Alexandra Lange | Essays

What It Costs (to Buy a Bench, to Extend a Curb)

The ballot. For a larger version, click here.

On Saturday afternoon, after dropping my son at a birthday party, I voted. For the first time in my experience it wasn't for a person, but for places, technology and trees. In 2011 my New York City Council member, Brad Lander (a former housing advocate), decided to launch participatory budgeting in his distrct, allowing community members to vote on how to spend $1 million in discretionary funds in our neighborhood. We were each allowed to vote for five projects, which ranged in price from $350,000 for safety improvements to the fast-moving street at the end of my block, to $40,000 for new benches in Prospect Park. Transit and kids garnered the lions' share of proposals, with three environmental projects in the middle. I suspect that in the wake of Superstorm Sandy 2013's ballot will be festooned with projects focused on drainage, runoff and soft infrastructure.

I had been receiving emails from various friends and listservs all week about particular projects, smart boards and MacBooks for PS230 in Windsor Terrace, bathroom renovations at PS58 in Carroll Gardens (apparently kindergartners don't like peeing in facilities last updated at mid-century). But looking at the projects as a whole on the broad, well-designed ballot (created by MTWTF for the Center for Urban Pedagogy) what struct me first was the price tags. I am used to seeing civic projects projected in the billions, and these homely numbers provided a reality check. Participatory budgeting is intended to let a voting community set its own priorities, to make funding democratic and transparent. But it also seems like a process of managing expectations: when you can do the math to make it to a million dolalrs, you better understand why some things will have to wait until next year.

I also wonder if, seeing these fixed amounts, some less democratic sources of funding might now enter the fray. A few years ago I wrote an Op-Ed suggesting people could sponsor pothole repair. Why not band together and buy those benches, which did not make the cut? Or start a neighborhood-level crowd funding project for the Hicks Street Pedestrian Safety Improvements, my first choice, that came in a close seventh? I've expressed doubts about Kickstarter urbanism in the past, but the fact that the geographic community has already listed these projects removes one major area of concern. It is also interesting which winners involve gadgets: computers for education and libraries, but not for the arts. Lander noted that he will be working with the Department of Transportation, with a budget of its own, to address safety concerns. Funding for these projects may ultimately be local, citywide or private, but there is a sense of ownership achieved by knowing the price.

Posted in: Architecture, Politics, Social Good

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