No Cuts to Parks: Conservancy President & CEO, Merritt Birnbaum, testifies at the FY25 Preliminary Budget Hearing

New York City Council Committee on Parks
Thursday, March 21, 2024
Committee on Parks and Recreation – Preliminary Budget Hearing
Testimony of Riverside Park Conservancy

Good afternoon, my name is Merritt Birnbaum, and I am the President and CEO of Riverside Park Conservancy. We are one of over 400 organizations that belong to the Play Fair Coalition. Thank you to Parks Committee Chair Shekar Krishnan for holding this hearing and for his tireless advocacy to tackle the crisis facing our parks.

Riverside Park Conservancy works through an agreement with NYC Parks to help the City care for 450 acres spread across five parks, along 6 miles of waterfront in upper Manhattan from West 59th Street to West 181st Street. We are fortunate to have built a 35-year history that leverages thousands of
hours of volunteer time and significant funding to supplement the City’s dwindling workforce. We recognize that the vast majority of parks in our city do not have the benefit of Conservancy groups. Our situation only underscores how dire the current crisis is for parks in our most vulnerable communities.

Make no mistake: our parks are in crisis. We see it every day in Riverside, Fort Washington, West Harlem Piers, and Sakura as we struggle to keep these parks clean, safe and green.

In June 2008, our district had approximately 79 CPWs or City Parks Workers. This June, we will be lucky if we have 20 of them. CPWs do
everything – from picking up trash, to cleaning bathrooms, to removing graffiti. They are the frontline of the Parks Department, and in our park alone, their ranks have fallen to 25% of what they were 16 years ago. In smaller parks around the City, this type of deficit means we’re not talking about 1 worker per park — we’re talking about a fraction of 1 worker per park.

How can we accept this? Parks are critical infrastructure, and they need to be funded the same way we fund roads, bridges, police, sanitation and hospitals.

In the last five decades, New York City has built 200 new parks. How can our city pride itself on building new parks and not dedicate the resources we need to maintain them?

In 1970, NYC Parks headcount was 11,000. Forty-five years later, and we are looking at a headcount of only 7,000.

A simple math question: How can we have 200 more parks today and 4,000 fewer Parks workers?

How can our government say it prioritizes sanitation and safety and not consider the public parks that occupy 14% of our city’s surface area as needing those funds?

Just this past Sunday in our park, NYC Parks staff who were slated for spring landscape work were pulled away to paint over an incidence of major offensive graffiti in a high-traffic location. They dropped what they were doing and pivoted, because that is what CPWs do – they respond to needs on the ground and they get the work done.

– If we want bathrooms open and clean, we need staff.

– If we want lawns that are green and not filled with rotting trash, we need staff.

– If we want stairs and pathways that are clear of safety hazards, we need staff.

– If we want healthy trees and plants, we need staff.

Our parks are a direct reflection of our City’s commitment to the health and happiness of its residents. We demand that the City fulfil its promise and deliver 1% of our budget to parks. This is a rounding error for you, and a lifeline for all of us.

December 10, 2023
By Anastasia Galkowski, Sustainability Manager

We are deeply disappointed to hear about proposed City budget cuts to community composting programs. A piece from THE CITY states that with these cuts, “most food waste collected through public programs will become gas or landfill, not compost.”  Indeed, the proposed cuts have immediate impact: food scrap drop-offs at local processing sites will be eliminated, there will be no free compost for those who care for their neighborhood street trees, curbside composting be delayed again, and 115 green jobs will be lost.

Here is some context for those of you who want to dig into the bigger picture:

1/3 of New York’s waste is organic. In other words, 1/3 of all trash is biodegradable, consisting of things like food scraps, cardboard/paper, or clippings from lawn and garden maintenance. With a network of local organizations dedicated to composting, much of these food scraps and organic waste is currently diverted from landfills and transformed into nutrient-rich soil amendment. These community composting sites provide a vital solution for the ongoing issue of excessive garbage, all the while reducing methane emissions caused from landfills, reducing the presence of rats around food-filled trash bags, and ultimately helping to heal the City’s extremely damaged soils by applying the final product of compost.

Community composting organizations, including Grow NYC, Lower East Side Ecology Center, Earth Matter NY – as well as botanical gardens across the City’s boroughs – divert more than 8.3 million pounds of organic matter from landfills each year!

Unlike in these community-centric programs, most food scraps collected through the City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) programs – including brown and orange compost bins – are not actually composted. Many scraps are sent to sewage treatment plants like the one in Newton Creek, where biodigesters use anerobic processes to convert sewage and organic waste to biofuel.

This biofuel is intended to power homes (and is used to power the treatment plant itself) – but the biodigesters’ function has been stalled and problematic since the project began in 2013. Additionally, the process of conversion causes methane to ‘flare off’ into the atmosphere and produces a solid byproduct, most of which gets sent to a landfill anyway. Some scraps from NYC are even being exported out-of-state to Massachusetts to create energy and farm fertilizer.

All of this to say: the current infrastructure and system for composting in New York City needs far more investment, and we stand by other advocates and NYC residents in demanding that the City continue its support for community partners who have passionately promoted and facilitated composting right here in New York for decades.

These organizations are directly involved with residents around the boroughs by facilitating free Master Composter trainings, creating green jobs, and providing educational opportunities for New Yorkers to learn about soil health and get involved with the composting process.

Riverside Park Conservancy is deeply grateful for our partnership with these organizations – they have provided guidance to our team as we launched the Park’s composting site at 95th Street this year and have co-facilitated compost workshops in the Park.

These are deeply valuable organizations that add tremendous value to the City by reducing landfill-bound waste and subsequent air pollution and helping to heal the significantly compromised and polluted soils – all the while creating joyful community of folks who want to be involved in urban gardening and environmental justice work.

We urge you to join us and advocate for community composting. Please sign the Grow NYC petition, urging Mayor Eric Adams to halt the elimination of these essential programs.

About Riverside Park Conservancy
From 59th Street to 181st Street, from riverfront to city-side, Riverside Park Conservancy cares for and enhances six miles of parkland for present and future generations. Working together with the New York City Parks Department, we make improvements as diverse as the park itself and the city it serves.