How should resources be equally distributed among San Francisco’s more than 220 parks and open spaces?
That is the question that Prop. B, a measure passed in June that altered the Recreation and Parks Department’s budget, required the department to solve.
Now, a few months after Prop. B passed, parks activists and District 11 Supervisor John Avalos have issues with RPD’s proposed equity metrics, a set of rules to determine how money and staff hours are distributed to improve parks in “disadvantaged communities.”
Critics say the department wrote the metrics too quickly, without initially consulting Avalos, the supervisor who required that the equity metrics be included in Prop. B, or neighborhood groups in areas with historically low-rated parks.
While RPD employees say the equity metrics will be a “living, breathing document,” open for updates, some parks activists argue that the department’s calculations overstate the current level of investment in “equity zones,” discouraging RPD from ever changing the metrics.
On Thursday, after hearing from several activists who questioned the accuracy of the metrics, the Operations Committee of the Recreation and Parks Commission unanimously moved to schedule a vote on the equity metrics at the full commission’s October meeting.
RPD General Manager Philip Ginsburg and Senior Strategic Planning Analyst Taylor Emerson presented the equity metrics at the Operations Committee’s meeting.
“This is just the first step on a journey and that first step is ‘how do we look at what we are doing?’” Ginsburg said in his opening remarks. “Historically the city has been very focused on comparisons only by supervisorial district… those are valid, but our districts also have great [socioeconomic, racial and linguistic] diversity [within them]. A pure district by district lens is certainly informative, but we think we are building a better lens.”
Others did not think that the metrics should be passed as they are.
“[We really shouldn’t] accept what we have today and say, ‘we’ll fix it next year.’ We should get off on the right foot with this and have something that really means something because it is an important thing and it would be an important tool if it weren’t bent,” said Tom Borden, a member of the Forest Alliance.
The equity metrics approval process slowed after activists criticized the metrics at an Aug. 2 meeting of the Parks, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Council, RPD’s citizen advisory council. On Aug. 4, the Parks Commission canceled its meeting to discuss and vote on the metrics.
Joey Kahn, a media relations manager for RPD, said the meeting was cancelled due to a lack of agenda items, however, two equity metrics presentations are listed on an online agenda for the cancelled Aug. 4 meeting.
Borden and Avalos’s criticism of the plan centers around RPD’s use of per capita figures as a means of distributing resources, saying that the method over represents RPD’s current investment in underperforming parks.
“The fact that the initial equity metrics show that Rec and Park is making greater investments in parks in the ‘Equity Zones’ clearly does not align with the reality that [Avalos] sees or that others in District 11 sees,” Pollock wrote.
As Emerson and Ginsburg explained during their presentation on Thursday, RPD’s metrics identify eighty “equity zone parks” that are within a five minute walk from a low-rated Census tract based on an equity dataset from the California Environmental Protection Agency, that compares rates of asthma, poverty, education and other factors to identify “disadvantaged” areas.
Golden Gate Park is not included in the calculation because the park’s size would have “skewed all of the data,” according to Emerson.
Once the disadvantaged parks are identified, RPD compares the resources currently given to each park by comparing levels of capital investment and volunteer hours by park, per capita, in order to equalize the size and infrastructure differences between the parks, according to Ginsburg.
The metrics also include how many work orders are completed by the department at each park and the maintenance scores, which are currently used to measure equity across the system.
Borden says the per capita metric is misleading because resources are allocated to the park based on the nearby equity zone residents, not all of the residents in nearby census tracts. Although the amount of money stays the same, the final number excludes many potential users of the park in the per capita metric, making the per capita investment seem higher.
An RPD equity metrics presentation estimates that capital investment in equity zone parks would be $55,868 per 1,000 residents compared with $19,147 per 1,000 residents in the city as a whole.
Ginsburg and Emerson argue that the per capita metrics are the best way to compare the city’s wide variety of parks.
“What we want to do is get of out the cycle of anecdotal, ‘my park is better than yours or your park is better than mine.’ Parks are all different sizes and they are not alike, so it’s hard to come up with an analysis per park,” Ginsburg said about the decision to per capita calculations.
RPD’s inability to measure parks usage directly eliminated some other ideal metrics.
“We don’t really have the tools to capture user data in our parks, generally.” Ginsburg said. “We’ve been relying on the same estimate of visitorship to Golden Gate Park, I have no idea where it came from, [but we’ve been using] 15 million per year for 20 years.”
May Wong, president of the Excelsior District Improvement Association, raised concerns that the department’s data-driven technique would miss feedback from certain park users.
“The ones that you don’t count are the ones who come early in the morning, like the ladies who do tai chi…” Wong said. “They’re not going to be part of a survey and they’re not going to come to a club meeting to talk about their wants and needs. They’re the silent users of our parks and I hope that we will speak up for them,”
Although the Board of Supervisors can not veto the equity metrics, the Board will be able to vote in support or opposition of the metrics and control the department’s budget, according to Pollock.
Leah Pimentel, a Parks Alliance board member, said RPD did a good job of doing outreach about the equity metrics.
“I’m glad that the conversation about equity metrics has started,” Pimentel said. “I hope that [the metrics] become a living and amendable document.”
Jess Montejano, a legislative aide to District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell, said that their offices will be watching RPD’s progress in drafting the equity metrics.
“The equity metrics are very important to Supervisor Farrell, our office and the city,” Montejano said. “It’s part of the Board of Supervisors’ job to hold departments and accountable and we plan to be involved in the process [of drafting the equity metrics].”
PROSAC discussed the equity metrics at its September meeting, and Avalos scheduled a special meeting of the Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee.
This article first appeared in The Light’s September 2016 print edition. It has been updated.