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Even Professional Planners Can’t Track NYC’s Capital Budget

June 23, 2021

We Need Transparency in Budgeting So Every New Yorker Knows Where Investment is Going

It’s budget season in New York City, but I wouldn’t blame you if you didn't know that. While many of our elected officials have been consumed with this process for the past month, most New Yorkers are likely unaware – and lack any meaningful way to engage in or even understand the contours of the debate. But where and how our public money is invested is one of the key decisions that determines how our city functions and who it serves. And like equally important decisions about land use and zoning within our city, it’s one that is opaque for too many of us.

The capital budget – which represents the City’s investment in infrastructure and our built environment: things like roads, parks, and schools – is especially inaccessible. Though there are numerous public documents surrounding the capital budget, they are hundreds, if not thousands of pages long and almost impossible to make sense of – making it extremely difficult for the average New Yorker to tell how much money is going to different projects and different neighborhoods, why any given project has been identified as a priority, or who is likely to benefit. I’m an urban planner, and I can't even decipher it. In this vacuum of information, it’s nearly impossible for New Yorkers to hold elected officials accountable for their budget decisions, and it’s far too easy for status quo inequalities to be reinforced and replicated.

Here’s just one way this plays out in the real world. The de Blasio administration has tied capital investments to its neighborhood upzonings, promising to address things like transit accessibility, school overcrowding, and lack of open space as part of allowing increased density. But many of these investments have been responses to longstanding needs of existing residents, having little or nothing to do with the actual rezoning. To date, every approved neighborhood upzoning under de Blasio has been in a low-income community of color with a history of disinvestment. These communities have essentially been forced to trade long-overdue capital investment for increased density. One could imagine a far different dynamic around rezonings if there were clear ways for communities to demand – and hold elected officials accountable for – capital investment patterns in the regular city budget process.

To begin to change the paradigm we need to ensure a more equitable distribution of resources, one that follows equity principles to address long-standing needs in communities of color and reduce disparities across neighborhoods. But how can we even begin to do this when we can’t tell where schools and parks and transit upgrades are being invested in today? The City must do better. We shouldn’t have to depend on civic-minded data experts to help us visualize where our money is going (as amazing as their work is).

Capital investment and budget equity is a central pillar of a more just planning system and is one of the key demands of the Thriving Communities Coalition. We believe that the status quo approach to planning in New York City does not work for most New Yorkers, and that without meaningful changes, the processes we have now will only continue to exacerbate inequality, segregation, and displacement. Equity in budgeting must be a central component of that change. And a crucial first step would be transparency in budgeting: making sure all New Yorkers can easily understand where investment is going, and why. Because if I can’t find the answers as an urban planner working in this field, how are other people supposed to?

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