Fund Parks Like Critical Infrastructure

Hudson River Park, Location: New York NY, Designer: Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects
The current Parks Commissioner describes parks as critical infrastructure. Private funds aren’t used to build or maintain infrastructure projects such as roads, sewers, water supply, or marine transfer stations—so why should we rely on private dollars to maintain parks?
By Signe Nielsen

The proven benefits of parks are well known; they contribute to the economy, social fabric, environment, and health of our city. Parkland comprises roughly 37,000 acres or 17 percent of New York City’s land area, yet one of the biggest challenges is finding the public dollars to maintain it.

The maintenance and operations (M&O) budget of the Parks Department (DPR) has not kept pace with the expanding inventory of parkland, growing visitorship—now more than 132 million per year—or even with the impacts of climate change. The single greatest obstacle to proactive long-term budget planning for M&O is funding volatility. It is very difficult for parks to compete for expense dollars in the face of demands from more popular or compelling causes, particularly during periods of economic downturn. The essential question is: what funding mechanisms exist to guarantee equitable distribution of funding for reliable parks maintenance—regardless of neighborhood, size, or political clout? We need baseline funding that guarantees consistent parks maintenance and allows for a predictable funding stream, so that parks can better plan and budget each year.

Proposition 1
City government should guarantee that 1 percent of its expense budget be set aside for parks maintenance. Here’s the logic: The proposed 2018 DPR expense budget for M&O is $301 million, or .3 percent of the City’s expense budget. The 2017 adopted City Expense Budget was $82 billion. Therefore, DPR’s maintenance budget could nearly triple (2.7 times) if 1% of the revenue was allocated for parks M&O. This proposition does not require a two-thirds-majority vote by residents—unlike special use taxes on sugary beverages or an assessment tax based on property ownership, which would additionally require the approval of the State legislature. To obtain this increased allocation, DPR would have to demonstrate annual efficiency improvements and value propositions to successfully compete with other agencies and new demands for expense funding.

Proposition 2
To protect against future economic downturns in tax revenue, as well as to acknowledge the value that parks offer, a maintenance endowment would be required to accompany new open space created by development or leases on adjoining property.

Proposition 3
New York City has 520 miles of shoreline, 125 of which are under the jurisdiction of DPR alone. I propose that a special fund, allocated by the City as part of its general expense budget, but separate from DPR and other agency operating budgets, be established for expensive and critical repairs for shoreline bulkheads, piers and other maritime infrastructure that supports waterfront parks.

We need funding that is not subject to city-wide budgetary shortfalls, political maneuvering, or neighborhood wealth. When taken together, these three propositions offer reliable and equitable resources for our city’s great park system, sustaining this critical infrastructure into the future.

Signe Nielsen is a Founding Principal of MNLA and has been practicing as a landscape architect and urban designer in New York since 1978. A Fellow of the ASLA, she is the recipient of more than 100 national and local design awards for public open space projects and is published extensively nationally and internationally.