With the election of a progressive mayor and now the elevation of a progressive city council speaker in Melissa Mark-Viverito, New York has the rare and exciting opportunity to finally address the city’s dysfunctional development process. Emulating the concept of participatory budgeting now used by several City Council members and long championed by the new speaker in which constituents get a binding say in how discretionary funding is spent, the city should begin reforms of its planning and zoning processes to better include local community input. Such changes could usher in a new kind of open, transparent and citizen-based democracy that confronts the equity issues the mayor and speaker hold dear, while simultaneously addressing very real sustainability and resilience needs.
The city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure is an arcane bureaucratic scheme dating from the city’s 1975 charter revision. It is a relic of another era. Like much of New York’s planning and development process, ULURP is a reactive process. With no productive means to help shape them, proposed projects become contentious battles with residents on one side and developers, often with city support, on the other.
Instead of a constructive dialogue, ULURP-mandated public hearings usually involve residents begging fruitlessly for someone to listen to community concerns. Speakers in any language other than English often don’t even receive the courtesy of translation. Ultimately, projects are almost always approved anyway. Worse still, many residents only learn about a project once the fences go up and the bulldozers come in.
The process can be elitist, dehumanizing and counter-productive. It fosters a “no development anywhere ever” mentality among residents, who are often unjustly tarred as NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) when all they really want is to be respected and engaged. But existing procedures largely preclude consensus building or tangible deliberations and residents’ choices are reduced to a stark black-and-white choice: shut up or fight.
It does not have to be this way. Projects can get built and profits made while community needs are met. The key is creating a process and framework for open dialogue, giving real power to communities and forcing developers to take part in mandatory public dialogues with binding community protections and benefits as a condition for project approval. Participatory planning is not new. It has been central to the profession since the 1960s and is the law of the land in cities like Seattle, a pioneer in this approach. It works by tapping local knowledge and expertise, providing a forum for open democratic deliberation and building consensus over sometimes deeply divisive issues. It’s hard work. But it’s effective.
Participatory planning can also help address larger long-term neighborhood needs. New York is unique among major US cities in having no citywide comprehensive plan. It should. But though neighborhoods can develop their own plans, good plans require expertise and money. Community boards lack both.
The city should fund a full-time professional staff planner for every community board, facilitating analysis of development proposals and the ability to help draft and implement a local long-range plan. Plans and project approval also need a formal and mandated democratic process to follow. The participatory budgeting approach championed by the new speaker provides a good model, using open, transparent discussions about community needs coupled with tools to actually address them. The slogan of participatory budgeting is “Real money. Real projects. Real power.” Participatory planning’s motto might be “Real plans. Real policies. Real protections.”
Participatory planning has a long history in New York City. Untold numbers of neighborhoods have created their own plans over the last 50 years from pro-active visions like the Green Agenda for Jackson Heights to mega-development counter-proposals like the Atlantic Yards Unity Plan. Today 10 communities in the city, from Staten Island to Far Rockaway, are using state storm recovery funding to develop plans, while in Corona, residents are using community-generated visions to generate support for more equitable development in Willets Point and nearby neighborhoods.
These community-driven processes should continue. But the city could develop its own parallel efforts. With the leadership of Speaker Mark-Viverito and her progressive colleagues, we also have the rare opportunity to expand the culture of participation to include land use, zoning and long-term planning. Every planner worth his or her salt knows that residents are the real experts on what their communities need. Good planning demands technical expertise but also the ability to listen closely and devise ways to turn broad community input into tangible and effective change. This is the city’s next great challenge.
Donovan Finn is an urban planner, visiting assistant professor in sustainability studies at Stony Brook University, founding member of the Fairness Coalition of Queens and a Jackson Heights resident.