This winter, volunteers in Brooklyn’s 39th City Council District were given control of $1 million of Councilmember Brad Lander’s capital budget. That sounds like a lot of money, until you try to build a dog park or refurbish a handball court.
The price tag on those projects? About $500,000.
“Can you imagine that?” asks Alix Fellman, a budget delegate and facilitator for the parks and recreation committee. “Seriously? I will go to Home Depot right now and buy the stuff you need to resurface a handball court.”
It wouldn’t be that easy. Budget delegates were charged with developing capital project proposals for a parenthesis-shaped swath of Brooklyn that cuts through eight neighborhoods, including Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Kensington and Borough Park.
More than 1,000 ideas came out of neighborhood meetings. After excluding the ones that did not qualify for capital funding, budget delegates still had to push projects through a labyrinth of city rules and regulations.
A set of obstacles
One issue delegates faced was upkeep; capital funds can pay for building or repairing a physical improvement, but do not cover the subsequent maintenance. So if there was not a mechanism in place to service a similar, existing project, the proposed project might not be feasible.
Two committees—public health and parks—considered putting solar-powered trash compactors in Prospect Park to prevent garbage from spilling over. The big-bellied compactor bins line a stretch of nearby Fifth Avenue, where the local business improvement district services them. But the Department of Parks & Recreation does not have anyone on staff to repair the compactors, so the agency would have to dip into its budget to pay a contractor. So that idea died.
The Parks Department was more receptive to ideas such as installing chin-up bars and other simple fitness equipment in Prospect Park. The agency has already installed similar units, and they require little maintenance. In some cases, the long-term viability of projects required neighbors to step up.
The Parks Department will only approve a dog park if a community group is prepared to maintain it. For that reason, and because new dog parks require expensive water and drainage systems, the parks and recreation committee submitted a proposal for improvements to two dog parks that are already managed by neighborhood volunteers.
Working with available resources was not always an easy option for delegates. Meeting the demand for parks in Kensington proved more difficult because there is little existing green space.
“We knew that we couldn’t make a new park, but we had such a request for new space—any green space in Kensington—that we tried to look at what’s there that we could actually improve,” says Fellman.
The committee focused on Alben Triangle and Pigeon Playground, two small, neglected green spaces between New Utrecht Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway. Beautifying these small spaces was a matter of installing benches and trashcans and planting additional greenery.
For the Culture and Community Committee, partnering with other committees became a necessity. Members learned that public arts projects are often built as part of larger city-funded construction projects. The city usually allocates those funds for commissions that cost a minimum of $50,000, far more expensive than anything the committee had planned.
“It became pretty clear that in a capital scheme of things, it needs to be attached to something one of the other committees would be doing, like a streetscape,” says Caron Atlas, the Culture and Community Committee facilitator.
One standalone project delegates think has broad appeal is the Mother Tongue monument. The original Mother Tongue monument was erected in Dhaka, Bangladesh to commemorate the country’s movement for language equality. It was the inspiration for the United Nation’s International Mother Language Day.
Mamnunul Haq, a district committee member, believed a Mother Tongue monument would be particularly appropriate for ethnically diverse Kensington. He says the Bangladeshi community brought up the idea last winter, but participatory budgeting presented an opportunity to bring the monument to Brooklyn.
Process already having impact
Delegates are finalizing the ballot and will present the projects to residents at an exposition on March 14. Voting takes place at the end of the month.
In some cases, delegates didn’t have to wait for the ballot to get improvements made. By canvassing neighborhoods and compiling suggestions from residents, budget delegates also identified a number of outstanding projects that the city never completed, says Lander. The delegates got roads resurfaced, benches placed in bus shelters and street curbs turned into wheelchair-accessible ramps—all without dipping into their district’s million dollars.
Information from the community also proved invaluable for the public health, safety and sanitation committee. Instead of relying on official reports to choose sites for safety lights, the committee turned to the data that came out of neighborhood meetings.
“We were trying to [determine] what is the best way to figure out where street lights are really needed,” says Fine. “We actually ended up being able to answer that question by looking back at the original suggestions that had been made.”
The reality is that some projects will not get enough support when residents vote in March. But some delegates don’t see the ballot as the final word. “I think it’s really important to get them out there, because it brings it to the public attention,” says Atlas. “Once it’s on people’s radar, then there can be the will to make it happen in another way.”
Atlas herself would like to bring participatory budget proposals to Feast, a Brooklyn organization that hosts dinner events to fund art projects. She also plans to leverage what she’s learned in participatory budgeting to help community art groups navigate the city’s complicated funding schemes.
In the course of facilitating the Parks and Recreation committee, Fellman discovered IOBY, a New York City nonprofit that connects small-scale, community-created projects to funders. She hopes projects that don’t make the final ballot in March will get a second chance with IOBY.
Lander was concerned that some community members would propose projects that only benefited them directly. But he said people supported projects with broad impact, such as subway station repairs and traffic-calming initiatives.
“It’s been very encouraging to see that level of appetite for improving the spaces in the public realm,” he says.