Gotham Gazette

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Lots Of New Plans; Any New Visions?


Lately lots of planning has been going on in New York City -- long-range planning, looking far into the future, envisioning what the city will be like in 10 or 20 years. Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced a broad plan for Lower Manhattan and a housing plan for the city. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation recently unveiled nine designs for the World Trade Center site and is getting ready to announce a master plan for the site. We also have an ambitious plan for the 2012 Olympics. And, though most citizens haven't heard about it, the Department of City Planning has a strategic plan. Even the media has the visioning bug. The New York Times asked twelve prominent New Yorkers on January 5 to look into their crystal balls. Civic groups have been leaders when it comes to looking into the future, as witnessed by the array of civic groups that have come forward to discuss rebuilding lower Manhattan after 9/11. Before the last mayoral election, civic groups went into high gear, hoping newly elected officials would heed their plans. Some were quite successful, like the long-range housing plan developed by Housing First!, a coalition of housing and development groups, and the plan for solid waste by the Consumer's Union/Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods, both of which formed the basis for recent policy initiatives in City Hall.

So these days lots of people are thinking about the future of the city. One of the more surprising turns is that even government is getting in on the act. In fact, there seems to be a shift in City Hall, small but significant, away from the short-term, narrow planning that has characterized government ever since the first fiscal crisis in the 1970s. This is especially notable at a time when the current fiscal crisis is pulling decision makers toward short-term solutions to plug holes in the budget.

Legacy of Fiscal Crisis

Unlike many other cities in New York State, New York City has never approved a broad, comprehensive master plan that could serve as a guide in making policy over a long period of time. It's probably just as well. New York City is too big, diverse and complex for a single plan. Would you want an all-powerful planning agency made up of technocrats in a downtown office drawing up blueprints for your neighborhood? Could they possibly understand the diverse realities and needs in this multi-cultural city with hundreds of diverse neighborhoods? That is why the only planning that makes sense in New York has to be based on the communities and involve the communities. There can still be a city-wide vision and a broad city-wide strategy, but it has to relate closely to the city's diverse communities.

Some argue that New York is already developed, so that much of what government has to do is manage the city, not dream up grandiose plans for the future. The problem with this argument is that even the most stable parts of the city are changing all the time. People's problems and needs change, and if government and neighborhoods can anticipate change they can also create it.

While it's probably impossible to have a single monolithic vision and plan for the future of the city, it does make perfect sense to have many. In fact, the city's charter recognizes this (in Section 197-a) and gives government and neighborhoods, through the community boards, the authority to develop a whole range of possible plans. According to the guidelines set out by the Department of City Planning, a plan can cover an area as small as one city block, a neighborhood of 100,000 people, or several neighborhoods. It can cover economic and social development as well as physical development.

Limited Visions

Despite the signs of progress, there is still a lot of short-term thinking amid the strategic planning. Too much of what passes for planning is akin to the kind of strategic planning done by corporations to mask what is basically short-term, bottom-line thinking.

City agencies do strategic plans, but they are limited to their own goals and priorities. They are developed internally, without citizen participation, and are limited to the functions the agencies serve. Agency plans can change abruptly when the mayor leaves office. Especially since term limits, really visionary, long-range thinking is impractical when the mayor, city council members and other elected officials barely serve long enough to learn how things work.

There are also many questions about the new wave of planning initiatives. Are the plans for lower Manhattan anything more than icing on the cake for big real estate deals? Are the plans for Olympics 2012 any more than a collection of mammoth public works projects aimed at spurring development on a few key sites? Are we witnessing a rebirth of the spirit of Robert Moses, the great master planner of the 20th Century who destroyed communities to build highways and high rises? Where, among all these plans, is the overall strategy for the city? Is it in the minds of the mayor and his aides, where it doesn't get debated in the messy process of formal plan approval where diverse communities can be heard? And amid all the big plans for changing the physical city, where are the strategies and plans to improve the quality of neighborhood environments, education, health care, employment, and affordable housing?

Department of City Planning

A newcomer to the city might wonder how the city's officials envision the future of the city, and they might, logically, go to the Department of City Planning (DCP). The Department of City Planning's Strategic Policy Statement outlines eleven priorities. However, they are the agency's priorities, developed by and for the agency, not necessarily priorities for all of us. Our newcomer might be disappointed that about half of them have to do with making changes in zoning regulations to promote new development – perhaps a worthy cause in some cases but obviously there is a lot more to the life of the city that zoning does not and cannot deal with. Zoning rules govern how land can be used, so they are of primary importance to developers. But zoning is an arcane system of regulations that only a few technocrats understand. It is not a plan, but is too often used as a substitute for a plan.

Our newcomer would also be disappointed that the Department of City Planning does not have many plans. In this city with hundreds of diverse neighborhoods, there are no more than a dozen or so approved community plans, and most of them were done at the initiative of the communities. The planning department's strategic policy statement goes beyond zoning when discussing a regional transportation agenda, public access to the waterfront, and the promotion of excellence in design. In these areas the department has made major advances in the last decade, including a waterfront plan, bicycle master plan, ferry plan, etc. Perhaps the new-found passion for planning that has infected the city will flourish anew in the Department of City Planning?

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Planners Network Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.

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