Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1841 Thu, 22 Apr 2021 23:08:02 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) CUNY Students Branch Out for Internship Mapping City Park Greenery https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9701-cuny-students-internship-mapping-greenery-new-york-city-parks https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9701-cuny-students-internship-mapping-greenery-new-york-city-parks cuny mashup

CUNY students during their Natural Areas Conservancy internship


Even studying the great outdoors remained mostly indoors this year for CUNY students. Twelve young adults interested in ecology from the public university system participated in a virtual internship with The Natural Areas Conservancy this summer to create an ecological profile of parks across the city. Despite the pandemic, these students gained paid work experience during a widespread job drought and were able to develop their ecological skills and knowledge. Plus, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation received a detailed analysis of planted areas to inform its management in the future.

“The students this summer, we were only able to accomplish so much because they were so self-motivated and passionate and really took a lot of the work upon themselves and went above and beyond my expectations,” said Jessica Hoch, the head of the Natural Areas Conservancy intern program and a project manager in monitoring and assessment. “And I think they are especially connected to this work because although this was remote, they’re working in these areas that they’ve grown up with in their kind of backyard.”

The Natural Areas Conservancy, a nonprofit focused on the health of New York City’s forests, pushed the CUNY internship program into its fifth year, according to Executive Director and co-founder Sarah Charlop-Powers, but the coronavirus pandemic determined the organization’s first remote offering. For eight weeks from June 15 to August 7, young adults used data sets from previous interns and historical imagery from virtual city maps to examine about 30 planted areas controlled by the city Parks Department, the Natural Areas Conservancy partner for this project, Hoch said.

With a skyrocketing city youth unemployment rate, reported at 35 percent among 16-to-24 year-olds in May by the New York City Comptroller’s Office, up from 6 percent pre-pandemic in February, the Natural Areas Conservancy initiative allowed some specialized training for students this summer from one of the most diverse ‘ecosystems’ — the City University of New York (CUNY). Interns came from the College of Staten Island, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, Baruch College, City College, and Lehman College, according to Hoch. They worked 35 hours a week, she said, with regular “crew members” earning $17 an hour while intern-supervisors earned $22 an hour. Charlop-Powers said they shifted their programming to include CUNY a few years ago for the Natural Areas Conservancy to serve as a job-creator and invest in the local talent pool.

“I think it’s really kind of a deep belief of our organization that nobody sort of cares about New York City or kind of relates to New York City as well as the people who are growing up in our communities, spending time in our parks,” said Charlop-Powers. “And that if we have the opportunity to help be a stepping stone for folks in their professional development, people who are interested in pursuing environmental careers, that feels like a real way to sort of fulfill our mission of caring about natural spaces in New York City and caring about the way we use them.”

The Natural Areas Conservancy collaborated with the Parks Department to design a feasible, remote internship, according to Hoch. She said when they decided to conduct a virtual program in mid-April, they brainstormed ways to provide skill-building and training opportunities for young people while also supplying a valuable deliverable to the Parks Department.

This summer, the interns created an ecological profile of the past, present, and future of planted forests across five city parks: Forest Park in Queens, Riverside Park in Manhattan, Van Cortlandt Park in The Bronx, Prospect Park in Brooklyn and the Greenbelt on Staten Island. Hoch said the Parks Department had previously removed invasive species and sowed native plants to increase the ecological health of those areas. The students used data sets, especially from previous interns, to characterize the land use history of the sites from the 1920s to the present, analyze current forest conditions and predict the planted areas’ trajectory in the future, according to Hoch. 

To examine the past even further, said Hoch, they used historical imagery from the New York City Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications, or NYC DoITT, which provides city-wide GIS, or geographic information system, maps. They also looked at a list of species projected to maintain or increase their range with climate change versus what the Parks Department planted to capture what might survive better as the department plants in the future.

For each site, interns created charts and maps with the abundance of each planted species for every site, which the Natural Areas Conservancy turned over to the Parks Department along with their other analyses, according to Hoch. She said practitioners at each site, with this comprehensive look, can then adjust their management activities as needed to have a healthier park. Darius LaFond said this is his second year participating in this internship, and while the interns could interact with the actual sites last year, this time he gained different but useful abilities.

“Because this year it was mostly online, it kind of helped me with the data management and more computer skills,” said LaFond, a senior from Baruch College majoring in biology and minoring in environmental sciences. “And I think it would help me in the future because, well there are gonna be times where I wouldn’t be able to actually physically go out into the field and do research, so I would have to know how to use the data that I’ve been given to make a guess about what is going to happen.”

Interns mostly learned data and image analysis techniques to study the parks indoors for their eight-week experience, but the Natural Areas Conservancy found ways for them to engage with nature outdoors as well — in a socially distanced manner. As they surveyed how COVID-19 rates decreased across the city, Hoch, Charlop-Powers and the Natural Areas Conservancy organized a social assessment component of the internship, where interns, in pairs, would conduct interviews in parks with visitors on how they were now using the natural areas. They included those conversations in their analysis to observe how behavior and attitudes towards parks had changed during the pandemic.

Hoch also described how they would assign interns individual scavengers hunts in their neighborhoods or the closest natural space to them, and they would learn how to identify trees or other basic botany techniques. Carolina Salane, a master’s student from City College studying sustainability in the urban environment, said it was important to her to get some breaks outside.

“It wasn’t any scheduled time in the day. We were just equipped with these new plant IDing skills and we were able to set up activities with our own teams and say, ‘Okay, for three hours or two hours we’re going to go out and just ID trees,’” said Salane. “And that was great, because we got some time away from the screen and I got to see my neighborhood in a new way and now I know all the trees that are on the block.”

Salane served as an intern supervisor this summer. Along with her own work, she said she oversaw the work of two other interns. Hoch described a collaborative work environment amongst the interns where they would meet through video calls and check each other’s work to increase accuracy. Salane said if other interns were confused about any part of the process, other interns would jump in to demonstrate how to use certain programs or analysis techniques. 

“I walked away feeling like a much more confident ecologist even though I hadn’t spent that much time in the field,” said Salane. 

While the interns managed to work together in their respective homes, communicating came with challenges. Aldrin Ador, an intern supervised by Salane, said when he tried to explain his work to other interns, it felt difficult to gauge whether they understood.

“If they were with me in the room, I could show them how I’m doing this with a mapping software or with Excel,” said Ador, an undergraduate senior at Lehman College in a dual degree program for a bachelor’s in environmental sciences and a master’s in GIS. “There is a camera but I think it’s better for me to be in front of them to figure out if they’re confused or just read their general body language.”

Ador said the group’s collaborative spirit kicked in again as they brainstormed ways to explain processes more clearly to each other. He said Salane advised him to make an explainer document on how to create a map for the other interns.

Youth employment programs like the Natural Areas Conservancy internship serve as summer learning experiences for youth that research has shown lead to an increase in community engagement, social skills, job readiness skills, work habits, and college aspirations for young people. Ador said the internship let him apply the skills he learned in the classroom to “real-world conservation work.”

“This really gave me the context of, you know, you can take as many ecology classes as you can, but you’re not really gonna know what that perspective is like until you participate in this work,” said Ador. “I’d want to continue that work either with NAC, NYC Parks, the forestry service or any organization that’s focused on environmental issues. That’s generally what I want to do. I think it helped me solidify that.”

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by Melissa Lent, Gotham Gazette
  

Read more by this writer.

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CUNY Students Branch Out for Internship Mapping City Park Greenery Thu, 20 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Addressing New York City’s Public Hygiene Crisis is a Coronavirus Recovery Must https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9340-addressing-new-york-city-public-hygiene-crisis-coronavirus-recovery-public-bathrooms https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9340-addressing-new-york-city-public-hygiene-crisis-coronavirus-recovery-public-bathrooms 1

Pizza Rat (Youtube); Dilapidated NYC Parks Bathroom, NYC Comptroller’s Office


The tens of millions annual tourists who supercharged New York City’s economic growth during the past few decades looked past the low public hygiene standards in their pursuit of skyline views and Broadway shows. Public restrooms? Very few and mostly awful. Overcrowded sidewalks? We got ‘em! Millions of long-suffering visitors and residents have had to tolerate oozing garbage bags on city sidewalks, grimy subway stations, crowded playgrounds, gross bathrooms in city parks, and more. When a pizza-eating rat in your city becomes a YouTube star (over 11 million views), you might have a problem.

New York City’s grittiness should become part of its storied history. There are many reasons why the city has become the world leader in the COVID-19 outbreak (overcrowded apartments, two international airports, social inequality, and more), but it didn’t help that the city’s public hygiene standards were so low. In order to bring back the tens of millions of tourists, and retain the residents and businesses, the city needs to rethink government and private-sector neglect of basic hygiene. The subways are in some ways now cleaner than they have been in decades, thanks to dedicated frontline staff, but city (and state) leadership needs to adapt the rest of New York to make it easier to stay clean and healthy.

Luckily, there are a number of relatively low-cost, high-impact approaches (what planners today call Tactical Urbanism) that could be implemented right away to reassure residents and visitors that the city and state take these issues seriously.

I am sure that many politicians will claim that they can’t spend the money on anything but the basics, but the city’s industries will not rebound until leaders can reassure visitors and residents that they won’t get sick. Funds should even be diverted from the state budget to make the city cleaner. New York City remains the golden goose for both state and city budgets. If we lose out to lower-density areas like Texas, it is lights-out upstate and down.

Public Restroom Revolution: A New Standard of Cleanliness
The city has flirted with additional public restrooms for decades, such as fully automated systems during the Bloomberg years, but the city hasn’t added a large number of public restrooms since Robert Moses built about 650 playgrounds, most with comfort stations, in the 1930s and 1940s.

According to the New York City Comptroller’s Office, “New York City ranks a lowly 93rd in [public] bathrooms per 100,000 residents among the 100 largest American cities.” The public restrooms that do exist, most of them in city parks, are often dilapidated and unsanitary. The lack of numerous, spacious, and clean public restrooms has long been a threat to public health in New York; today, their absence could undermine the city’s recovery as a tourist destination and desirable place to live.

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(The hazards in city park bathrooms include broken or damaged sinks, toilets, walls, and more (NYC Comptroller’s Office))

Adding public bathrooms in the short-term will cost money, particularly in labor to maintain them to a high standard, but adding restrooms now doesn’t have to be Second-Avenue-Subway expensive. A portable handwashing station costs about $800. Experienced companies like Callahead will gladly rent full restroom trailers, with private stalls, for city use. New York State, which should contribute to this effort, can paint them blue and add the state seal to make the experience more official. 

3(US Navy Handwashing Station (left); PolyJohn Portable Handwashing Station (right), $818)

4(The Brighton Beach Restroom Trailer by Callahead (Left); Calypso Restroom Trailer (right))

These temporary restrooms could be deployed medium-term in cordoned-off parking spaces alongside city streets. Hundreds of them spread throughout the city’s commercial and residential areas would be a game-changer. The city regularly turns over valuable parking spaces to movie trailers for days and weeks, why not public restrooms? These restroom trailers would be staffed and maintained to high standards by attendants recruited from the growing number of people now unemployed in the city. 

This “tactical urban” approach, using a short-term, low-cost tactic to demonstrate a long-term planning strategy, could deliver what the city has always needed: nice places to go to the bathroom and wash hands. Once clean and widely available temporary bathrooms are demonstrated as superior to forcing people to “hold it” or sneak into or beg for bathrooms in restaurants or cafes, these facilities can be upgraded into permanent, attractive, public restroom facilities. Bathrooms and sinks shouldn’t be ‘customers only.’

We have some great models out there for the long-term, including the super-popular bathroom at Bryant Park. I have personally waited many times to use that supremely-maintained facility. 

5(Bryant Park Bathroom, NYC Parks)

Bryant Park is so good in large part because it has such great bathroom attendants. Adding bathroom attendants in larger private bathrooms—restaurants, bars, shopping centers—would be a major upgrade, too. The city should require all private businesses with larger restrooms to provide active human attendants. Some private bathrooms are well-managed, but most are only cleaned and monitored occasionally. There is a big difference between someone standing by a sink with a towel for you and an occasional janitorial visit. We need people watching to make sure that everyone is washing their hands. Much of the world has public bathroom attendants, including Mexico, and the bathrooms they supervise tend to be cleaner. 

Hire More Park Attendants and Add Structured Recreation

6(Sarah D. Roosevelt Park, NYC Parks)

City and state leaders had to close down playgrounds to stem the spread of the virus. But in the long-term city kids, especially those in cramped apartments, need parks for their mental, physical, and emotional health. Keeping playgrounds closed, or shaming families who allow their kids to play on sidewalks or streets, is cruel. Using the police to enforce social distance in parks is not only a waste of valuable resources, but may lead to blowback from overpoliced communities.

The potential solution to safely reopening parks goes back to New York City’s rich history of playground development and recreation planning. Many decades ago city parks were better staffed than they are today, with attendants and recreation specialists who took a much stronger hand in supervising play and looking after the equipment. Budget cuts have reduced the human presence in most city parks; changing social standards also restrained their power over kids and families. 

It is a good time to bring back active attendants who can 1) regulate the number of children and parents in parks 2) organize kids into safe recreation activities that integrate social distance 3) clean and wipe down the playgrounds constantly and 4) make sure the bathrooms are maintained to the highest standards. Some of the current staff are already doing this difficult work, but the New York City Parks Department will need many new staff members to meet higher standards.

Rethink NYCHA Open Space and Create Neighborhood Parks in Streets
I wrote a column last winter about the vast reservoir of open space on NYCHA grounds and the potential to create new city parks in these underutilized spaces. NYCHA developments are often up to 80 percent open space, including, in total citywide, hundreds of acres of lawns with established trees.

Start pulling down the fences and finding new uses, including seating, outdoor eating spots, work-out spaces, and more so that the city’s residents can spread out and so NYCHA residents can finally use these spaces. Revamp the tired playgrounds, add temporary restroom trailers, and put in attendants.

Longer-term amenities could also be created on underutilized sites as was done at Carver Houses in partnership with Mt. Sinai Medical Center. These NYCHA open spaces belong to the public and should be made more useful for both residents and visitors. 

7(New exercise equipment on a NYCHA development)

 In traditional neighborhoods, smaller streets can be closed for children’s play. The city’s Play Streets program needs to be supercharged. Local parks will both reduce the population pressure on city parks and keep the virus local if kids get it. The key is to furnish the closed streets in an affordable and usable manner. 

All across suburbia, for instance, parents have taken over neighborhood streets during the crisis with portable basketball hoops for their kids. These cheap additions would work just as well on city streets that have been closed for kids. The hoops are cheap and many of them could be deployed on a closed street to reduce the number of kids playing. Paint could be used to create a court. Hopscotch, four-square, and other courts can also be painted. The classic fire hydrant can be partially opened to cool kids in the hot weather. Kids can bike around safely. Closing some cross streets won’t shut down the whole city either. Maintaining these spaces will also require attendants: more jobs!

8(Portable Basketball Hoop, about $3,000 (left)/Painted Hopscotch (right, PxFuel))

 

Sidewalk Widening
There is a great deal of variation in sidewalk width in New York, but we know one fact for sure: few of them meet social distance standards. We need to make sure that smaller streets in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side get a minimum amount of sidewalk space for distance. Super-popular wide sidewalks, such as Fifth Avenue, need even more space for crowds. Thankfully, there is plenty of available space for sidewalk expansion: streets.

It is good to see the City Council stepping up for street closures, but in the long-term New York City will need to find practical ways to unclog the sidewalks while allowing for regular car and truck traffic. Many countries are already pointing the way by taking space from streets to make wider sidewalks and new bike paths.

Given the continued popularity of Citi Bike and need for more pedestrian space even pre-pandemic, shifting some space from streets to sidewalks and paths seems like a good option. This is a low-cost solution that will allow for the city’s business to continue. Once everyone realizes how nice it is to have wide sidewalks, and businesses start putting out more café tables, the sidewalks could be permanently widened.

9(Federal Street in Auckland, NZ, converted during coronavirus (Ministry of Transport))

This short article is not designed as an exhaustive list. The examples here illustrate that the city could implement modest improvements, at modest cost and enormous benefit, in the short-term.

 They also test out temporary interventions with long-term potential. Their implementation would put a lot of people to work on beneficial projects in a time of mounting unemployment. Ordering people to wash their hands and cover their faces is crucial, but it will take a lot of creative thinking to make New York City a healthier place to live and visit. 

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Nicholas Dagen Bloom is a Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College. He is author most recently of How States Shaped Postwar America: State Government and Urban Power (Chicago, 2019). This essay draws inspiration from William H. Whyte’s classic film, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and Mike Lydon’s books: Tactical Urbanism II and Tactical Urbanism.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Addressing New York City’s Public Hygiene Crisis is a Coronavirus Recovery Must Sun, 26 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Invest in City Parks to Improve Our Public Spaces and Save the Environment https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8427-invest-in-city-parks-to-improve-our-outdoor-playspaces-and-save-the-environment https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8427-invest-in-city-parks-to-improve-our-outdoor-playspaces-and-save-the-environment d1yd7nbx0aafoht

(photo: @RiversideParkNY)


Parks are an essential part of any city’s infrastructure. Getting into nature at an urban park lowers stress, eases depression, and fosters happiness. Parks help build community - people get out and meet each other, kids play together, mothers talk, residents meet neighbors.

Parks are particularly invaluable in New York City, the nation’s most densely populated city. And we are fortunate to have so many parks to enjoy! More than 81% of New Yorkers are within walking distance of public green space. New Yorkers are visiting city parks in unprecedented numbers. The city’s parks get more than 100 million visitors a year.

More than just places to commune and recreate, these greenspaces are also one of the city’s most valuable environmental assets. They provide clean air, help mitigate climate change, connect residents with nature, and provide habitat for wildlife.

Parks are a major source of the city’s urban tree canopy. That canopy removes 1,300 tons of pollutants from the atmosphere and stores 1.2 million tons of carbon per year. Trees are vital for mitigating the urban heat island effect and can lower air temperatures by up to nine degrees, cut air conditioning use by 30%, and reduce heating energy use by a further 20-50% -- all of which help decrease climate-changing emissions.

The city’s parks and trees also contribute to our resiliency, capturing almost 2 billion gallons of stormwater runoff each year.

The New York City Parks Department manages 30,000 acres of land, about 14% of the city. Sadly, Parks receives less than 1% of the total city budget, leaving our greenspaces at risk.

This is shameful. While New York spends $178 per capita on its parks. Minneapolis spends $233, and Washington D.C. spends $270.

The average city park has not seen a major renovation for more than 20 years. According to a Center for an Urban Future report, there are cracks in virtually every retaining wall in city parks, deteriorating bridges, toilets that flush directly into waterways, drainage systems that can’t handle the runoff from even a gentle rainfall, and myriad other problems. Managers can’t do any kind of systematic planning and major infrastructure projects are often put on hold for years.

Inadequate funding for proper maintenance has also led to a rise of invasive species in parks. Just over a year ago, invasive beetles were found in Prospect Park that cut off the supply of water and essential nutrients to trees.

The great irony of all of this is that New York’s parks are iconic. Central Park and Prospect Park are routinely found on top parks lists.

That’s why NYLCV has joined the Play Fair coalition with New Yorkers for Parks, DC 37, and more than 100 other groups. Play Fair is a multi-year advocacy campaign for parks and this year, we are calling for increasing the Parks Department budget by $100 million for better maintenance.

This investment could ensure that the city’s natural forests will begin to receive the proactive care they need to remain healthy and resilient in our changing climate. Maintenance workers would have the resources they need to protect our trees from invasive species and maintain the trees we need to absorb carbon and air pollution.

It would go a long way towards fulfilling the goals of the 25-year Forest Management Framework for the restoration and conservation of the city’s hard-working natural forests, for which NYLCV has been advocating.

Investing in maintaining our parks will make New York City more sustainable, improve resiliency, and conserve nature. It’s time we Play Fair for our parks.

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Julie Tighe is President of the New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV), the only non-partisan, statewide environmental organization in New York that takes a pragmatic approach to fighting for clean water, healthy air, renewable energy, and open space. On Twitter @julietighe17 & @nylcv.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Invest in City Parks to Improve Our Public Spaces and Save the Environment Sun, 07 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Investing in the Parks System New York City Deserves https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6796-investing-in-the-parks-system-new-york-city-deserves https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6796-investing-in-the-parks-system-new-york-city-deserves Mark Levine Council Parks

Council Member Levine, the author (photo: William Alatriste)


The numbers are startling: 42 million visitors per year in Central Park -- double the number of visitors to Disney World. Over 7 million people visit the High Line annually and 5 million visit Bryant Park. On a peak summer weekend 127,000 visit Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Park use in New York City is surging. And with the population in the five boroughs continuing to grow and tourism booming, this trend will surely continue.

But the story is not the same everywhere in our city. The marquee parks that are increasingly overwhelmed with visitors fortunately have the benefit of millions of dollars in private contributions to help them manage the onslaught. These funds enable them to provide the extra staffing needed to keep their parks looking beautiful despite the record levels of trampling.

Meanwhile, hundreds of parks in the city’s low- and moderate-income neighborhoods must survive on public funds alone. And those funds are often not enough to keep up with maintenance in the face of rising usage.

In the 1960s, New York City’s Parks Department had full-time staff of over 7,500. Since then the city’s population has grown by 1 million, but today the full-time headcount is just over 4,000. Over the decades the share of our city’s total budget devoted to parks has fallen from 1.7% to under 0.6% today. We now spend less per capita on our parks than San Francisco, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

We need to reverse this trend. The Parks Department budget must increase to meet swelling demand, and to ensure that low- and moderate-income neighborhoods have the great parks they deserve.

But we also need to grow our park system to serve a rising population.

This is especially true in neighborhoods being upzoned for greater residential density, including East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx. If those areas are to remain livable as they gain thousands of additional residents, they will require not just new schools and expanded transit capacity, but more open space as well.

Many neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs face a shortage of park space even without population growth: one-quarter of New Yorkers today have no park within a ten-minute walk from their home. We need new parks to fill in these gaps, most of which are in the outer boroughs.

Inspiring, transformative park projects are waiting for funding all over the city.

The Queensway would convert an abandoned rail line in central Queens into a 3.5-mile linear park. The BQ Green would deck-over part of the BQE, creating green space in park-starved Bushwick. The Lowline, on the Lower East Side, would turn an abandoned trolley terminal into the world’s first underground park, in an area where open space is being gobbled up by a building boom.

We also must pick up the pace of restoration of our city’s natural areas -- 10,000 acres of forest, wetlands, and grasslands in the five boroughs which many New Yorkers don’t even know exists. Modernized and better mapped trails will allow more people to discover these marvelous natural places which are often just a subway ride away.

And let’s find an environmentally sensitive way to open up parts of our park system that are now off-limits to the public, like the spellbinding North Brother Island -- a Lost City off the coast of the South Bronx, long ago overtaken by the forest. Let’s find a way to open up nearby Hart Island, whose 120 scenic acres are home to our city’s potter’s field and a century-and-a-half of history.

Mayor de Blasio’s preliminary budget for the coming fiscal year does little to reverse the trend of inadequate funding for our parks system. It leaves staffing flat and holds the Parks Department to less than 0.6% of the total city budget. It is critical that these numbers improve during negotiations with the City Council in the months leading up to the budget’s final passage in June.

A thriving park system isn’t just a luxury in a dense city of 8.5 million people. It’s essential to livability. Let’s invest now to ensure that every corner of the five boroughs remains livable for the years and decades to come.

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City Council Member Mark Levine represents parts of Upper Manhattan and is chair of the Council's parks committee. On Twitter @MarkLevineNYC.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Investing in the Parks System New York City Deserves Wed, 08 Mar 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Community Engagement Prized by Participatory Budgeting Proponents https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6269-community-engagement-prized-by-participatory-budgeting-proponents https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6269-community-engagement-prized-by-participatory-budgeting-proponents menchaca constituent

Council Member Menchaca with a constituent (photo: William Alatriste)


For City Council Member Carlos Menchaca and his staff, the Participatory Budgeting Vote Week that just ended was the culmination of a year-long effort to encourage project proposals and votes from communities that are traditionally excluded from politics. Through PB, community members decide how $1-2 million in funding is allocated toward neighborhood improvements. Menchaca’s district, which includes immigrant-rich Brooklyn neighborhoods of Sunset Park and Red Hook, is one of 28 districts running the program in the 51-member City Council, but it is the most active.

Last year, Menchaca’s constituents recorded the city’s highest number of participatory budgeting (PB) votes, a total of 6,299. Although this is double the amount of voters from the prior year’s cycle, it is still only a fraction of eligible voters, as the district has a population of 164,230 — about 80% of which is over the PB voting age of 14, according to the 2010 census.

Still, two-thirds of the votes from those who chose to participate were on non-English ballots and almost one-quarter were from people who couldn’t vote in regular elections, such as people under the age of 18 and immigrants without U.S. citizenship. These data give Menchaca and other supporters of PB energy to push forward despite criticism of the program.

“What we’re doing with PB is removing as many obstacles as possible to get every voice in the community connected to a decision, like a community project,” Menchaca told Gotham Gazette in an interview during vote week, which was March 26-April 3.

Menchaca and other Council members typically begin the PB outreach process in September, when workshops are held for residents to come together and share ideas about what should be improved or changed in their communities. This year in Menchaca’s district, fully translated workshops were held in Spanish and Chinese. Throughout the year, regular updates on scheduled events are sent through more traditional methods like phone calls, text messages, and emails. Residents are also updated via social media outlets like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter.

A voting site at the Red Hook Initiative community center, run by volunteers from local high schools, forecasted some success for Menchaca’s community outreach efforts as excited teenagers encouraged their friends to vote. These youth organizers had also been working throughout the year by attending training sessions, collecting project proposals, and organizing mobile voting locations. When they set up their Red Hook Initiative site, they were determined to collect 1,000 ballots by the following day.

The majority of volunteers and voters at the vote week event would not have been eligible to participate in a regular election because of their age, but PB votes are open to residents as young as 14. Tea Cruz, a 16-year-old student, voted with her younger family members in mind. She wanted the local playgrounds to be renovated so that the equipment isn’t rusty and broken when her newborn cousin is old enough to play there. She was also concerned about her younger sister’s middle school, where the library is too outdated for the students to find their books easily.

Along with playground renovations and new library technology, there were 11 other projects on the District 38 ballot this year. Other school improvement proposals included air conditioning installations, lockers for students who are currently required to carry their belongings with them throughout the day, and repairs to auditoriums, bathrooms, and science labs. Brooklyn Community Boards 6 and 7 called for street repairs, including filling potholes and repainting lines. There were also two district-wide proposals for new trees throughout each neighborhood and electronic signs at bus stops with the location and arrival time of each bus.

PB projects are only for these types of physical investments in a neighborhood, known as capital projects. Critics of PB say that many these are projects that city agencies are supposed to take care of through the normal city budgeting process, and that the role for Council members it is to be a liaison between their communities and city agencies, while also influencing the overall city budget. Still, Council members do receive funds to disburse in their communities and many members are now allowing their constituents control over a portion of those funds.

In Menchaca’s district, each voter could support up to five different projects. Informational expos were held before and throughout vote week for residents to learn about each proposal. At the Red Hook Initiative site, a room in the community center was filled with colorful science-fair style posters made by young volunteers, detailing the potential benefits and costs of each project. Voters were encouraged to read all the information before handing in their ballots. Many of the teen-aged voters lingered in front of the posters, questioning details of each project.

Youth Council Member Frank Edwin Guzman, Jr., who is mentored by Menchaca, thinks that the perspectives of his peers are an important part of improving the community. After entering the New York City Youth Council program, his goal is to eventually be the youngest Council member in the city (Menchaca is currently among the youngest). In the near future, Guzman would also like to see every City Council member running PB.

Menchaca also hopes to see more City Council participation. Although 28 districts in New York City already run PB, the system still faces some criticism, both from within and outside the Council. In a recent column, NY1 Political Director Bob Hardt argued that PB places too much of the Council member’s responsibility on residents and hurts the poorer parts of districts that aren’t usually politically involved. Menchaca finds that PB has the potential to do the opposite if the right effort is made.

“The people who are going to eventually become participants in PB are the people that you invite to the table,” Menchaca said, emphasizing “invite.” “If you only invite rich, engaged people then you’re only going to get rich, engaged people,” he continued. “It’s not an accident that two-thirds of the votes coming in are in Spanish and Chinese. It won’t be an accident if only rich, privileged people come out and vote for PB. It’s a direct reflection of the leadership that you place in power to engage the people.”

Menchaca also responded to the criticism that PB takes power away from Council members.

“What we’re trying to do is not consolidate power for one person to make decisions or go out and find solutions, but what we’re doing is actually increasing power within the community to develop leaders who are knowledgeable of city agency processes to help make a collective decision about where to place dollars,” he said.

Other critics point out that the entire PB process might be unnecessary. In a recent column for the New York Daily News, NY1 political anchor Errol Louis pointed out that PB only makes up 0.04% of the city’s budget, labeling the process as “painfully low-stakes.” He argues that if it were really the great process participating Council members promote it to be, residents would be allowed to vote on billion-dollar decisions, rather than where to allocate $1 million or $2 million. Louis also echoes Hardt’s point about putting decision-making responsibilities into the wrong hands.

“And if a budget decision goes wrong — if, say, events prove we should have bought NYPD cameras instead of renovating the senior center — participatory budgeting scatters the responsibility, letting the Council member off the hook,” he wrote.

In an article published here last year, Council members not running PB in their districts cited the heavy commitment as a deterrent.

“Participatory budgeting takes an extraordinary amount of office time and resources for no discernible improvement in outcomes over working through the existing vast civic infrastructure for public participation,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, who represents District 24 in Queens.

A press secretary for Council Member Inez Dickens, representative of District 9 in Harlem, explained that local community boards are the most practical way for residents to express the same opinions, concerns or proposal ideas that PB encourages. This was a point raised by Louis in his recent column.

As more City Council members decide whether or not to run PB, Menchaca thinks that the future of the program lies in more funding. Last year, a project for increased Wi-Fi throughout the NYCHA public housing developments in Red Hook couldn’t receive PB funding even though it garnered more than 3,000 votes. Menchaca had already allocated all of his available funds to winning projects such as district-wide technology updates, playground lighting, bathroom renovations, and outdoor fitness equipment in Sunset Park. He went to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who was able to expand PB this year with a commitment of an extra $100,000 to 10 different districts, for a total of $1 million, to support winning projects. Adams is the first borough president to make such a funding decision.

“PB is a revolutionary approach to growing democracy from the ground up, and this partnership with the City Council will cultivate that growth even further, funding more capital projects and engaging more potential voters,” Adams wrote in the press release.

Along with the continued support of the borough president, Menchaca would also like to encourage the mayor’s office and more city agencies, such as the Parks Department, the School Construction Authority, and the Department of Transportation, to look to PB votes for ideas about how to spend their own money. He believes that PB could be a valuable resource for the mayor’s office and its agencies by showing the city government what residents really want and need, therefore creating a more direct relationship between city agencies and residents. If the city were to directly increase PB funding, it could help improve outreach efforts, according to Menchaca.

“It takes money to engage the communities we’re engaging,” he said. “Especially when they don’t speak the language and there’s low literacy rates, for example, and you have to translate everything. I think the city can understand that gap of resources and bring us more translation, more literacy classes in our communities, bring us more money to teach people how to organize.”

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by Carmen Russo, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette @carmenjrusso

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Community Engagement Prized by Participatory Budgeting Proponents Thu, 07 Apr 2016 18:47:38 +0000