Syed Ali, MUP 2019
Organization: New York City Dept. of Housing Preservation and Community Development, New York, NY
Sponsor: Joint Center for Housing Studies Community Service Fellowship
““A truly democratic planning process is both inclusionary and transparent,” said Frances A. Resheke, then Board Secretary of the Municipal Art Society, when introducing a session on the City of New York’s Neighborhood Planning Playbook in 2015. I can think of no better way to summarize the Playbook myself. Introduced at the end of that year, the document creates the framework for a planning process that encourages collaboration between city agencies and with local communities. The Neighborhood Planning team at the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) takes this namesake process and playbook seriously, looking back at it constantly to make sure that we are studying neighborhoods in a well-managed, clearly articulated way.
Reviewing the Playbook while preparing to interview for the role at HPD, I was struck by the section diagram on the second page. The text plainly stated that “meaningful engagement of communities will require unprecedented levels of collaboration,” but the illustration shows just how challenging that can be. The City of New York’s neighborhood studies are largely motivated by its ambitious affordable housing goal of 300,000 homes by 2026.
But this cannot mean exclusively focusing on residential development. It must also mean improving health outcomes (DOHMH), protecting small businesses (SBS), creating new jobs (EDC), reimaging transportation networks (DOT), ensuring adequate open space (DPR), and considering environmental impacts (DEP). Beyond city agencies, there are local community boards, city council members and state and federal representatives. Beyond government, there are block associations, nonprofits, business improvement districts, and individual citizens. When there is no shortage of stakeholders, the clarity of inclusive project management becomes all the more significant.
Neighborhood planning has five phases, and my internship this summer is giving me the privilege of experiencing many as the City studies various different neighborhoods. First, we organize, identifying the scope of the work and the stakeholders who should be involved. Second, we learn, digging deeper into the data and asking about residents’ lived experiences. Next, we create potential solutions and vet them with the community. We then finalize the plan by synthesizing findings and sharing the draft with the community. Lastly, we implement, acquiring approvals and putting ideas into action.
For Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, I’ve helped put together a “Neighborhood Snapshot” of relevant data and seen neighborhood planners and borough experts come together to brainstorm stakeholders. At the Southern Boulevard Open House I went to in the Bronx, I watched city agencies share back what they’d heard from community members so far. In Gowanus in Brooklyn, I saw community members come out armed with questions and comments about the Gowanus Draft Land-Use and Planning Framework of over 100 pages. I’ve been involved in trying to define the affordable housing potential of a rezoning in one neighborhood while seeing planners hurry off to update neighborhoods on plans already passed. All the while, the neighborhood planning process stays largely consistent and clear, helping me and hopefully others understand how our communities are evolving.