New York City's playgrounds are cleaner and their equipment is in better structural condition as a result of quicker detection of problems, the use of welfare workers for clean-up and changed procedures for allocating capital funds for repair. The impetus for change has come from a more frequent and strategic use of city-wide inspections thus isolating problem playgrounds and focusing staff on correcting major deficiencies earlier than in the past.
Two years ago, many of New York's playgrounds were, by most accounts, in deplorable condition. Swings often were missing, benches were torn out, play equipment was broken, and splintered glass was not uncommon.
Children and parents are likely to find a very different situation today. Many playgrounds are cleaner with better surfaces and functioning equipment. Graffiti and weeds are becoming the exception, not the rule. The improvement in playground conditions was spurred by more intensified use of the department's system of inspecting parks. Staff began inspecting playgrounds in 1986 for their cleanliness and safety. These inspections led to the establishment of a rating system that was part of a reengineering effort begun by Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern several years ago. The frequency of inspections were increased from once every three to four months to once every two weeks. Inspectors were given hand-held computers to easily enter data and become more efficient. Results were shared sooner with staff, who gathered regularly to review ratings and were now held accountable for making improvements in problem playgrounds. The ratings thus create objective criteria by which to judge staff performance.
Inspectors rate 12 separate features as "acceptable" or "unacceptable." Staff are given cards with the features written on them in anagrams to make them easy to remember. For example, the five cleanliness features are known as "GLOW" -- glass and graffiti, lawns, litter and weeds.
Major safety-related problems such as missing sections of safety surfacing in an active area; exposed rough metal on a rubber-coated swing; or a "trip hazard," (ex. a pothole or protrusion in an active, paved area such as an entrance or exit) will generate an "immediate attention" rating, and the play area will fail the inspection. Three or more "unacceptable" (non-safety related) problems will also fail the site. Staff are subject to disciplinary action if they do not correct egregious deficiencies within two weeks. To speed improvement, 100 park managers have been given tool kits to make on-the-spot repairs while making their rounds instead of asking others to do them later. The department has also increased its fleet of roving "Dr.Playground" repair vans (see photo).
No new money was needed to finance the inspection program, and existing staff were redeployed to perform the inspections. However, playground improvement is partly the result of a more flexible approach toward spending capital funds. In the past, large capital projects typically encountered delays that caused the department to underspend its capital budget year after year. The department has loosened up the process, allowing it to spend its entire annual budget and target repairs more efficiently. For example, instead of waiting to repair an entire playground, the department is correcting specific problems such as equipment or surfacing, as indicated on its inspections. This results in earlier treatment of trouble spots before they snowball into much more expensive capital projects.
The department will spend $172 million in capital funds this year, a 350% increase since 1994, when it spent $51 million. This approach involves covering expenses that in the past were typically paid through the operating budget, which was cut sharply in the early 1990's. For example, instead of writing a $10,000 contract to resurface a single playground, park officials are signing a contract for $100,000 for resurfacing at several sites, and paying for it out of the capital budget. The material is then delivered as needed as various playground sites. Guidelines require the department to spend at least $15,000 at any site designated for capital funds. Smaller projects are fixed in-house.
"It's as if you'd set up a letter of credit for $100,000 of safety surfacing," Parks Commissioner Stern told the New York Times. "Before, you had to wait for the playground to deteriorate, and then you'd go in for a $500,000 capital program that would take three years to do."
"The ratings are like the double yellow line on the road," said John Ifcher, Senior Advisor to the Commissioner and architect of the new ratings program. "It keeps us all focused." According to the Park Department's survey, 94% of playgrounds were rated "clean" this winter, compared with 92% last winter. In 1992, just 72% were considered clean. In terms of overall conditions -- which include equipment and structural elements -- 69% were rated acceptable, compared with 63% in the same period a year earlier. In 1992, 57% were considered acceptable. These findings have been confirmed by independent surveys conducted by a local newspaper.
Despite their clear benefits, the ratings have their limitations. They measure only physical attributes, not the amount or quality of usership. A clean, graffiti-free playground might score well but attract little use because of unimaginative design, or an uninviting exterior.
There are also critics of the department's use of capital funds. Some say it violates the basic rule of capital budgeting -- that maintenance funds are paid by those taxpayers who use the facility today, not spread over future generations. But park officials say the change in budgeting, along with the ratings, have helped to correct problems earlier and rationalize capital investment.
John Ifcher, Senior Adviser to the Commissioner of Parks, 212-360-8228