Posted by Patryk Drozdzik and Doug Turetsky with map by Ana Champeny, December 16, 2009
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, introduced with much fanfare on Earth Day 2007, included 127 policy initiatives to make the city a greener, healthier, more energy-efficient place. One of PlanNYC’s signature initiatives was the idea to increase the availability of open space in the city by turning 290 city schoolyards into public playgrounds by keeping them open after school, on weekends and during school breaks. While the schoolyard-to-playground plan received considerable attention when first announced, its subsequent scaling back has garnered less notice.
Underlying the Mayor’s schoolyard initiative were a combination of need and common sense. The need for more open space in the city is apparent to many New Yorkers, continuing a debate that has roiled the city since at least the 1800s over how much land should be developed and how much preserved for parks and playgrounds.
Recent figures compiled by the Trust for Public Land show that by some key measures, New York City lags well behind other cities in the availability of parks and playgrounds. New York has 4.6 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, well below the median of 6.8 acres among 13 densely populated cities. New York’s 1.2 park playgrounds per 10,000 residents are little more than half the 2.1 median among the 76 large cities surveyed on this measure by the trust.
Because of stats like these, the Mayor wanted to make more play and open space available so that every New Yorker lived within a 10 minute walk of a park or playground. And that is where the common sense comes in. The Mayor realized that schoolyards across the city were an underused resource, frequently locked when needed most. The Bloomberg Administration reckoned that 69 schoolyards required nothing more than a school custodian to turn a key in order to help meet the goal. And by the summer of 2007, 69 were in fact opened—at a cost of $50,000 per school to pay custodians as reported by the New York Post—in neighborhoods ranging from Brownsville in Brooklyn to Belmont in the Bronx. Click here for a map of schoolyards that have already opened along with other locations that were proposed for the program all the proposed locations and their current status.
More than 200 schoolyards that the Mayor also wanted to open needed more than just additional funds for custodians. These schoolyards needed investments ranging from the installation of play equipment to pavement repairs and new fencing. In April 2007 the Mayor budgeted $96.4 million in capital funds for the necessary fixes. Since then the capital budget for the plan has steadily shrunk and as of the latest capital plan now totals $71.1million, a 26 percent cut.
With the shrinking funds has come the elimination of two dozen schoolyards from the initiative. According to information provided by the parks department, 24 schoolyards have been cut, bringing the total down to 266. Nine of the 81 schoolyards initially proposed for Queen have been canceled, including in neighborhoods such as Jackson Heights, Hollis, and Rosedale. Brooklyn has eight canceled schoolyard projects among the 104 originally proposed, including two in Borough Park, and seven have been axed in the Bronx among the 57 originally planned, including two in Morris Heights. (It should be noted that three other schoolyards have already been opened in Borough Park, and one in Morris Heights.) In contrast, none of the 20 projects initially planned for Manhattan have been canceled or any of the 28 targeted for Staten Island.
So far, the Bloomberg Administration has actually committed $30.2 million in capital dollars for the schoolyards-to-playgrounds effort and plans to commit an additional $40.9 million this fiscal year. A total of 96 schoolyards are now open under the initiative. But many of the schoolyards yet to be finished under the plan require the most work. If fiscal pressure on the city continues to mount, fewer schoolyard-to-playground conversions may result.