Billy Hustace. A public bioswale made of drought-resistant plants, grasses, rocks and mulch

Bricks and Mortar, Spirits and Souls

Deborah Marton

April 04, 2023

To serve people and neighborhoods, government must restructure its siloed approach to the built environment.

To serve people and neighborhoods, government must restructure its siloed approach to the built environment.

To appreciate how New York’s built environment shapes our relationship with the city — and to understand why the quality of that built environment varies so dramatically, with disparities often tracking along racial and economic lines — consider something you may have never given a second look: the humble tree pit.

Yes, the tree pit, that square of dirt carved out of a sidewalk, giving space for a street tree to grow.

In recent years, city government has been converting tree pits to bioswales, larger pits designed to take in and hold excess water from surrounding hard surfaces like streets and sidewalks, to improve water quality and make the five boroughs able to recover more quickly after flooding. In most ways, bioswales are superior to ordinary street tree pits. In New York City, combined sewer events — when raw sewage overflows into our rivers and harbors — occur, on annual average, around once a week.

Not every one of the 700,000 street trees in our city can be reengineered to be a bioswale, but many could, and in the aggregate, millions of gallons of water would be removed from the combined sewer system. But water flowing into bioswales carries trash and sediment, and without regular maintenance, the tree pit can quickly fill up and render the bioswale nonfunctional: a trash-filled flood zone instead of a flood-management asset. 

The successful — and, in many places, unsuccessful — conversion of tree pits into bioswales is an object lesson in injustice, as well as in how entrenched bureaucratic barriers impede government from serving communities equitably. 

While the Department of Parks and Recreation installs most tree pits and maintains the street trees in them, tree pits designed to be bioswales are considered a water-management tool, so are typically funded and installed by the Department of Environmental Protection. Maintenance is another question. Even though the sidewalks the pits occupy are part of the public right-of-way, the Department of Transportation has no responsibility for bioswales, and neither does the Department of Sanitation. Resources specifically allocated to keep bioswales functioning don’t really exist.

Credit: NYC Water. A bioswale in Bushwick, Brooklyn

Not surprisingly, New York City neighborhoods that experience regular flooding overlap with historically disinvested communities, so the tree-pit bioswale could be an environmental justice tool. But because bioswales fall between bureaucratic cracks, they rely on resident-led volunteer maintenance. In communities where human and financial resources are already stretched thin, efforts to coordinate this maintenance can feel like yet another injustice. And so bioswales wind up as an amenity in well-to-do communities, where volunteers are more readily available, and as another case of city maintenance supplemented with private resources — rather than as a public asset that’s equitably spread across all types of neighborhoods. 

Residents of under-resourced neighborhoods are accustomed to the serial rollout, with fanfare, of initiative after initiative, in political press release after political press release. That engenders understandable cynicism about endless promises never met. Over time, this kind of systemic dysfunction can foment a sense of hopelessness and distrust.

The Power of the Physical City

The built environment has the potential to amplify — or sabotage — almost everything else we do to decrease poverty and crime and increase public health and education levels. While the data are clear that an impoverished public environment undermines trust, erodes public health, discourages civic participation, escalates crime and weakens efforts to improve lives through education and social programs, our understanding has not forged the city we know we need. 

In tacit acknowledgment of this fact, New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently codified a position sought for decades, appointing Ya-Ting Liu as the city’s first-ever chief public realm officer. The highly qualified Liu will “coordinate across city government, community organizations, and the private sector to … execute on a plan to … to create and expand high-quality public spaces in all five boroughs.” 

Physical structures all around us offer both formal, overt messages and covert messages.

Without question, New Yorkers need coordination across sectors, but to realize the immense promise of a transformed urban physical environment, it will take more than one person. Nor should the coordinator’s role be limited, as it currently is, to overseeing parks, plazas and car-free streets; we need a bigger, broader vision that makes equity part of how government thinks about its infrastructure at every step. Fundamental justice in how we build our cities requires rethinking the sclerotic, racially biased government structures and financial tools — created in the 19th century — that got us here in the first place. At the moment, our needs are outpacing policy.

Why Does the Built Environment Matter So Much?

Like the education and criminal justice systems, the physical structures all around us offer both formal, overt messages — found in the quality of public amenities like streets and sidewalks, parks and recreational opportunities, and the like — and covert messages embodied in how well or poorly these public amenities are designed, constructed and maintained. 

Overt messages suggest — and sometimes explicitly state — that public amenities are standardized and equitably distributed throughout all neighborhoods. Covert messages, no less legible, are communicated through inferior design and disorderly, poorly maintained public spaces, frequently conceived to facilitate surveillance and law enforcement. Conspicuous examples abound, including public housing campuses bisected by elaborate fencing around every few feet of open space, schools and small businesses dominated by security barriers, and dilapidated parks in neighborhoods that can’t afford to support a private conservancy. Ultimately these messages become the foundation for how people understand the fairness — or lack of fairness — of their society. They can’t be undone through mere words and political postures.

The public realm is where our shared lives unfold — where we see one another, see others who are perhaps not like us and we might not encounter otherwise, gather to mourn (as we did after 9/11), express joy (as many did in New York City upon President Biden’s election), and advocate for a more just shared culture (as during the marches following George Floyd’s murder). When shared values intersect in shared space, we experience what it feels like to be part of something larger than ourselves; we understand the power of community. 

Follow the Money

Ultimately, to achieve a racially, ethnically and economically just city that communicates respect and equitable welcome through every community, policymakers have to separate long-term planning from electoral cycles. Improving the city for people will require a radical rethinking of municipal governance, agency structure and the financial tools available to invest in a manner consistent with our values and ambitions.

Budgets are structured according to how funds are raised, not by how they could be optimally and holistically allocated for the best outcomes.

As in many cities, New York City’s capital and operations budgets are funded and allocated separately. The capital budget largely funds construction – building and renovating schools, bridges and highways, etc. The operations or expense budget pays the salaries of city employees who provide sanitation, park maintenance, police and fire protection, social services, health care and education.

Budgets are structured according to how funds are raised, not by how they could be optimally and holistically allocated for the best outcomes. The capital budget is funded primarily by proceeds from general obligation bonds issued by the City of New York and related city entities. Thus, capital projects are debt-financed over multiple years and recorded on balance sheets as long-term assets and depreciated. In other words, we can spread the cost over time; even better, the value of capital assets also decreases over time. Not incidentally, many physical assets like schools or roads are ineligible for capital investment until they have reached a level of disrepair beyond what may be in the interests of users. In other words, government too often builds even when it isn’t prepared and equipped to maintain.

Once complete, those capital-funded streets, schools, bridges and parks are maintained by expense funds raised through taxation. Interest and principal payments on New York City debt also come from the expense budget, so the more the city spends on debt service, the fewer funds are available for everything else. Unlike capital expenditures, when these dollars are spent, they’re gone immediately. While city agencies strive to plan capital work by anticipating expenses flowing from how the capital asset will be used and maintained, capital planning processes often function independently from considerations of future expense, and of course, surprises are hard to budget for. 

This disjunction between capital and expense budgets and planning processes perniciously affects every aspect of city life, contributing to inequitable outcomes. Would a mother in an under-resourced neighborhood rather have a brand-new park far away, or better maintenance at her modest local park? 

Unfortunately, because of the way we currently organize decisions, we don’t have the opportunity to make that choice. Perhaps we would choose to invest less in school construction and more in teacher training and compensation. Clearly, we need both, but choosing how much to allocate between these investments isn’t an option — they’re part of two entirely separate budgeting systems. Another example is poor maintenance of roads and public buildings, which inflates the cost of future repairs, compromises safety, and exacerbates social problems. Real costs result from a miserable daily commute, substandard schoolrooms or more obvious catastrophic failures like road collapse. But there’s no way to integrate these costs into our annual budget calculations. 

Future savings from increased public health or decreased crime are real and quantifiable, but the savings accrue to institutions and government agencies that differ from those that must make the initial investment. For example, access to nature and green spaces has been convincingly linked to everything from accelerated healing rates to decreased antidepressant use, as well as increased volunteerism, infant brain development, literacy — the list goes on. But the municipal agencies and institutions that would have to act on this knowledge are separate — structurally, ideologically and financially — from the agencies that benefit from implementation, and creative financial tools to bridge the gap don’t really exist in the municipal context. 

Innovative financing strategies and products that facilitate investment in the long-term built environment do exist. Recently the Battery Park City Authority announced plans to reshape its coastline to prevent future catastrophic flooding — with a cost over two phases of $850 million. One observer explained the funding process: “The public authority is leveraging its ability to issue its own bonds, using revenues from ground leases and property tax payments (known as ‘payment in lieu of taxes,’ or PILOT) from Battery Park City.”

Unfortunately, most communities can’t access that kind of creative, geographically circumscribed, public-realm investment tool that’s aligned with community values because their assets aren’t as easily quantifiable as projections from ground leases and property tax payments, and our accounting systems aren’t flexible enough to encompass valuation of other kinds of assets. Why do we continue to tolerate the tale of two cities?

Improving the physical city to respect and serve all communities equally demands a new mindset.

One attempt to capture the value of beneficial social outcomes is social-impact bonds, which have been explored primarily as an investment vehicle for programs seeking specific outcomes within a defined group — for example, formerly incarcerated youth at risk of recidivism. Return on social-impact bond investment requires observable, measurable outcomes tethered in a narrow, linear fashion to the theory of change from which the bond originates. It’s a promising model in theory — but in practice to date, such bonds cannot be applied to enormous, complex structural challenges, which leaves many municipalities unable to access this kind of funding. Similarly, investments under the federal EB-5 immigrant investor program, which aims to stimulate the U.S. economy through job creation and capital investment, have sometimes allowed the allocation of monetary value to social outcomes. Nascent carbon markets are another possible tool, especially for climate-related investment, but like social-impact bonds, they have yet to achieve usability in the municipal context.

So What?

Improving the physical city to respect and serve all communities equally demands a new mindset that incorporates equity at every stage and smartly interweaves spending on design, construction, maintenance and, most importantly, the programs we create to activate streets and infrastructure.

Perhaps we ought to reorganize everything geographically, so streets, open spaces, water systems and more are planned integrally by district. We could untether long-term planning and related funding from electoral cycles. What if health insurance policies shifted the business model from fixing people who are ill to keeping them healthy in the first place, by requiring investment in quality open space and health-driven building design? Could our accounting systems quantify equity and social justice values? Are there emerging financial products that incorporate justice as a metric for return on investment? 

We must flesh out these big ideas. The current way government plans and pays for infrastructure is inadequate, especially for neighborhoods in deepest need of a better physical city. We are — as a city and as individuals — boldly inventive. We can figure this out.