May 26, 2020
by Hugo Rochard, PhD student in geography at the University of Paris, within LADYSS and LabEx DynamiTe. His PhD deals with environmental civic stewardship for nature in the city, in Paris and New York City.
As a major gateway to the North-American continent, New York was one of the first cities of the United States to be hit by the COVID-19 crisis.
To date, one mourns for approximately 21 000 people, half of whom were from disadvantaged African American and Hispanic communities. After many years of expansion, the profound impact of COVID-19 is that the city budget should decrease from 2.9 million dollars this year. This declining funding trend will only accelerate so that by 2021 a 3-fold reduction in funding could occur. The downturn of public finances foreshadows a shift that could be a game-changer for some sectors of intervention, particularly for the environment. First symptom of this shifting funding priorities, the composting programs, with educational purpose and employment opportunities, have been suspended. Yet, green spaces have never been so important for the population: they were used to set up temporary hospitals and remained open to the public in spite of the health crisis. Public authorities have even launched an online page “Parks@Home” to promote well-being activities linked to nature.
For many decades, it has been partially the role of more or less professionalized local organizations (Conservancies, Alliances, “friends of”, “stewards of” …) to take charge of natural public spaces, in cooperation with the city Parks Department. Even though they act on the public realm, a report published online by several local organizations on May 1st, reminds us that the functioning of half of the groups relies mainly on private funding. Prohibited from getting together in person for their stewardship mission, and threatened in their survival for some, these ordinary actors act henceforth online. Adapting to the challenges of COVID-19, local organizations are leveraging social media through assorted online platforms and the strategic use of online newsletters and petitions distributed through databases. In the grip of collective emotion, cut from the physical bounds, the civic groups are thus mobilizing differently to continue existing. The crisis reveals their interdependency and solidarity relationships but also, for some of them, their vulnerabilities. An abundance of research work from the USDA Forest Service illustrates the importance of civic actors’ networks in the exchanges of material (money, tools, plants, compost, staff…) and immaterial (knowledge, values…) resources. The acute nature of the pandemic in New York reveals the deep-rooted relationships between the public and private sectors and just how intertwined this partnership is in pursuit of good governance of the natural spaces of the city.
Since last April, non-profit organizations used digital tools to collect and allocate funds, to try and offset decreasing funding from both city budget and private donations. At the beginning of May, one of the most influential advocacy group, The City Parks Foundation, undertook an emergency relief campaign to help struggling local organizations. The “NYC Green relief and Recovery Fund” enables micro-local groups to request grants up to 1 500 $ and to 100 000 $ for the largest organizations. Each year, this foundation offers a much-needed cash injection of about 150 million dollars towards local environmental groups working in more than 400 parks. There is also a more structural demand. For the second consecutive year, during the campaign “Play Fair for Parks”, more than 250 grass-roots organizations signed an advocacy document for a massive reinvestment in green spaces. So that is a whole economy - sprung from neoliberalism for some - to save .
What is at stake is not only parks but also the environment in its multiple dimensions. In neighborhoods like Flushing (Queens), which is a multicultural poor area and a virus cluster, local organizations increasingly rely on solidarity and mutual care to face the economic crisis. Collectively these organizations seek personal donations and unified voice to justifying their role in the management of the living environment, the watershed, and the bay.
Left: Screenshot from the website: https://www.gofundme.com/ - Visited on May 20th 2020
Middle: Screenshot of a newsletter from Gowanus Canal Conservancy – Received on May 12th 2020
Right: Screenshot from Facebook gathering the posts using the #SaveOurCompost . Visited on May 20th 2020
Other collective actions are remarkable. In spite of the cancellation of the composting programs that were occurring on their sites, Gowanus Canal Conservancy has been going on its volunteering activity respecting physical distancing. Through social media, the group has invited the residents to provide native plants, compost and tools for free in order to participate in the greening of the neighborhood.
Increasingly, digital social networks become the device to combat broken up and contracting public green space. These technology-driven efforts by local organizations are vital to effectively cope with declining investments. This type of eco-citizenship that is expressed online was evident in the hashtag “#SaveOurCompost” on Facebook. Thus, groups form a community of support and fate. Since its creation on May 4th, 73 posts have been made to “#SaveOurCompost” .
The future remains uncertain. Wise use of digital tools can be a call to action and a source of social-ecological resilience for local groups to continue their mission. In reality not all groups will have the same capacities nor the same resources. Nevertheless, the driving force of such civic engagement is far more complex then how much in donor funding can be raised. Of equal or greater importance are their core values, affects and knowledge. These elements are at the heart of a collective approach now evolving rapidly in a post-COVID New York City.
 For further reading: John Krinsky and Maud Simonet, Who cleans the park? Public work and urban governance in New York City, The University of Chicago Press, 2017.
 Posted from May 4th to May 25th 2020.
Hugo Rochard is a PhD student in geography at the University of Paris, within LADYSS (UMR 7533) and LabEx DynamiTe. His PhD deals with environmental civic stewardship for nature in the city, in Paris and New York City.