Addressing Equity Issues Through a Better Capital Process

Thursday, June 05, 2014



For more than a year, we have focused our research and advocacy on reforming the way the Parks Department’s capital process works; namely, by rethinking both how it is funded and how the agency manages the process – with the goal of addressing park equity issues across the city.

With Commissioner Mitchell Silver now in office and budget season heating up, more and more attention is being paid to substantive interventions, like those included in our study, that could truly benefit the park system as a whole.

At last week’s executive budget hearing before the City Council’s Finance and Parks Committees, momentum to reform the capital process continued to build. We heard questions about this issue from Parks Committee Chair Mark Levine and Council Member Brad Lander. And we heard concerns from Commissioner Silver himself, who bemoaned the sluggishness of the capital process. These issues have present for a while, and now, there are signs that they are going to be addressed.

Working with Public Works Partners, a respected urban policy consulting firm, we conducted extensive interviews with several City agencies that oversee capital projects, along with the City’s offices of Management and Budget and Contract Services, to identify best practices as well as problems and constraints that each agency faces. In nearly every facet of the capital process, we discovered that other agencies can provide valuable lessons for the Parks Department to explore.

Funding for the report was provided by Council Members Lander and Vincent Ignizio, and Staten Island Borough President (and former Council Member) James Oddo.

Read the full report here and a story on the report from Capital New York here and The New York Times here.

Creating a better capital process can ultimately play a huge role in addressing park equity issues across the city, and our report offers a number of straightforward steps that the Parks Department can take to ensure a capital process that is timelier, more cost-effective, and transparent.

Perhaps the most significant change must come from City Hall: the Parks Department should have a well-funded, flexible capital budget that it can use to prioritize parks and neighborhoods with the greatest needs.  Because many capital projects rely on funding from Council members and borough presidents – whose priorities are not always aligned with citywide needs – the system simply isn’t designed to reach the areas that need the most help. For an administration so rightfully focused on park equity, here is a perfect example of reform that could make a sweeping difference.

Fortunately, the FY15 executive budget takes a great first step, by allocating $80 million in discretionary capital funding for “neighborhood parks.” Now, we’re hopeful that the final budget, to be released at the end of June, will include an additional $4 million for the Parks Department so it can hire 55 more full-time capital division workers to help get those new projects up and running.

Second, there are several internal steps Parks can take to make the capital process better. A few examples detailed in the report: a faster and more clearly defined design process; a better system for selecting and working with vendors; more collaboration with other City agencies; and through all these changes, ways of fostering a greater sense of accountability within the capital division at Parks. Each of these suggestions is expanded upon in the report.

What’s next? The good news is that this report won’t just go in a drawer somewhere. Commissioner Silver has already begun taking a hard look at reforming the capital division, and the department is using our report as one of the starting points for the assessment.

In the end, this study comes back to that now very familiar phrase: park equity. After all, when we began our work on this topic, our goal was to make the Parks Department really work better for all New Yorkers – and that means more projects in higher-need areas that are addressed in a timelier fashion. That’s a Parks Department benchmark that City Hall and the Council can get behind. This report can help take them there.


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