Reflecting a longstanding failure to account for changing demographics, New York City is not building enough public play spaces for its youngest residents, forcing thousands of children to live in “playground deserts,” according to a new report from Comptroller Scott Stringer.
The report, which was released this past weekend and used a range of publicly available data sources, examined a total of 2,067 public playgrounds, including 1,028 managed by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, 796 maintained by the New York City Housing Authority, and 243 Department of Education playgrounds that are open to the public after school hours.
Adrian Benepe, the former city parks commissioner who served under Mayor Michael Bloomberg from 2002 to 2012, called the report “the best comprehensive analysis” he had ever seen of playground need on a neighborhood basis.
“In the past, people have looked at playgrounds in silos,” said Benepe, who is currently a senior vice president and director of city park development for The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit dedicated to creating and preserving parks.
But in applying a wholesale approach, Stringer came up with a bleak assessment: New York City's ranks 48th in playgrounds per capita among the 100 largest cities in the country.
Of the five boroughs, Brooklyn is the most underserved, with eight NYC Parks playgrounds for every 10,000 children under 10, the report said. Queens came in second to last, with 9 playgrounds per 10,000 children.
By comparison, Manhattan had the most, with 15 playgrounds per 10,000 children under 10.
Total number of NYC Parks playgrounds, by Community District (Source: Comptroller's report)
Brooklyn also had the worst record when it came to playground maintenance, with 24 percent of its playgrounds deemed to be “unacceptable” under a NYC Parks Inspection Program, which evaluates playgrounds for structural, landscape and sanitary conditions.
Despite more families electing to stay put in New York City, public playgrounds appear to be a blind-spot in the city’s planning efforts. Although the city has added thousands of acres in parkland over the last decade, including Brooklyn Bridge Park, Domino Park and Hunter’s Point South Park, the same focus has not been given to new playground construction.
“New York City has not done a good job over its history [with playgrounds],” Benepe said “What the comptroller has found is not the fault of the de Blasio administration, it’s a historic failure to plan for measured growth.”
For example, the report found that 15 neighborhoods with the lowest ratio of playgrounds showed a 14 percent growth in the number of neighborhood children aged 9 and under from 2010 to 2017.
Although land is a premium, in some instances, the city has failed to take advantage of proven models that don’t require buying or redeveloping property. In 2007, the city pledged to convert 290 schoolyards into publicly accessible playgrounds during non-school hours by 2010. Despite the program being viewed as a success, the city is currently “dozens of playgrounds short” of its goal, the report said.
The share of “unacceptable” playgrounds, by Community District (Source: Comptroller's report)
In the report, Stringer has called for the creation of 200 new playgrounds in the next five years. In addition to expanding the "Schoolyards to Playgrounds" program and making a greater investment in playground maintenance and operations, he recommends creating playgrounds on blocks that have little through-traffic, such as dead-end streets. Dubbed the “Pavement to Playground” program and inspired by a playground in Crown Heights, such playgrounds would be located mid-block and parking would be rearranged as angled spaces on both sides of the playground.
Our plan would bring playgrounds and plazas to lightly used residential streets.
Angled street parking would be introduced so that the total number of parking spots remains constant.
This model is proven to work and can create vibrant public spaces. pic.twitter.com/10MhlnvEdt
— Scott M. Stringer (@NYCComptroller) April 27, 2019
In a jab at the de Blasio administration, the report warns against ceding control of Jointly Operated Playgrounds, 269 properties adjacent to city schools that were created with the city’s Department of Education and which have been treated but not formally designated as public parks. The de Blasio administration is currently supporting a plan in East Harlem to allow a developer to demolish the playground for housing as well as two new schools.
“Given that the City is already deficient in its playground and park facilities, surrendering these properties to private development is severely misguided," the report says.
A spokesperson for the mayor’s office issued the following statement, "By investing in playgrounds, we are investing in the future of our children. This administration is reconstructing 67 playgrounds that haven’t seen repairs in decades, has converted 14 school yards into playgrounds and has over 20 more new playgrounds in the pipeline. We are investing millions of dollars to ensure our kids have space to be kids.”
Benepe said that under de Blasio, the city has done a good job renovating playgrounds. But he says the city should adopt all of Stringer’s proposals, which he said should not really strain the city’s budget.
”It’s a question of priorities and municipal will," he said.
UPDATE: This post has been updated with a statement from the Mayor's office.