Better Parks for People Who Need Them, 2: Improving the Equity Metrics

This article expresses further concerns about the Equity Metrics developed by San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department (SFRPD). The first article is here: The  Proposed”Anti-Equity Metrics”.

Proposition B provides SFRPD with set-aside funds for the next 30 years. It also requires them to ensure equity for the parks, by spending more on parks in under-served areas. Let’s call those the “Equity” tracts (they’re based on census tracts showing below-average income).

Now SFRPD proposes a calculation method (“metric”) that indicates it’s actually devoting more resources to those parks already. (You can see that calculation HERE: item-2-equity-metrics-staff-report-final-080416) How? By simply assuming that only the “Equity” tracts use the parks within a quarter-mile of their homes, so that they get ALL the resources spent on those parks. Of course, that’s simply not true. The Equity tract users use those parks, but so does everyone else who lives nearby. (Large parks may even attract people from across the city.) They share the resources, they don’t get all the resources.

Tom Borden provides a more detailed explanation from of what’s wrong with SFRPD’s current Equity Metric (i.e., how it will calculate how it’s doing on sharing resources with under-served areas). We need improved metrics to make sure that under-served populations get more resources.


by Tom Borden

The Equity Metrics currently proposed by SFRPD are misleading and inadequate. The calculation method chosen by SFRPD cheats the people in under-served neighborhoods by dramatically overstating the park resources provided to them. The individual metrics chosen are indirect, subjective, open to manipulation, irrelevant and even backward to what we are trying to measure.

The Calculation Methodology
Defining census tracts based on the CalEnviroScreen data (as the current metric does) seems to be a good choice. The logic of including parks within 1/4 mile of tract boundaries also seems sound. The logic breaks down when it comes time to assign park resources to Equity census tracts. The per capita measures are based on the resources of all of the parks captured in the “Parks Serving the Equity Zones” divided by the total population of the disadvantaged census tracts. Any census tract that is within 1/4 mile of a park captures 100% of that park’s resources.

Based on this methodology, Golden Gate Park should be included, but it is not in the list of “Parks Serving the Equity Zones”. Why? Because allocating 100% of Golden Gate Park to Outer Richmond census tract 478.01 would expose the fallacy of SFRPD’s calculation method. It systematically allocates far more resources to equity zones than the residents actually enjoy. The same logical problem exists for every other park where there are non-equity tracts sharing the resources with equity tracts. It’s just that the scale of the systematic error is smaller because the parks are smaller.

When there are 20 picnic tables in a park the people from the neighboring equity census tracts do not get all of them. They share them with the other tracts within a 1/4 mile of the park. If half of the people around a park are from regular census tracts and half are from equity tracts, 10 of the picnic tables should be allocated to the equity population. The SFRPD system allocates all 20 to the equity population. All of the per capita metrics need to account for sharing in order to produce results that can be compared to the citywide averages.

[See our earlier article “The Anti-Equity Metric” for a graphic example.]

A Better Measurement

All parks are shared between census tracts. When calculating metrics, it should be done on a park by park basis based the number of people in all census tracts with tract boundaries within 1/4 mile of each park. table-for-eq-metricsSee the spreadsheet here that illustrates the calculation for McLaren Park, Palega Rec. Center and the surrounding census tracts.  (Click on it for a larger version). A spreadsheet like this could be built out to include every park and census tract in the City.

For example, let’s assume McLaren Park received $3M in capital investment in a year. That would be allocated as follows:
Capital per person = $3M / 79,740 total park users = $37.62 per person
Capital per Equity tract resident = $37.62 per person (the same as everyone else)
Capital for the 10 equity tracts adjoining McLaren = $37.62 * 35,461 equity users = $1.33M
Capital for the 10 equity tracts adjoining McLaren = $3M * 44.5% = $1.33M

The per capita metrics for Recreational Resources, Park Acres, Maintenance spending, etc. can be similarly calculated. To get a measure of city wide Equity in Capital spending, we would sum up all of the parks:

Capital spent in Park A * % equity users for Park A
+Capital spent in Park B * % equity users for Park B
+Capital spent in Park C * % equity users for Park C
And divide that result by the total population of all equity tracts to get a citywide per capita measure.
It would also be useful to look at this from the perspective of individual Equity tracts. The per capita resources associated with each park within a 1/4 mile of the tract could be added up to see how the particular census tract was being served.

This may sound complicated, but once the assignments are made between individual census tracts and individual parks based on location, the calculation could be easily done in a spreadsheet.

This is a key issue. If it is not fixed the equity metrics are useless and the under-served communities are cheated.

The following points should also be considered in developing an improved metric.

All of the metrics calculations should be available to the public from start to finish. Presentation of final results from a black box calculation is not acceptable.

Excluded Parks
The metrics exclude parks that have schools and libraries, Francisco Reservoir, Marina Harbor, Candlestick, the Zoo, 17th & Folsom, 900 Innes, Geneva Car Barn and Noe Valley Town Square. Some of these should be included.

  • Parks at schools and libraries are frequently larger than mini-parks and are used as neighborhood park space. They should be included.
  • The new parks should be included for the capital spending metric. Once they open, the rest of the metrics can be applied. It looks particularly bad to exclude Francisco reservoir.
  • Excluding Candlestick makes sense.
  • The harbor and the zoo do seem like special cases. If the harbor produces a positive cash flow, excluding it is ok.

Recreation – hours of recreational resources
As defined, recreational resources includes those provided by volunteers and “recreation partners”. Those should not be counted since they are not funded by SFRPD and represent efforts by the public to make up for SFRPD’s shortfall of the needed services.

Investment – Hours of Volunteer Service
We volunteer to improve our parks beyond what SFRPD is doing. Including volunteer service in this metric means that the harder we work on our park, the less SFRPD would be required to spend. The whole intent of these metrics is to insure equitable spending of the Prop B money. Volunteer hours are more likely a measure of SFRPD’s failure to spend money in a park, the opposite of what we are trying to measure.

It does, of course, make sense to account for SFRPD’s expenditures on volunteer recruitment, scheduling, and on-site management and assistance by SFRPD staff. These expenditures should be under the Maintenance heading, not Investment. Clearing brush, pulling non-native plants, repairing trails, tending native plantings and picking up trash are all maintenance, not capital improvements.

Volunteer service hours is not a valid metric.

Recreation – scholarships granted
By definition, these program discounts are granted to low income families. Of course, more will be granted per capita in disadvantaged neighborhoods. There is no point in comparing this metric between average and disadvantaged neighborhoods. A meaningful measure would be number of people participating in SFRPD programs per capita from disadvantaged tracts versus the City at large.

Access – acres per capita
This should be acres of usable parkland. It should not include parkland that is off-limits to the public such as Natural Areas under the Natural Areas Program (NAP). According to SFRPD’s Significant Natural Resource Areas Management Plan (SNRAMP) less than 5% of NAP controlled parkland will be open to the public.

This is a critical issue since the City’s southeast Equity region contains a disproportionate share of Natural Areas acreage. See the map below. Half of McLaren Park, almost all of Bayview Hill and most of India Basin are Natural Areas.


Investment – Capital
Capital spending on the Natural Areas Program should not be counted since it does not benefit local park users. Trail closures, land closures, access control fences and proscriptive signage do not benefit the local public. Spending money on the NAP in Equity Zone parks is a form of environmental racism. Wealthier neighborhoods get usable landscaped parks while the disadvantaged neighborhoods have their parkland closed off for native plant preserves. These equity metrics should not promote that outcome.

Maintenance – Park Scores
The Park Scores are a useful metric. They are a good attempt at creating an objective assessment of our parks. However, it’s hard to imagine that bias does not creep into these assessments.

This should be used as a metric, but with other robust measures beside it.

Maintenance – repair requests completed
This refers to maintenance requests logged into SFRPD’s internal TMA system. Entries are made by SFRPD staff and checked off as completed. The metric is proposed as the percentage of the requests opened during a particular year that are closed in the same year. This is not a reliable metric.

If a different level of care continues to be applied to parks in disadvantaged neighborhoods, staff would not lodge repair requests for things in those parks that they would in others. A high closure percentage for the fewer requests would not mean the disadvantaged parks were being as well maintained. There is no dollar value tied to the TMA entries. A request in a nice park might be, “the rec center windows look old, replace with new windows. “ In the Equity park it might be, “the bathroom window hinges are rusting out, nail window shut.” The TMA system is subject to manipulation and is opaque to the public.

A better metric would be number of TMA requests closed per year per capita of Equity population. However, this is still of very limited meaning since the value of the requests cannot be determined.

This metric should not be used.

Maintenance – money spent per capita
This is one of the most direct and meaningful measures. Why isn’t it in here? The previous two metrics are indirect and much less reliable. RPD says this metric is not proposed because they do not know how much they spend for maintenance in any given park. Can they be serious? They do not know how many gardeners, janitors and managers are allocated to each park? Their TMA system does not track time and materials associated with a job? If they do not have this information, they need to figure it out now. How can they do a good job of managing our parks without it?

As with capital spending, maintenance spending should not include the Natural Areas Program. The activities of the NAP do not benefit park users at large. Of particular concern is the reliance of the NAP on toxic herbicides. The NAP enjoys a special exemption from Department of Environment rules that allows it to use the most toxic herbicides freely in Natural Areas. (See the new guidelines HERE: 032216_restrictions_on_herbicides )

These metrics should not promote spraying toxic chemicals in Equity Zone parks.


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