05/12/2014 08:51 am ET Updated Jul 12, 2014

Park Equity and Park Reality in NYC

While most of the land in New York City sits beneath single family homes, like the one I grew up in on East 59th Street in Brooklyn, most of the people in New York live in apartments. I've lived in Manhattan apartments for a long time and I've been fortunate to live in the same apartment on Morningside Drive since 1990. Across the street from my home is the beautiful Olmstead-Vaux-designed Morningside Park. When I first moved into my apartment, gunshots were a too frequent sound from that park. Today, it is a wonderfully restored space with new playgrounds, picnic tables, gardens and ball fields. The drug dealers are long gone, replaced by families, picnickers, dogs and lots of kids. New York City's revival can be seen in the restoration of the city's parks. For New Yorkers, the parks are everyone's backyard. They are beloved and treasured resources that allow us to play, converse, sit back, and turn off a little of the intensity of the city that doesn't know how to sleep.

In the early 1990s, my colleague Bill Eimicke and I worked as consultants to the Parks Department and participated in the decades-long effort to bring the parks back to their former glory. While we were largely students and observers of the work of many others, it is undeniable that New York's parks, like the city itself, has made a remarkable comeback. A recent article in the New York Times details the six year effort to restore Washington Square Park. While New Yorkers would never agree with all the changes made to any park, Washington Square's restoration has brought new energy and vitality to one of New York's most important public spaces.

The importance of parks to New Yorkers is obvious throughout the city. One goal of the City's sustainability PlaNYC 2030 is to ensure that every New Yorker's home is within a ten-minute walk of a park. In the Sustainability Management master's program at Columbia, our students are frequently engaged in pro bono capstone projects with parks as clients. This past year, our Sustainability Management students worked on climate change adaptation for the Central Park Conservancy. Another group focused on the health of trees in New York for the Nature Conservancy. Yet another team helped develop a communications strategy for Staten Island's new Freshkills Park. The parks provide New Yorkers with a sense of place and beautiful, non-commercial public spaces. As the weather finally gets warmer after this endless winter, New Yorkers are flocking to the parks with renewed enthusiasm and a sense of relief combined with gratitude.

Parks are a large and vital resource in New York. According to the Parks Department's website:

NYC Parks is the steward of approximately 29,000 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, 550 tennis courts, 66 public pools, 48 recreational facilities, 17 nature centers, 13 golf courses, and 14 miles of beaches. We care for 1,200 monuments and 23 historic house museums. We look after 650,000 street trees, and two million more in parks.

During the Bloomberg years, over $4 billion of capital funding was devoted to parks facilities and infrastructure, and during the last several years of his administration, Mayor Bloomberg added staff to help manage and maintain the parks. The de Blasio administration is also adding staff and funding for parks, particularly focusing on the issue of neighborhood parks and what has been termed "park equity," or funding parks in neighborhoods that cannot generate private funding for their parks. The effort to focus additional attention on neighborhood parks makes great sense.

In her excellent New York Times piece on the issue of park equity, Lisa Foderaro reported that:

Much of the discussion on equity has centered on the role of conservancies in perpetuating an uneven parks system...State Senator Daniel L. Squadron has pushed legislation that would require the biggest conservancies to give 20 percent of their operating budgets to a fund for neighborhood parks. But the latest budget discussions have turned the conversation toward the city's responsibility. In his opening comments at the recent public hearing on park equity, Mark D. Levine, who is chairman of the Council Committee on Parks and Recreation, noted that in the 1960s, 1.5 percent of the city's budget went to parks. That dropped to 0.86 percent in the 1980s, and then to 0.52 percent by 2000.... As conservancies in affluent parts of the city were created to take up the slack, he argued, the conditions of parks in low-income neighborhoods deteriorated. "The clear downside of the rise of conservancies," he said, "is that it has dampened the political will of the city's most influential citizens for robust public funding of the parks department, because such high-income individuals mostly live adjacent to parks benefiting from private donations.

Levine then proposed that the City Council provide an additional $27 Million to the Parks Department to fund neighborhood parks. While additional funding is a good idea, his analysis of the downside of parks fundraising and Squadron's idea of taxing conservancies are destructive and ill-informed. There is no evidence that donations to Central Park, Bryant Park, Prospect Park, or the High Line decreased political support for Park Department funding. If anything, it probably made the city's elite more aware of the importance and need for parks funding. Parks funding went down because other needs, such as education, crime, health care, housing and homelessness, seemed more important. Probably because those other needs are more important. As much as we love parks, if they are not safe and if you are not healthy and alive, a nice park won't do you much good. Blaming the park conservancies for declining parks budgets is deceptive, disgusting, pandering political nonsense. Elected leaders like Levine and Squadron made the choice to fund other priorities. They and other elected leaders should take responsibility for their actions. Are we really trying to discourage wealthy benefactors by blaming them for donating money for public parks?

Taxing conservancies could alienate and discourage donors. Donors have a right to control their donations, and there are plenty of competitors for private philanthropy. I know some universities, libraries, and museums that are soliciting the same people who give money to the parks. I work for one of them. Since there is a good case for park equity, then let's make the case. The better approach would be to focus attention and fundraising on the City Parks Foundation and the Partnership for Parks--the collaboration between the Parks Department and the Parks Foundation. The mayor and new Parks commissioner could hold media events and solicit donors to these city-wide park nonprofits.

It is important to remember that Central Park is a city-wide park. It does not belong to the people on Fifth Avenue and Central Park West, and the Department doesn't allow the Central Park Conservancy to run it as a playground for the rich. Similarly, Prospect Park is a park for all of Brooklyn, just as the Grand Army Plaza Library serves the entire borough. When I was an outer borough kid I thought that Central Park and Prospect Park belonged to me and my friends. The fact that parks can attract private money is a good thing that should be celebrated instead of criticized.

The nonprofits that have raised funds and help run our parks are public spirited organizations that have created free public goods for all. They should be nurtured and encouraged, not made to feel that they are effete and selfish elitists. There are no velvet ropes at the entrance of the High Line, there is no charge to picnic on Central Park's Great Lawn. Let's remember that within this tale of two cities, there have always been some places that belong to both cities--the parks are one of those places. Let's not let ideology trump common sense.