The "How Can I Improve My Park?" webinar was recorded on Wednesday, December 21. You can watch it here, and read an overview what we covered in the webinar, below.
How Can I Improve My Park?
Did you know that everyday New Yorkers can influence the city to build new park amenities? One of the most common questions NY4P hears from residents is how they can make a difference in their neighborhood parks and playgrounds? There is money to be had from our elected officials for improvements and we want to help you navigate through the process of advocating for and hopefully acquiring this funding. Let’s get started!
What is the first step in solving a problem I see in my neighborhood park or playground?
The very first thing to do is determine what kind of problem you see in your park. Park problems generally fall into two categories.
- Maintenance and Staff Issues
- Large-scale Infrastructure Issues
Maintenance and Staff Issues
The first category-- maintenance and staff issues--are small repairs or improvements in how your park or playground is cared for. Some examples include: repairing broken benches or equipment; mowing lawns; pruning trees; cleaning comfort stations; more frequent trash pick-up. The funding to solve these types of problems comes from the city’s expense (or operating) budget. If these are the kinds of improvements you want to see, you’ll need to work with staff at NYC Parks and Partnerships for Parks. If you observe a problem of this nature that requires immediate attention (i.e. a broken tree limb or broken play equipment), we recommend you immediately report it to 3-1-1.
Large-scale Infrastructure Issues
The second category--large-scale infrastructure issues—require capital projects where something is built or major infrastructure improvements are made. Generally speaking, these projects must cost $35,000 or more – if the price tag is less than that, you’re probably looking at a maintenance and staff issue. Examples of capital projects include: installing new athletic fields or courts; getting new playground equipment; building a dog run; improving ADA accessibility; getting a new comfort station. The funding for these types of improvements comes from the city’s capital budget. If you would like to see a major capital project in your park or playground, you will need to work the staff at NYC Parks, Partnerships for Parks, and your local elected official to get funding.
Today’s post is going to focus on the second category, large-scale infrastructure issues, and how to advocate for funding for a capital project. Where to begin?
The first step to seeing an improvement of any kind is to start building a coalition of neighbors and park users who also want to see change in their park. You will want to reach out to Partnerships for Parks to identify your local Outreach Coordinator. The team of Outreach Coordinators can help you identify any existing park and community groups in your neighborhood as well as provide assistance in building a group from the ground up. Since your ultimate goal in this process is to secure funding from your local officials, you want to build up a diverse network of support that shows your council member of borough president that your idea has traction amongst a number of constituents.
How do I build a coalition?
Reach out to local business, identify pre-existing civic organizations, stop by your local community center or church and try to engage park/playground users directly. As you build a network, listen to others to get ideas about how to improve your park. Plan together what your park needs and how to get it. As you move through the process of advocating for funding, you want to keep your new partners engaged with your efforts. If you write a letter to your council member, get lots of signatures. If you attend a Community Board meeting, invite as many supporters as possible. Sign petitions, hold rallies, make posters to circulate in your neighborhood. There is real strength in numbers.
We’ve got a coalition, now how do we get support from elected officials?
When advocating for discretionary funding from elected officials—City Councilmembers and Borough Presidents—you want to remember a few things.
- Be specific, but flexible. You want to present concrete ideas about improvements, but be willing to compromise. It is possible others in your community have already approached your officials so you want to keep an open mind and open ears. This could be a good way to meet new supporters who want to see changes.
- Use your time effectively and stay focused on your issue. Elected officials are very busy. It goes without saying that courtesy and respect go a long way to building trust and support with your representatives and their staff. Building a relationship with staff is critical. They are the eyes and ears of our elected officials and they can advocate for your projects to their bosses.
- Be persistent. Follow up calls and emails to check in with staff after meetings is important to keep your project on their radars.
- Be patient. Last, but certainly, not least, remember that this process can take years. Elected officials are responsible for solving so many concurrent issues in our communities; we have to be realistic about their abilities to meet our needs and have all of the funds necessary to complete your project.
You also will want to bring a few things to meeting with public officials:
- Photos of the problems in your park
- A list of your coalition members
- Letters of support from other public officials, ex: Community Board
- Accomplishments of your coalition, ex: held public meetings, workshops, trainings
- Data & Facts*
*Data & Facts
NY4P has a range of research tools that can help New Yorkers from every neighborhood build a case for improved open space. Our 2015 City Council District Profiles provide comprehensive information about open space resources, including a district map of all public open spaces and other quality of life measures, such as health and socioeconomic statistics. Our Report Card series provides maintenance data for various kinds of open spaces in NYC, from large parks (20-500 acres), neighborhood parks (1-20 acres), and beaches. Our Open Space Index series provides neighborhood-level data of open space provision and demographic data at a deeper level than our City Council District Profiles – if you reside in one of the neighborhoods we have surveyed, this report can be a great jumping off point for discussing your neighborhood’s needs. All of our research tools are completed with an aim to help you build the case for the park improvements you want to see!
Now, how do I get a meeting with public officials? And who exactly do I want to meet with?
To successfully complete your capital project, you need both support and funding.
Support: The following officials can’t give you money, but you need their support to get your project built
- NYC Parks
- Community Board
Funding: The following officials can fund your project because they have access to discretionary funding to give out each year to projects and organizations in their community.
- City Council
- Borough President
As previously mentioned, a good first point of contact is the Outreach Coordinator at Partnerships for Parks. They can help initiate contact with key Parks Department staff, such as your Park Manager and Borough Commissioner. Your Borough Commissioner and their staff can help you understand the feasibility of your proposed improvement, and can help give you a sense of the cost of the improvement – without a sense of cost, it will be difficult to get the funding you need from your elected officials. You want to call/email your Borough Commissioner’s office to request a meeting.
The second important support group is your local CB. Community Boards represent every New York neighborhood, and while they don’t have funding to give, they can play a powerful role in helping to convince your elected officials that your project should get funding. It is critical to work with the District Manager for your local Community Board, as well the dedicated Parks Committee of the Board. Your ultimate goal with the Community Board is to get your project listed on the Budget Priorities List for the district, an exercise that takes place every year. You want to call/email your local CB, introduce yourself, your coalitions and your issue. Request to be added to the agenda for an upcoming Parks Committee meeting. Once you’re on an agenda, prepare a brief (2-3min) presentation. After, you’ll want to ask for a follow-up meeting and seek a letter of support you can take to other elected officials.
In the late spring, summer, and early fall months, your local CB will start to generate the final version of its District Budget Priorities list – there are 40 projects in every district that get added to the final list, and your goal is to get your project listed. Bring your coalition members along to CB hearings and meetings where the District Priorities list is being discussed – the more community members who turn out in support of an issue, the more likely it is to make it on the final list. The reason this is such an important step is because the final version of the District Budget Priorities list directly influences the City Council, Borough President, and Mayor’s office as it creates a budget for the next fiscal year.
The City Council passes laws and approves the city budget. Each City Council member also has funds from the city to give to local projects. Your goal is to get a meeting with a City Council Member to request discretionary funding. Write a formal letter to introduce your issue, make the follow-up call to ask for the in-person meeting, and bring along all of the information and supporting documentation of we listed above. In addition to requesting discretionary capital funds toward your project, you also want their help getting the project on the Borough Statement of Budget Priorities.
Follow the same steps with your Borough President as you would your City Council Member. Write an introductory letter, request a meeting, make a case for your project and ultimately ask for discretionary funding and to be added to the Borough Statement of Budget Priorities.
Now, let’s talk about a general timeframe. How long is this all expected to take?
Generally speaking, the first version of the city budget, which is called the Mayor’s Preliminary Budget, gets released in late January. This means you should plan on reaching out to the staff at your elected officials’ offices at the beginning of the calendar year to remind them about your project. When the first iteration of the budget is released, the City Council then has about two months to hold hearings for every agency about its budget. Specific capital projects generally aren’t discussed at these hearings, but know that your Councilmember and Borough President are working with their staff during this time to come up with the list of capital projects they would like to fund. After the Council holds hearings, the city releases a second round of the budget in April, known as the Executive Budget. This version contains Council priorities in addition to Mayoral ones. From there, the Mayor’s office and the City Council work together to negotiate the final Adopted Budget, which must be agreed upon by the end of June every year. Usually, this version of the budget is finalized in early June, so keep an eye out for news reports about it. This is your cue to reach out to your elected official’s staff to see if your project received funding. Hopefully, the answer is yes!
Three Possible Outcomes
- Your project didn’t get funded this time… Don’t give up! Remember, NYC is a huge place, and there are many needs that have to be accommodated by our officials. Just because you didn’t get funding in the first year, doesn’t mean you won’t be successful. Laying the groundwork by meeting with staff, getting them up to speed on your park’s needs, and engaging your neighbors for a common cause is critical work, even if you don’t see results right away. This just means you need to keep chipping away for the next budget cycle to keep building support for your project.
- Your project was partially funded… Capital projects can often come with a hefty price tag. It’s to be expected that a major capital project will take a few years to build up all of the funding needed to move forward. Keep the process going! The worst thing you could do is get complacent, and assume the rest of the funding will come through in the next budget year. Keep meeting with staff, keep engaging your neighbors, and keep advocating for your project.
- Congratulations! Your project was fully funded! The Parks Department will now begin the design process. Stay engaged with your Partnerships for Parks Outreach Coordinator, Borough Commissioner, and community coalition. The Parks Department will hold a community visioning session to get feedback on the design and this is your chance to further shape the final outcome of the park improvement.
Year One: Build your coalition! Meeting neighbors, reach out to local businesses and institutions, and reach out to your Partnerships for Parks Outreach Coordinator.
Year Two: You and your coalition should start attending community events and meeting with public officials to introduce your project – start meeting with the Community Board, your Councilmember and their staff, the Parks Department, and your Borough President.
Years Three and Four (and maybe Five!): This is when you start to keep building the case for your project to receive funding. Remember, it often takes at least two years for all of the funding to get allocated!
Years Five, Six, and Seven: Assuming your project gets the funding it needs, you should expect that capital construction process to take at least three years before it’s finished. This might seem like a long time, but this is fairly average for a new park project. Stay engaged, and stay patient! Making change isn’t an overnight process.
An immediate step you can take is to gather the contact information of key players in the journey to capital funding. We recommend you keep a running list of local Community Boards, Councilmembers, Borough Presidents, and Partnerships for Parks Outreach Coordinators. Having their phone numbers listed in one, easily accessible place for you and your coalition members will make the process a little smoother.
- Participatory Budgeting: Participatory Budgeting is a process in which NY City Councilmembers allocate $1 million of their discretionary capital money to projects that are created by, and voted on by residents of the district. The idea behind this effort is to engage folks who are often excluded from the traditional voting process, such as undocumented residents, the formerly incarcerated, youth, and people of color. PB can be a great way to get funding for less expensive capital improvements in your park or playground, and might be a good option for navigating the capital process more quickly. Check it out here.
- People Make Parks: People Make Parks is a set of tools and resources to help communities participate in the design of their parks, developed by the Hester Street Collaborative and Partnerships for Parks. Get the online toolkit here.
- Capital Tracker: Track park improvement projects as they go through the capital projects here.
If you have any questions about how to improve your park or playground, please contact New Yorkers for Parks. Our Outreach & Programming team is here to help!
Emily Walker- Director of Outreach and Programs
212-838-9410 ext. 314 Ewalker@ny4p.org
Laura Montross- Outreach Coordinator
212-838-9410 ext. 303 Lmontross@ny4p.org
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