Parks are for long strolls, walking dogs, watching birds. For barbecues, learning to ride a bike or use disco skates, for passing a few hours imagining you are in a wilderness instead of a city. For eating dosas as you dodge tourists, skaters and salsa dancers, stopping to catch a few minutes of the jazz trio’s set, straining to hear over the din of applause nearby because a man just flip-jumped over nine other people touching their toes in a row.
New York City rediscovered its parks in 2020. Suddenly, the waterfronts, the mid-block gardens and the great lawns alike became Elysian escapes from apartment quarantine.
Many New Yorkers realized something that has been central to the history of the city’s parks: They are vital, irreplaceable public health benefits.
In the 19th century, the magisterial, urban countrysides of Central Park and Prospect Park were designed in part to provide life-giving fresh air to residents of the increasingly crowded metropolis. In the era of Robert Moses, the first parks commissioner for all five boroughs, the city built fistfuls of new athletic complexes to promote play and athletic achievement.
Now, the boroughs’ 1,700 parks — totaling about a sixth of the land area — are becoming the wellsprings of our slow recovery from the pandemic, where we go to renew friendships, return to athletic leagues and practice our newfound love of picnics.
Yet even as the park system has taken on the renewed importance of a pandemic-era lifeline, its inequities and gaps have come to the fore. Funding for parks as a percentage of the city budget is lower than it was in the 1980s. Though nearly every New Yorker is within a short walk of a park, the city’s median park size is a national low of just one acre. Neighborhoods with a majority of residents of color have nearly a third less park space per person than mostly white areas.
In this series, NY1 examines the promise of our parks, how our city leaders aim to make them better — and where to find the best vibes this summer.