks advocates: We're getting the short end of the stick because our parks don't have a high-priced address or Olmsted pedigree. Similar cries were heard in the Bronx when the Croton Water Filtration Plant was sited in a corner of the already highway-bisected Van Cortlandt Park, and when century-old Macombs Dam Park was obliterated to make way for a new Yankees stadium: When Yankees president Randy Levine rhetorically asked a Bronx community meeting on his team's stadium desires, "Where do we build?" some in the crowd shouted back, "In Central Park!"
Certainly, it's not hard to find examples of unequal treatment of New York parks: For every pristine Central Park or High Line, there's a distant outpost like Owls Head Park or Seton Falls Park and St. Mary's Park in the Bronx that's badly in disrepair, or a park like Flushing Meadows that's beset by battles over non-park uses. But the contrasting conditions — and encroaching commercial uses — turn out to be more complicated than a simple matter of rich districts getting preferential treatment. New York parks inequalities are real, say parks followers; but they result less from Manhattancentrism than from a complicated mix of budget politics, the economics of private fundraising, and conflicting opinions of just what makes a park "public."
"It's not as simple as outer borough/Manhattan, or high income neighborhoods/lower income neighborhoods," says Holly Leicht, director of New Yorkers For Parks, which conducts an annual study of which parks are the most underserved. "It's much more nuanced." When her group and the city Independent Budget Office looked at parks maintenance budgets, she says, they found that "it is actually pretty evenly allocated among the five boroughs." The bigger problem, she says, is a lack of funds as a whole, particularly in terms of maintenance money: "You have staff going and putting out fires instead of having a dedicated, well-staffed system that's maintaining all parks evenly."
New York's Park Budget
A history of private support for parks—some parks
The New York City parks story, for our purposes, begins in the 1970s, when almost all city parks shared the same condition: lousy. In the wake of the 1970s budget crisis, city parks gained a reputation as dustbowls and havens for crime — it was during this era that, fearing muggers, the city ripped out undergrowth in both Central and Prospect Parks, leading to erosion so severe that an Olmsted-era waterfall in Prospect Park ended up buried under silt for decades.
All this began to change starting in 1980 with the establishment of the Central Park Conservancy*, a private non-profit designed to advocate — and raise funds — to refurbish New York's most famous park. It turned out to be perfect timing: With the blocks on either side of the park experiencing the first wave of the city's 1980s gentrification boom, the Conservancy was able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars toward renovating and cleaning its namesake park.
The problem, of course, is that — much as public schools in rich districts have come to rely on their own private fundraising efforts — raising money for Central Park didn't do much for the city's other parks. And while city spending on parks maintenance is "pretty well allocated" by borough when the higher usage of centrally located parks is taken into account, says Leicht, Central and Prospect Parks have far deeper pockets when it comes to the capital spending that renovates playgrounds and rehabs cracked concrete paths. Just how much deeper isn't publicly reported: When the city council passed a law in 2008 requiring annual reports on private funds for city parks, the Parks Department responded with a document that gave only general spending ranges, and omitted the Central Park Conservancy altogether .
The Parks Department, meanwhile, has no discretionary capital funds of its own, leaving neighborhood parks seeking major improvements at the mercy of discretionary budgets controlled by their local city councilmembers and borough presidents, some of whom may decide they have better things to do with their slim discretionary budgets. "That definitely leads to a kind of catch as catch can system that ends up having inequities," says Leicht. "You're kind of at the whim of ‘Is this city councilperson committed to parks? Does this city councilperson have enough allocations to hit parks when they have a lot of other needs. In that case, you do get income discrepancies, because in some low-income neighborhoods there's a lot more demands on council money."
Central Park and Prospect Park — which Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux considered to be superior, in part because they'd learned from their Manhattan experience not to clutter up a park with roads or commercial buildings— have another advantage over other city parks, notes Tupper Thomas, who was founding president of the Prospect Park Alliance, that park's answer to the Central Park Conservancy, from 1980 until her retirement in 2010. "Central Park and Prospect Park are both landmarked," she notes, which makes for a much higher bar for anyone who might come sniffing around in search of open space for a development project.
A Tale of Four Parks: What Conservancies and Friends Groups Raised in 2011
What role for private uses?
In fact, ideas for plopping non-park structures down in city parks go back far before fiscal-crisis-era austerity. In a city like New York, where land is at a premium, parkland is often the only easy source for assembling large parcels of property — especially large parcels of property under city control, that require neither private purchase nor eminent domain to acquire. (Even Central Park ended up playing host to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park Zoo, the latter of which was vehemently opposed by Olmsted and Vaux as an intrusion on the natural landscape.) That's how the USTA landed in Flushing Meadows — then-association president W.E. Hester spotted the 1964 World's Fair-vintage Singer Bowl on a flight into LaGuardia, and asked the city if the U.S. Open could move in. And it's led to a series of battles in recent years, from the Mets' proposal in 1999 to temporarily land the Cyclones in Brooklyn's Parade Grounds until their Coney Island stadium was ready, to the recent battle over a Major League Soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows — a fight that local opponents look to have won, now that the Yankees have been brought in to partner with British soccer club Manchester City in investing in an MLS expansion team. (The Yankees' Levine, a former deputy mayor under Giuliani, is likely to spearhead the new stadium search; Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has already raved about the "abundance of land" available in his borough, though his office insists he is focused on the sites of failed Yankees parking garages, not Bronx parkland.)
While there's a longstanding precedent that private developments in public parks be compensated by creating new parkland nearby, that "nearby" isn't defined – a particularly contentious issue when tennis courts displaced by the new Yankees stadium were relocated to the far side of the Major Deegan Expressway. Earlier this week, State Senator Tony Avella introduced a bill that would not only codify the replacement parkland requirement, but would force developers to replace triple the park space that they destroy.
These battles are important not just for the few acres of parkland that each involves, say park advocates, but because in a city starved for space, it's far too easy for developers or urban planners to see green space as a blank slate for desired projects. It's especially galling, park advocates say, when parks are told to sell themselves to raise money, and then fail to reap a significant share of the money changing hands within their borders. "By that logic, Flushing Meadows should be the most well-funded park in the universe," says Will Sweeney of the Fairness Coalition of Queens, which was founded last year to fight the various proposed developments within Queens's largest park. "It has to put up with a corporate baseball team and a corporate tennis event whose own sponsor says it's the most profitable event in New York City every year. If some of that money was channeled into the park, it should be the most fully funded park."
A need for noise
It's here that, Thomas believes, a well-organized parks conservancy can make a huge difference, regardless of whether it's in a neighborhood ripe for fundraising. "You can have a strong advocacy group without having a lot of money in a conservancy," she says, noting that even if Prospect Park's private funding were ever to dry up, the Prospect Park Alliance would still be able to pressure Brooklyn politicians for public funds in a way that didn't exist before its creation. "The advocacy role is as important in many ways — Prospect Park is never going to fall all the way down to where it was before."
Thomas notes that the Bronx River Alliance, initially begun as a coalition of community non-profits, has managed to raise attention and city funds for Bronx River Park despite a relatively thin budget. It's a model, she says, that other city neighborhoods would do well to emulate. "Great advocates have come out of the woodwork for Flushing Meadows Park" in the wake of the development controversies there, she says. "You don't have to be a rich community. You just have to be vocal."
Indeed, if there's one thing clear in the murky world of parks funding, it's that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The problem, insists Leicht, is that ever since the city entered its "triage mode" in the 1970s, there hasn't been enough grease to go around, meaning some parks will inevitably end up getting undermaintained.
"We have not ever fully recovered from that era," she says. "This mayor has been good about saying parks are important, and has created more parkland. But the expense budget has not kept up.
* Correction: The original version of this article reported that the city established the Central Parks Conservancy. In fact, while the city encouraged the founding, CPC was launched by private supporters.