Brooklyn-based educator Aurelia Casey with her summer students. (Courtesy Aurelia Casey)

New York’s Great Recreational Divide

Neighborhood playgrounds face extreme weather without the support of private donors

By Emily Nadal


On summer days, you can usually find Aurelia Casey pointing out plant species to elementary school kids or conducting science experiments with middle schoolers as part of her Inner City Ranger summer camp. 

Participants mostly come from Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the historically Black and Latinx Brooolyn community that is also historically under-resourced. 

Campers spend about 80% of their time outdoors. Lately it’s getting harder to do that. 

“If we have an afternoon session and it is just entirely too hot and we have to be in the sun, we’ll utilize our indoor space,” Casey says.

Those days are becoming far more frequent. The Earth’s temperature has increased by about 1 degree Celsius since 1900 and effects such as flooding, more intense storms, forest fires and less breathable air are intensifying.

Climate change has begun to hamper people’s access to recreation. People venturing to the woods for a hike are told to beware of the growing tick population. Vacations to the western U.S. are having to be cancelled because of the dramatic increase in  wildfires

National Parks and other public lands are often the obvious case study when trying to understand the climate’s effect on recreation. Yet for many people in underserved communities, small, local parks are their most accessible outdoor option. Restricted access means limited recreation time. And that can have dangerous health consequences.

Recreation is essential to a healthy lifestyle, says Adam Gasner, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. Structured exercise is vital, as is a chance to meet up with friends for a picnic or take your child to the playground.

Flooding in Central Park following Hurricane Ida. (@Lucent508 via Twitter)

I think what’s happening now is that the impacts of climate change are not a once-in-a-five-year event or once-in-a-ten-year event. We see it once every other month.

—Adam Gasner, executive director of the nonprofit New Yorkers for Parks

Now, crumbling infrastructure and the threat of heat and floods are keeping people inside more and more. Some New Yorkers can adapt their habits by going to a gym or indoor playspace or even a friend’s more spacious house. Thousands of others don’t have those options. Longtime neglect of New York City parks has left them ill-prepared to withstand extreme weather. Low-income residents are the ones who lose out the most. 

“What we’ve seen certainly are big stories about flooding in Central Park and Prospect Park,” Gasner says. “But the big impact that we’ve seen is that because so many people rely on these small parks, if there’s any issue with the small parks, many, many people are kind of disenfranchised by the park system.”


Parks can’t hold their water


Most of New York City’s parks and playgrounds were not designed for broiling temperatures or recurring heavy rains. In the wake of recent events like Hurricane Ida, city officials are prioritizing plans to retrofit park spaces with storm drains and other green infrastructure to make them more resilient.  

“I think what’s happening now is that the impacts of climate change are not a once-in-a-five-year event or once-in-a-10-year event. We see it once every other month,” Gasner says. “The urgency is there in a way it hasn’t been before. The parks sector is stepping into that conversation with a tremendous asset, which is 30,000 acres of land that should be working as part of the machine to make the city more resilient.”

On Sept. 27, less than a month after Ida’s remnants caused deadly flooding in the city, Mayor Bill de Blasio released a report outlining detailed responses to the effects of climate change.

The increased budget commits to more support for The Trust for Public Lands’ Stormwater Management Playgrounds, which include permeable pavement and rainwater catchment systems. This project, which works with funds from the city Department of Environmental Protection, has outfitted nearly 50 green infrastructure playgrounds in the past few years and new backing would add 20 more over the next four years and look at partnering with the New York City Housing Authority. 

Other city plans focus on large parks that are known to be vulnerable during big storms, such as Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx where the floodwaters overflow onto adjacent streets and sidewalks. The proposal is for stormwater drainage systems to be installed at six parks across the boroughs. 

Which parks get help?

Gasner, a former architect, has been thinking a lot about equity in open space and how climate change will impact all city parks—particularly the nearly 1,700 smaller ones that make up the vast majority in New York. These are the neighborhood playgrounds, the modest pieces of public land nestled between towering apartment complexes or in the shadow of larger green areas. Easily overlooked but a vital neighborhood resource.  

In 2013, New Yorkers for Parks in partnership with New York University set out to study NYC playground utilization. The researchers chose to focus on two playgrounds in each borough over the course of four seasons to analyze how essential playgrounds are. 

Of the hundreds of visitors they spoke with over the course of a year, 79% said they use their local playground at least once a week. Researchers also found a stark difference in usage based on income: Low-income families were using playgrounds twice as frequently and were more dependent on them for children’s outdoor play time. 

Visitors said the parks needed to be better maintained. Playground equipment was worn out and the general upkeep poor. Since then the worsening effects of climate change have caused even more deterioration. 

Flooding has damaged already deteriorated equipment or overwhelmed green areas and increased the Parks Department’s backlog of deferred infrastructure maintenance. Since 2018, the Parks Inspection Program accountability initiative, which dispatches inspectors to the city’s public land to grade its conditions, has reported 581 observations of “unsightly paint or repair” and 351 observations of “drainage issues/standing water.” 

“The Parks Department has been underfunded for generations and the infrastructure, maintenance of parks—things like drainage retaining walls and utilities—are also crumbling,” Ganser says. “And what you end up seeing is massive amounts of flooding in parks across the city, rendering them useless, temporarily, which has a direct impact on residents.”

That long to-do list for the parks is in part due to the department traditionally receiving just 0.5% of the city’s total budget. The very biggest parks have groups supported by private donors to supplement where tax dollars fall short. Despite funds being tighter because of a pandemic, Central Park Conservancy’s 2020 operating budget was still over $70 million dollars, for example. 

A lesson in trees

Many of Casey’s young campers aren’t visibly bothered much by extreme heat, she says. For the adults watching them, sitting in the blazing sun has become more hazardous. 

“We’re not playing, we’re not running in and out of the sprinklers,” she says. “We are watching everybody’s stuff and therefore we are just sitting in the stillness of the heat.”

In 2017, the city promised to invest $16 million to plant trees in parks as part of OneNYC 2050, the city’s “green new deal,” by 2021. More trees on the city’s 30,000 acres of park land are intended to help counteract the heat-island effect in a city of hard surfaces.

Allocating the money to get the trees planted is another hurdle. “They do not have the funding to do it at the scale or the quantity of parks really demands,” Gasner says.

Casey tries to make the most of the teachable moments offered by climate change. 

She used a storm-downed tree in front of the camp’s home base in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn to show the kids tree rings up close. She’ll discuss why and how the Brooklyn Center for the Arts, where the camp is based out of, was flooded.  “We acknowledge these things,” Casey says. “ I think that’s good as an educator and a program director that you are willing to change your curriculum based on what is being reflected in current events.”

Gasner is also finding teachable moments in the mess. Instead of the bright-eyed children Casey work with, his audience is made up of voters, city officials and lawmakers he’s hoping will come to learn more about the benefits of investing in park infrastructure and think of new ways to improve access.

“I think for a long time, we’ve been able to talk about parks as just being good, you know, they’re just good,” says Gasner. “Everybody knows a park is good. It didn’t need to be more complex than that. But I think in that narrative, we never fully took advantage of why and how parks are good.”