Not Playing Around: The Comptroller Says City Playgrounds Need Work

In a fairly scathing report dropped last weekend, New York City’s comptroller found city playgrounds to be too few in number and too often in a state of disrepair.

In a 24-page report released May 4, Comptroller Scott Stinger found that city departments had failed to keep up with the needs of the growing, changing city. Stringer deemed some neighborhoods to be “playground deserts.” Disparities in service for existing playgrounds were also highlighted, with children in poorer neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx getting largely shortchanged. 

While New York has many playgrounds—2,067 across its five boroughs —on average it has only 2.4 serving every 10,000 residents. Half of these are overseen by the Department of Parks and Recreation, while another 796 are maintained by the Housing Authority.

New York has for a long time been trying to provide neighborhood kids spaces to play. The city’s first municipal playground was built at Seward Park in the Lower East Side, opening to the public in 1903. The concept was an instant hit, mobbed by 20,000 children its first day, and the number of new playgrounds around the city ballooned to 119 by 1934. The New Deal and postwar projects enabled further expansion, and by 1960 the city had nearly 800 public playgrounds.

Fresh construction eventually slowed to a crawl by the century’s end, while existing facilities had been falling into varying states of disrepair. Maintaining and updating public parks was only first prioritized in 1984, when the city made inspections routine. At the time, inspectors determined less than two fifths of its playgrounds to be in a safe, playable condition. From the early 1990s to the present that proportion has improved to 85 percent acceptability, but safety still remains a problem. As recent as last year 159 playgrounds were found to be unacceptable, either because they posed a safety hazard or had become unsanitary. In all, 521 playgrounds were found to have at least one kind of problem needing immediate attention.

Saturday’s report was not the first from Stringer’s office focusing on New York’s playgrounds. In March 2015 another called attention to the financial liabilities the facilities raise, finding the city had to pay out more than $20 million between 2005 and 2014 for personal injury claims, as a result of faulty or broken amenities.
Like many of the city’s services, how these recreational facilities are allotted and maintained vary from one neighborhood and borough to the next. When it comes to the number of playgrounds, Manhattan is best represented by far, with 15 per 10,000 children on average. On the opposite end, Brooklyn youth have about half as many spaces to play in, with only eight per 10,000 kids. Of those Brooklyn playgrounds, a quarter are in an unsafe condition, as opposed to 15 percent of Manhattan sites. Five community districts in the borough each had more than 12 playgrounds in them needing immediate attention, more than any other.

Of the 15 neighborhoods with the lowest ratio of play spaces for the children living there, nine are in Brooklyn. Often the need corresponds with a surge in demand, with the borough having three of the top five fastest growing neighborhoods for children in New York. Under-10’s have since 2010 increased by 69 percent in the Sheepshead Bay area, which has only 14 playgrounds for 23,452 children. Bensonhurst and Bath Beach together have one of the lowest ratios of playgrounds to young children, with only seven serving nearly 25,800. But the worst ratio is in the neighborhoods of Borough Park, Kensington, and Ocean Parkway, which together have six play areas for almost 30,000 kids.

“Clearly, playground construction is lagging behind the times and failing to account for changing demographics in our city neighborhoods,” Stringer concludes in his report. The comptroller’s office dubbed these neighborhoods “playground deserts.”

The city has previously tried to tackle this problem. An interagency effort to add more outdoor play areas called the “Schoolyard to Playgrounds” program was launched in 2007. The Parks Department, Department of Education, New York’s School Construction Authority and Trust for Public Land were to coordinate $111 million in resources to upgrade 290 schoolyards into publicly available playgrounds and parks by 2010. And while New York’s program would inspire successful efforts in other cities, it fell far short of its goal, with only 243 sites converted to date. Most of those benefitting from the program were in central Brooklyn, eastern Queens, and Staten Island.

Despite the program’s shortcomings, Stringer’s report recommended expanding Schoolyard to Playgrounds over the next five years, working with nonprofits to accommodate still-underserved populations in growing neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.

The comptroller also recommended expanding an effort to convert dead-end or little-used roads into parks, a “Pavement to Playgrounds” program to be coordinated between Parks, the Department of Transportation and local community boards. An additional 100 playgrounds could be added over the next five years, the report concluded, mirroring a successful conversion undertaken at St. Marks Avenue in Crown Heights during the 1970s. Repurposed roadways could be converted into multi-use spaces and additional parking, at a cost of $1 million or $2 million per project.

“There are thousands of blocks that could accommodate a similar intervention,” the report said.

The report recommended allotting additional resources for upkeep and operations for the Parks Department, as well as ensuring stronger protections for jointly operated playgrounds, a special category into which around 250 of the city’s public facilities fall into. Typically found next to school buildings, these are not considered protected by the state’s public trust doctrine for dedicated parklands and similar spaces, potentially leaving them at risk for private development. An example is the Marx Brothers Playground on East Harlem’s 96th Street, which in 2017 was proposed for redevelopment into a luxury high-rise. A neighborhood group has filed suit against the city to oppose the project, but it is feared that other such spaces could be repurposed as well.

The Parks Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on either the report or its Schoolyard to Playgrounds program.