For as long as the residents of Watts-Hillandale can remember, Belmont Park has been neglected.
“I’ve driven by this park many times, and rarely—if ever—have I seen anyone in here,” said Chris Moyer, a member of the Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood Association.
For years, Durham Parks and Recreation didn’t list Belmont Park in its inventory of parks and facilities. James Umbanhowar, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, says it took him two years to realize that the park existed; even when he did, he seldom used it.
Sometimes Umbanhowar would joke about building a pump track—a series of dirt mounds for bicycles— in Belmont Park. Participatory budgeting made Umbanhowar’s pipe dream a reality.
Durham adopted participatory budgeting in 2019. The democratic process, where community members submit public proposals and vote on them, helps put the control of public funds into the hands of the people
Tom Dawson, a Durham Parks and Recreation landscape architect, says participatory budgeting is dependent on the needs of Durhamites.
“Instead of us forming a plan, going to City Council and using our professional overlay, the people come directly to us and come up with an idea of like ‘this is what we’d like to see in our parks.’”
Participatory budgeting at work
According to the city’s participatory budgeting website, community members from all three City Council wards can submit ideas for public arts, recreation, health and wellness and other city services.
Since its launch, over 14,000 residents and students have participated. Approximately 500 ideas were submitted in its first cycle. In early 2019, Umbanhowar did just that and submitted a proposal to allocate funding for a dirt bike pump track in Belmont Park. Umbanhowar’s proposal was one of 11 chosen by Durham residents. The community voted on how to spend $2.4 million total, or $800,000 per ward.
After Belmont Park received funding in late 2019, Dawson at DPR contacted Umbanhowar, and they collected neighbors’ opinions on the park’s reconstruction. Umbanhowar’s job was outreach, so he emailed friends and bike listservs, contacted neighbors and spoke to the Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association.
Dawson was in charge of planning. As a DPR employee, he began designing the park’s pump track and ran ideas by both Umbanhowar and the community.
In February 2020, DPR had its first public meeting about the proposal in Belmont Park. Over 40 residents showed up and voiced concerns and excitement while DPR staff grilled hot dogs and kids drew designs on the asphalt with chalk.
“I think the beauty of [participatory budgeting] is we have residents who really care about improving their community, and just to know that there was a lot of energy and support for this project [Belmont Park],” said Andrew Holland, Durham’s participatory budget manager.
“I think the park’s always been underutilized, but I didn’t really advocate for a change until it came up on the ballot,” said Carrie Blattel, a resident of Watts-Hillandale, who voted for the pump track.
Holland emphasized Durham’s efforts to meet people “where they’re at”—whether that be online, knocking on doors or even handing out flyers at barbershops
A vision realized
On April 6, 2021, DPR held its final public and in-person meeting at Belmont Park. The park’s contractor had been chosen, and the pump track’s designs were finalized. This meeting was the last stop before the construction team began moving dirt for the pump track, adding plants and building a new fence.
“I’m impressed with how many people in the community turned out,” said Sean Wojdula, a member of Belmont Park’s construction team, about the gathering of more than 40 people
Durhamites from the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood voted on a play structure to complement the pump track. Some voted in person; others online. The options for the play structure were a dragon, salamander or snake.
Kids voted, too.
“I’ll tell adults, ‘I’m interested in what you have to say, but I’m more interested in what the kids have to say,’” said Dawson.
Leon and Vincent, ages eight and five, were excited to vote and be able to bike in a park so close to home. After seeing the different options for a play structure, they both voted for the dragon, though they also pitched wrapping a snake around the dragon instead.
By the end of the summer, Dawson and Umbanhowar hope the park will be finished.
“[We] want residents to see projects being developed in their communities,” Durham’s participatory budget manager Holland said, adding that he hopes the community will continue to work in tandem with county staff.
Mountain bike rider and Watts-Hillandale local Steve Mazzarelli agrees with Holland, and says participatory budgeting “gives the neighborhood more of a voice into how their tax money is used.”
Durham is currently in its second round of participatory budgeting. This time, $1 million in funding will be delegated to COVID-19 restoration efforts.
“It’s exciting. I wish they were breaking ground tomorrow and cranking this puppy out,” said Moyer from the Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood Association.
While Belmont Park’s makeover isn’t finished yet, Durham’s first round of participatory budgeting in the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood proved a success.
9th Street Journal reporter Eleanor Ross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
9th Street Journal photographer Sho Hatakeyama contributed to this report.
Top: Vincent (left) and Leon Koch (right) inspect the park plan layouts in Belmont Park. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama