Open spaces, closed files

Original Reporting | By Abby FerlaCraig Gurian |

“I’m starting to hear more and more concerns about the lack of maintenance because the cuts [in park personnel] are so deep,” Mark-Viverito said. Disparities in security were another concern, she said, “because the conservancies have the ability to hire additional officers to patrol the parks.”


Basic questions not examined

Alyson Beha is director of research, planning, and policy for New Yorkers for Parks. She agreed that “there is certainly the perception in parts of the city that some parks and some neighborhoods are getting short-shrift.” The problem, Beha says, is that the lack of data on how much money the city is investing in each park — something she characterizes as a “huge missing piece of information” — makes it “impossible really” to reach definitive conclusions as to what problems do or do not exist.

Geoffrey Croft, president and founder of NYC Parks Advocates, a non-profit parks advocacy group, said, “The most basic — one of the ABCs — of management is that you have to know” facility-by-facility information. “Look at anything from your car to your house…for you to properly manage and maintain something, you have to know how much that will cost so that you can plan…That’s just a basic in management.”

look at park utilization, too

Alyson Beha of New Yorkers for Parks identified another set of data that the Parks Department needed to gather and use: park-by-park information on utilization.

By integrating utilization and cost data along with the information about the unique features of a park and its surroundings, the Parks Department would get a better sense of why a particular park is underutilized and of what, if anything, could and should be done to bring life to “forgotten parks that don’t get any use.”

That way, she says, “instead of having one good park in your neighborhood, you have two.”

She cautions against the reflex of simply ratifying the existing pattern of supporting highly-used parks and ignoring some under-used ones.

Beha’s organization has been working with NYU on a methodology to collect utilization data and plans to present the plan to the Parks Department early next year. She is concerned, however, that funding constraints will reduce the likelihood that that plan will be implemented.


Remapping Debate asked Melissa Schilling, a professor of management at NYU’s Stern School of Business, whether she thought it would be useful for the Parks Department to maintain cost data on a park-by-park basis. She was surprised that the data were not available. “It’s a strange decision because that strikes me as data that would be easy to collect,” she said.

Schilling said the data would be helpful from a variety of perspectives: determining whether and why some parks were run more efficiency than others, evaluating whether there were funding inequities between and among parks or neighborhoods, and promoting greater public participation in parks decision making by providing greater transparency.

Schilling emphasized that these data — like all data — need to be analyzed with care, making sure, for example, not simply looking at whether a park was being managed cheaply, but whether it was being managed well, and recognizing the need to use both quantitative and qualitative measures where appropriate.

Asked about the expense of collecting data on costs, Schilling rejected the proposition that doing so would be expensive. The Department is already paying people on an individual level and therefore collecting such data, she said, and it is a matter of “just being accountable for keeping track of [people’s time and where they spend it] on a spreadsheet.”

E.S. Savas is a former first deputy city administrator in the Lindsay Administration, currently a professor of public management at Baruch College School of Public Affairs, and author of a 1974 report that examined Central Park’s conditions and management and offered recommendations that led to the creation of the Central Park Conservancy. He believes it would take additional staffing and monetary resources to track the information, but that failing do so is penny-wise and pound foolish: what look like savings wind up resulting in “poor management.”


Getting stonewalled

Remapping Debate reached out to the Parks Department seeking both facility-by-facility data and to interview a Department representative. We had multiple telephone conversations and email exchanges with Vickie Karp from the Department’s press office. Complaints about the scope of our initial request (which included historical data) caused us to narrow the requests substantially to current fiscal year facility-by-facility information on funding and staffing. (See box for full request, including request for interview.)

increasing the need for capital improvements by neglecting maintenance

Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates asserts that, in many cases, the Parks Department does not adequately maintain what it has renovated. Then another renovation is needed.

Sometimes, Croft says, the cycle plays out very quickly. Take “an athletic field, for instance,” Croft says. The Parks Department will “come in and put in grass and they don’t maintain it [and] they don’t have the security to protect it. It could be a couple of months before the field is completely destroyed and we put in $1.5 million to fix it.”

The problem of under-maintenance increasing the need for follow-on capital work represents a “huge issue.”

Promised cooperation was not forthcoming, and we were told by Parks to speak with the city’s Office of Management and Budget. OMB said it didn’t have the information, and suggested we try to get it from the Parks Department. Parks, through Karp, ultimately took the position that Remapping Debate should “FOIL (submit a Freedom of Information request) for your information or direct your queries to the Office of Management and Budget.” “I will not correspond further on this,” she added.

Remapping Debate had made clear that we wished to “conduct an interview of the relevant Parks official even in the absence” of the data sought, but Karp — who had a few days earlier emailed to say, “I have referred [Remapping Debate’s] concerns to senior management here so that we can best expedite and address your requests” — insisted that no Parks representative would be made available until after we had somehow gotten hold of the data Parks was not supplying, “not before.”

It turns out that Remapping Debate was joining a line of others who had had difficulty in obtaining information from the Parks Department. In July, for example, the New York Daily News reported that Parks watchdog groups “charge the Parks Department is chronically tardy in answering Freedom of Information Law requests, which are considered crucial to a transparent government.”  The News itself did not have several requests responded to for months, and, when it pressed for further information, it was given false excuses for the delay.

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