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
“The skills I learned, the people I met, and the neighborhoods I got to know made working as Neighborhood Planning Intern for the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) a valuable experience. While some of the experience technical, many of my key takeaways are broader. Here are five takeaways that I’ve reflected on at the end of the summer:
1. Show humility through listening.
The Office of Neighborhood Strategies (ONS), my division of HPD, is a group of professional listeners. The division was created by current Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first HPD commissioner, Vicki Been, who saw the need for community engagement and neighborhood-oriented development. Now, the planners and policy analysts at ONS come to community open houses with open minds and think creatively about activities that can best enable communities to co-create visions of their neighborhoods. For example, my fellow planners treated community members as the experts at the Gowanus Framework Open House, not the other way around.
2. The tools are out there.
Many of the tools and much of the information we drew from in our neighborhood planning studies was publicly available. While there is plenty of internal data and analysis, our local government makes a sincere effort to make the people’s information available to them. Some of my favorite tools were created by NYC Planning Labs, “a division of the NYC Department of City Planning (DCP) that embraces open technology, agile development, and user-centered design to build impactful products with NYC’s urban planners.” The Zoning and Land Use map (ZoLa), the Tax Lot Selector, and the Population Fact Finder often allowed me to more efficiently draw spatial conclusions than fiddling with ArcGIS. The NYC Department of Health’s community health profiles show how each district performs across a variety of indicators. Most important is NYC Open Data, which shares regularly updated information from a variety of agencies. All of this is available to any curious parties.
3. Intrapreneurship is key.
The City of New York employs more than 300,000 people. HPD employs over 2,000 itself. It is easy for people and ideas to get lost in the bureaucracy. The Office of Neighborhood Strategies (ONS), HPD’s newest division, stares this problem down undeterred. My colleagues at ONS take the active listening they do with communities and use it to nudge other parts of our agency and city government to deliver for those communities’ needs. It’s not always easy or fast, but this kind of internal advocacy is necessary to induce change in large, path-dependent power structures like city government.
4. Lots of planning is site-specific.
In graduate school, it is easy to get caught up in grand visions of planning. Discussing theory and analytic methods and mapping, it is easy to think in the scales of the neighborhood, city, and region. Though I was part of a neighborhood planning team, I was surrounded by borough planners working site-by-site, disposing of public land to construct new affordable housing units. Planning for an individual site can involve multiple public, private, and civic stakeholders. It can take years to envision, dispose, and build. HPD’s small army of borough planners showed me just how detailed and specific planning can be.
5. Every agency had a personality.
The City of New York has been smart to approach neighborhood planning in a comprehensive, holistic manner. By inviting agencies with expertise in transportation, economic development, parks, housing, health, youth, and environment into the planning process with the Department of City Planning (DCP), New York embraces the messiness of collaboration. Meetings over the phone and in-person with over a dozen agencies are challenging to coordinate but participating allowed me a unique window into many parts of the city government. Working on multiple planning processes, it was clear that every agency has its quirks, its sensitivities, its priorities, and its flaws. That they are able to work together and deliver on behalf of communities is quite an amazing feat.”