Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Statements Aren’t Enough; We Must Center Racial Equity in the City Planning Process Now

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(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)

This is a pivotal moment in our city. As the disparate impacts of COVID-19 and the vital urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement make clear, New York City government needs a fundamental course correction, one centered on racial equity and undoing the damage of decades and centuries of injustice. Though the need for reform stretches across all our institutions, those that decide our built-environment play an especially crucial role. These agencies must reckon with a legacy of practices that have perpetuated systemic racism, hurt quality of life, and denied opportunities to communities of color.

City planning and the land-use process serve as a reflection of our city’s values and priorities. If racial equity is truly a priority for our city then a cultural shift in planning is needed, beyond a single institution or the ULURP process, to address a stubborn developer-centric approach that privileges capital over community. At the heart of this culture shift is rebuilding trust with New Yorkers that have been hardest hit. City government cannot simply repackage its current approach of rezoning low-income communities of color in the name of equity. At this crucial moment in our city and country, we need to do better.  

Centering racial equity in the planning process would mean ensuring an equitable distribution of resources and development city-wide. Decisions would be based on needs like infrastructure and challenges like climate change and the risks of displacement, instead of a transactional approach based on a community’s political power. It would mean moving away from an approach that sees adding units as the sole indicator of a successful housing policy, without taking into account displacement, community wealth building, or racial equity. It would mean supporting and approving community plans that address both local and city-wide goals, and learning to build trust in that process. 

Taking a color blind approach to planning, as many of our agencies do today, is not enough. We may not be using the same explicitly racist tools of the past, but for many communities, the outcomes are the same. In the absence of explicit racial-equity priorities, white residents and white communities with more resources and connection to power will always benefit the most. As the primary drivers of planning in the city, both the New York City Department of City Planning and Economic Development Corporation acknowledged the importance of addressing these challenges. While the statements are a necessary first step, they are not enough on their own. 

The good news is that some of our institutions are already taking initiative to actively address historical injustices. For example, the City Parks Department developed the Community Parks Initiative. Centered on equity, this process helped the agency identify historically underserved parks in poorer neighborhoods - using dedicated funding to build new parks, improve programming, and increase operations to bring meaningful changes to open space and surrounding communities. Similarly, the City Health Department launched its Race to Justice effort several years ago to examine how structural racism impacts its work, helping it to develop staff knowledge and skills, new policies, and to collaborate with communities through an anti-racist lens.

The City Department of Housing Preservation and Development has shown what a good community planning process can look like, by working collaboratively with the Edgemere community after Hurricane Sandy to develop a community plan with 60 recommended projects, many of which have been funded. And in 2017, two local laws (60 and 64) were passed requiring the city to develop an environmental justice plan, which when complete will advise agencies and city leaders on the steps needed to address the environmental burdens low-income communities of color across the city have had to face, including strategies to improve health equity and deliver opportunities to expand the green economy. These examples show that New York City government is already working to undo a history of racist planning policies, although in a piecemeal way. We need to build on this.  

When low-income communities of color push back on city-led plans, they must be listened to, not dismissed as being anti-change. When neighborhoods come together to craft a community plan that centers their values, while still addressing city-wide goals, city government should help realize their plans. And on the flip side, wealthier and whiter neighborhoods must no longer be off-limits for the types of increased density and development the city has prioritized in low-income communities.

We can make this shift by implementing a comprehensive planning approach that centers racial equity. One that commits not just words, but scarce money, time, and technical resources to ensure our institutions work in collaboration with each other and the communities they serve to lessen and reverse the impacts of historical and structural racism. Let’s get to work. 

Maulin Mehta is Senior Associate of State Programs and Advocacy at Regional Plan Association. Christopher Walters is Rezoning Technical Assistance Coordinator at Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. Both organizations are members of the Thriving Communities Coalition.

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