NYC's $260 Million Little Island Park is a Waste of Money | Opinion

Last weekend, I got the chance to visit Little Island, a new park in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. Despite its crowdedness, I did enjoy my time there. I think it does an excellent job of beautifying the already beautiful Manhattan ambiance. Likewise, the park is filled to the brim with bees, making it particularly environmentally friendly. Ideally, in all locations globally, we should want there to be new parks, infrastructure and places of culture to flourish.

We live neither in a world where all places have such good things nor in a world where it is widely believed that we should want such things. Instead, the world we live in entails investing in such things, but mostly in places that are already thriving economically. Much of the time, this comes at the grave expense of some locals who are not thriving.

A good example of this can be seen in the effects of climate change: The vast majority of emissions are produced by developed countries, exceeding developing countries by leagues. Yet, the worst effects of climate change, such as an increase in the frequency of natural disasters, occur in developing countries, where the vast majority of the world's poor reside. Affluent countries spend a large amount of money on commodities and consummatory goods and at the expense of less rich countries.

The United States, in particular, spends less than 1 percent of its budget on foreign aid—this adds up to about $39 billion. That means that any other assistance coming from the United States is coming from private donors.

In light of this, in what world does it make sense for a potential private donor to spend $260 million on a tiny piece of land on one of the most affluent islands in the world? In a world where roughly 25,000 people die every day of hunger, couldn't Barry Diller—IAC chair, business mogul and prime funder of Little Island at Pier 55—have found a better use of his money?

We don't even have to extrapolate to poverty outside of the city to make this point. New York City's economy has radically shifted as a result of COVID-19. Most office space is still closed, over half a million jobs have been lost, homelessness is on the rise, public education continues to be the subject of substantial budget cuts and many families are still struggling to support themselves financially. Couldn't some of that $260 million contributed to resolving these pressing issues instead of building a tiny park in an already affluent neighborhood?

This is not an argument against beautifying our cities.

Little Island, a new, free public park
A view of Little Island, a new, free public park in Hudson River Park on May 21, 2021, in New York City. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

I count myself as extraordinarily fortunate to have been born into a city where I have endless options for having quality leisure time. Rather, all that is being suggested is that we can and should place the flourishing and well-being of those who are less fortunate as the first priority when it comes to funding big-budget projects. Instances like the building of Little Island do the opposite: Such a project is funded by the rich, and its intended audience consists of the rich. If it wasn't for the rich, it would not have been built in an affluent neighborhood. Perhaps Little Island park is a "charmer," as The New York Times called it. But there are plenty of places in the city that could have really used that money, and the Meatpacking District is not one of those places.

In our market culture, there's nothing uncommon about this. I've seen nothing but praise for Little Island and Diller since the park opened. While such praise is understandable—visiting the park was undoubtedly pleasurable—this park should have been at the bottom of the list of priorities which Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio were worried about. Instead, they incessantly pushed for the development of this park. In a state where the governor is opposed to taxing the ultra-rich, despite a $14 billion budget gap, and in a state where the budget is used so poorly to handle the concerns of its worst-off citizens, those who have the money to make a difference in the life of the less fortunate—Diller clearly fits into this category—have a moral obligation to do so. If the city and state won't, the only other option for aid must come from private donors.

In light of this, the construction of Little Island is merely a product of what economist Thorstein Veblen called "conspicuous consumption." Little Island was simply a display of wealth, not an act of philanthropy. And perhaps the knee-jerk reaction to saying such a thing is that I am a party-pooper; that is precisely the problem. The real party pooper is spending unnecessarily large sums of money on things we do not need for people who are already well-off. Imagine the party countless people could have had if this $260 million were spent fixing real problems the city and its inhabitants are facing?

At the very least, Cuomo and de Blasio should spend more of their time, not pushing for the construction of private parks, but creating incentives for private donors to give to effective charities. Doing so would create a lot more good in the world than building parks like Little Island.

Daniel Lehewych is a graduate student of philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, specializing in moral psychology, ethics and the philosophy of mind. He is a freelance writer, powerlifter and health science enthusiast.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.