When William Johnson became mayor of Rochester, New York, he made a bold change in the way that city did its planning: “I had to learn to listen.”
He listened, that is, to people who lived in Rochester’s neighborhoods. “We divided up the city into districts and asked citizens to envision their futures, look at their assets and help revitalize the city.” Then he made another bold change, in the budget: “Now we allocate funds for neighborhood priorities.” Rochester’s program is called “Neighbors Building Neighborhoods.”
Johnson spoke at the Summit on Community-Based Planning in New York City, held late last month at the Municipal Art Society, where about 100 planners and community people in attendance heard Johnson’s story of how he turned over responsibility for community planning to neighborhood-based groups. Then they dreamt that New York City would do the same.
Summit participants broke out into workshops where they hammered out proposals for community planning in New York City, taking up Johnson’s challenge to “think big.” The starting point seemed to be a consensus that the system is broke and needs to be fixed. Over and over and again people testified that there is little support by city officials and agencies for community planning. Fourteen years after the City Charter was revised to give the city’s 59 community boards explicit authority to prepare their own plans, only seven have been approved. Many more are slowly wending their way through the cumbersome review process. Some people told stories of how they had spent years of volunteer time to develop proposals only to have the Department of City Planning pick them apart and take out whatever it did not like, leaving a plan that few were satisfied with.
Once the plans are approved, city agencies, and the planning department itself, treat them as “only advisory,” which means they get filed away and forgotten, confirming everyone’s worst prejudices about the futility of planning. And in at least one case cited by some conferees â€“ the Greenpoint and Williamsburg plans in Brooklyn â€“ the planning department responded to the neighborhoods officially approved plans by promptly making its own zoning proposals that violate the basic premises of the neighborhood plans. Earlier this month, Community Board One in Brooklyn, which covers Greenpoint and Williamsburg, turned down the planning department’s zoning proposal.
The ideas for changing this state of affairs facing community-based planners ranged from the immediate and mundane to the visionary. They included, for example, giving more technical and financial resources to community boards and community-based organizations, to both plan and to implement their plans. One panel called for the city to fund every community board so they can contract their own planners, as called for in the City Charter. It was also noted that the average board serves 135,000 people, larger than whole cities like New Haven, Connecticut, but with a tiny budget of only about $200,000 and miniscule professional staff. Some participants wanted to see community boards have more than advisory powers, bigger budgets, more professional staff, and more of an ability to bring city agency representatives to the table as partners in decision making. Many proposed that the city provide training for community board members and staff, and one panel wanted city schools to orient students to community board functions. There was also a recommendation that community boards be able to propose legislation.
While the call for the city to support its community boards was clear, there was also some sharp criticism of community boards for not being representative of their diverse constituencies, inclusive and accountable. There were stories of community board members who didn’t seem to understand what they were voting on and others who were too powerful and appeared to have life-long positions. At least one workshop called for uniform guidelines for board membership and procedures across the city, greater outreach to constituents, and oversight of board members and those who select them. Many felt that community planning should be an option for all community-based organizations, not just community boards.
Many of the ideas generated in the summit came out of the Task Force for Community-based Planning, a three-year-old coalition of community and professional groups that sponsored the recent event. With staff support from the Planning Center of the Municipal Art Society, the Task Force developed the first-ever collection of community-based planning efforts in the city â€“ the Briefing Book, available at the Municipal Art Society Website, and on Gotham Gazette’s Community Gazettes.
What It Will Take
If we look at other cities in the United States, such as Rochester, Seattle, and Baltimore, where community planning is widespread and institutionalized, there appear to be three central ingredients to make it work. In New York City, a city of hundreds of neighborhoods with many experienced and sophisticated local activists, none of these elements are in place.
First, there has to be the political will. The executive and legislative branches (mayor and city council) have to want genuine community empowerment. That doesn’t mean just letting people participate in public meetings â€“ the community boards can already do that. It means letting neighborhood people make decisions about government priorities, and that means influencing the city’s budget and service delivery. It also means that the mayor and city council have to be prepared to accept some local decisions they may not agree with.
Secondly, there should be a broad strategic plan governing the city as a whole This will help ensure that neighborhood-based decisions don’t contradict city-wide policies or enact exclusionary measures. In the other cities with community planning, there are city-wide plans that form the groundwork for local plans. In Rochester, for example, the backdrop for neighborhood-level planning is the Rochester 2010 plan.
Third, the city has to put its money where its mouth is. Neighborhoods have to have the money they need to do the planning and to implement their plans. Every plan should have a budget and its priority proposals should find their way into the city’s capital and expense budgets. Seattle, for example, has a Department of Neighborhoodsthat every year funds neighborhood priorities.
At the summit on community-based planning, the elephant in the room was the Bloomberg administration, the latest in a long line of imperial administrations preoccupied with planning for giant downtown projects, blind to outer borough needs, and ready to give lip service to community planning. Maybe the snoozing giant will wake up as elections approach next year, but among this crowd there seemed to be little faith that (if you’ll excuse the mixed zoological metaphors) the leopard will change its spots.
In the meantime, City Council member Bill Perkins, who introduced Mayor Johnson, announced that as chair of the Council’s Government Operations Committeehe would be holding hearings on community boards and community planning on Tuesday December 14, 2004. In his introduction, Perkins said that “there are those who think that since the community boards are just advisory we needn’t pay attention to them. I disagreeâ€¦.Maybe we have to make the boards more than advisoryâ€¦.Maybe we have to change the nature of community boards.”
Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.