Home News More Parks funds for NYC water access

More Parks funds for NYC water access

New York City boasts a whopping 520 miles of coastline yet — despite this geographic advantage and the influx of waterfront parks in recent years — the city displays a striking disconnect between New Yorkers and the water. In fact, according to the City Council 1 out of every 4 New Yorkers under 18 years old are unable to swim — a concerning trend that has shown to have deadly consequences. 

Mayor Adams has failed to deliver on his campaign promise to allocate 1% of the city’s budget to the Parks Department, a pledge he has reiterated on numerous occasions. This critical funding would better equip the city to provide free swim lessons and increase aquatics staffing, ensuring equitable access to water and empowering New Yorkers lacking the skills and knowledge necessary to safely interact with the marine environment.

A series of bills passed by the City Council last year have renewed attention to the need for programming around water safety and aquatics. These bills aim to provide free swimming lessons for children, identify new locations for public pools and enhance transparency regarding lifeguard training and staffing.

However, the success of these measures heavily depends on adequate funding, a tall order considering the severe budget cuts to the Parks Department has been facing this budget season. 

So far, the mayor’s preliminary budget for parks has slashed $55 million off the Parks Department’s budget that will result in staffing losses of nearly 1,000 positions in the next fiscal year. As the primary entity responsible for operating recreation centers, beaches, pools and more, these losses will negatively impact the agency’s overall ability to support and maintain the public aquatic infrastructure necessary to keep millions of potential swimmers safe.

Gov. Hochul’s announcement of NY SWIMS — a statewide initiative to invest in aquatic infrastructure and programming — offers hope for increased water access. Similarly, the mayor’s allocation of $4 million to +POOL demonstrates an encouraging commitment to enhancing recreational opportunities for New Yorkers.

But these initiatives must be complemented by sustained efforts at the city level to address pressing issues of access and safety — such as the alarming rate of drownings along New York City’s coastline. 

Rockaway Beach, a beloved destination known for its surfing culture, serves as a poignant example of the urgency to improve water safety. The beach has made the headlines numerous times over the years, with almost a dozen drownings between 2020 and 2023 alone. The pandemic has also exacerbated staffing shortages at beaches and pools, resulting in the cancellation of vital Learn to Swim programs. 

In 2019, the Parks Department taught more than 20,000 children to swim, but cornerstone programs like “Learn to Swim” have since operated at limited capacity due to staff shortages. Last year available slots dwindled to a mere 1,000 — a worrisome decline that demands immediate attention.

This is a fundamental equity issue for our city; one NYC Health Department report indicates that Black and Asian children in New York City are approximately four times less likely to know how to swim than their White peers. Redressing these disparities requires adequate funding to be allocated for free swim lessons for children and adults, ensuring that cost is not a barrier to water safety education.

Beyond this, increasing lifeguard staffing levels at New York City’s waterfront parks is imperative to meet the growing demand for water-based recreational activities.

New Yorkers can play an important role in shaping a safer and more inclusive waterfront experience for all and now is the time to stand with the many advocacy groups fighting to protect parks funding.

Residents can sign the Water Safety Coalition’s petition to allow for water safety education in schools across New York State; the Play Fair Coalition’s petition that calls on the City to reverse previous budget cuts and increase funding to the Parks Department; and get involved with citywide efforts spearheaded by New Yorkers for Parks who leads the 1% for Parks campaign.

This year’s city budget process presents a pivotal opportunity to address an alarming pattern; with adequate funding tremendous strides could be made to protect those hoping to enjoy New York’s shores.

For the health and safety of all New Yorkers, it’s critical that the mayor and the City Council follow through on allocating 1% of the city budget to the Parks Department and make certain that all New Yorkers have the necessary skills and resources to safely enjoy the city’s magnificent coastlines.

Blanchard is the chair of the Water Safety Coalition. Palomino is the Director of Advocacy and Programs at New Yorkers for Parks.


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