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People Power and New York City Parks

This past summer my Columbia colleague Louise Rosen and I took a field trip to Marine Park in Brooklyn. Marine Park was the closest neighborhood park to my childhood home in Brooklyn. We were given a wonderful tour of the park by Maria Carro-D’Alessandro, the chair of the Marine Park Alliance, and Margot Perron, the park’s director. When I was a kid, the park was an oval track surrounding a huge expanse of ball fields. Today that part of the park is still there, but now there is also a senior center, an ecology center, and a beautiful waterway with wetlands literally abounding in aquatic and avian life. An area that once was a dumping ground for abandoned cars and victims of mob violence is now an incredibly beautiful, if underappreciated, part of New York City’s natural landscape. According to the Marine Park Alliance website:

“Forever Wild is an initiative created by NYC Parks to preserve and protect by local law the ecologically valuable lands within the five boroughs. Brooklyn’s largest park, Marine Park, boasts 530 acres of this protected landscape for you to explore. Approximately four miles of Nature trails loop through the grasslands on the east side of Gerritsen Creek and more trails crisscross the upland woods on the western side of the creek — all with views of the salt marsh that buffers the inland from destructive storms.” 

In the spring of 2023, Columbia graduate students will be working with Marine Park officials and volunteers to help craft a strategy for the park’s continued development. A similar effort was undertaken for Morningside Park last spring by Columbia adjunct professor and New York City environmental justice leader Kizzy-Charles Guzman and a team of Sustainability Management students.

I have lived across the street from Morningside Park since 1990, and it is a beautiful and treasured, though understaffed, resource in my neighborhood. This leads to the main point of this piece: Our parks are perennially underfunded. They simply can’t compete for government resources with dire needs like homelessness, crime, and child poverty. While the mayor hopes to devote 1% of the city budget to parks, that appears to be more of an aspirational goal rather than an operational reality. What we need to do is augment city funds with volunteers—people power. We need to contribute our brains and, if we have any, our brawn to the upkeep of our parks. Again, according to the Marine Park Alliance website:

“Contrary to popular belief, Nature doesn’t “take care of itself” in an urban setting. Weeds set in, trampling and illegal dumping occur. Marine Park Alliance has regular volunteer days to pull out invasive weeds and remove dumped garbage. Thousands of volunteers turn out to help combat this abuse and to promote biodiversity in our grassland and marsh habitats.” 

Our parks need us. They need our political support, our financial contributions if we can afford them, and our labor. Those of us who live in apartment buildings have limited access to outdoor space. The parks are everybody’s back yard. New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation has a small budget relative to its responsibilities. According to the department’s website:

“NYC Parks is the steward of more than 30,000 acres of land — 14 percent of New York City — including more than 5,000 individual properties ranging from Coney Island Beach and Central Park to community gardens and Greenstreets. We operate more than 800 athletic fields and nearly 1,000 playgrounds, 1,800 basketball courts, 550 tennis courts, 65 public pools, 51 recreational facilities, 15 nature centers, 14 golf courses, and 14 miles of beaches. We care for 1,200 monuments and 23 historic house museums. We look after 600,000 street trees, and two million more in parks.” 

The city’s budget this year allocates about $523 million to parks; the department has a total headcount of 4,260 staff, of which 3,523 are full-time city-funded positions. New York City has more green space than any other American city, but 35 other American cities have more green space per capita than the 7,087 square feet of parkland per capita that New Yorkers enjoy. 

The city’s parks and the Parks Department need our help. While the city government can and must do more, so should all of us. The parks need more paid staff, and that will require money. Park concessions such as restaurants, amusements, and snack bars can generate revenues to support parks, but care must be taken to ensure that the parks don’t become too commercial. One of the important features of our parks is that they are free and are a democratizing place for all parts of the public to gather. Unlike a commercial strip, a parent can bring a child to a park and not be pressured to spend money. There are no rope lines to enter park attractions. This is not an argument against concessions, I am simply advocating balance and care when using park space for commercial purposes.

During the pandemic, the parks were our lifeline to normalcy. While we wandered masked and socially distant and passed locked playgrounds that horrific spring of 2020, tree leaves grew, and flowers bloomed throughout our parks. Nature knew no way to wear a mask and be distant, and we could see that life continued and would continue. This past week, Columbia student Isabella Noonen wrote a wonderful piece entitled “Morningside Park and the People Who Love it” in the Columbia University student magazine The Eye. Noonen observed that:

“I visited Morningside Park for the second time in mid-June—one year after I moved into my apartment two blocks away. It was a Second Saturday Volunteer Day, when Friends of Morningside Park volunteers gather at the central turtle pond for a few hours of park improvement. Despite the early hour and muggy weather, Morningside Park was brimming with life. Joggers ran on the paths. Families with dogs and strollers chatted near the playground equipment. An enthusiastic game of pickup basketball started on the nearby courts. A ridiculous number of turtles swam in the pond. And a few dozen of us volunteers crouched in a planter off the 116th Street Playground, collecting garbage and weeding—or, in my case, desperately trying to make sure that the bits of greenery I was pulling up were in fact weeds and not native plants. I was, as far as I can tell, the only Columbia student among the volunteers—ironic, as Friends of Morningside Park was actually founded in the ’80s by a Columbia student, Thomas Kiel who graduated from Columbia College in 1982.” 

Her piece presents a terrific history of Morningside Park which included Columbia’s idiotic effort in the late 1960s to build a gym on park land. The ill-fated attempt to build that gym resulted in student protests and ultimately led to a student takeover of several Columbia buildings and a violent eviction of those students by the NYPD. The gym was never built, and in 1989 and 1990, the crater that was being dug to provide a foundation for the building was converted into the pond that is now home to those turtles that Isabella refers to in her writing. 

In both Marine Park and Morningside Park, small groups of people who love their neighborhood parks have created nonprofit organizations to mobilize their communities and friends to help their parks. The Parks Department and the City Parks Foundation have created Partnerships for Parks to help encourage the creation of park support groups. The Marine Park Alliance and Friends of Morningside Park are two of nearly 70 similar organizations around New York City. The Parks Department’s website lists many of these organizations. Some, like the Central Park Conservancy and Friends of the High Line, are highly professional, but most are small, informal operations. All seek and organize volunteers (and cash) to help in the parks.

New York has over eight million people. The parks may not get 1% of the city’s 100-billion-dollar-budget, but if 1% of the city’s 8.4 million people volunteered to work in their local park, those 84,000 people could pick up a lot of trash and weed lots of green space. People power and sweat equity could get us started and help improve all of our parks, and hopefully, some cash would then follow.

This article was originally published in State of the Planet.