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Livable Neighborhoods: Training Emerging Community Planners from all Five Boroughs

livable neighborhoods training

On May 12, MAS hosted the 6th annual Livable Neighborhoods Training. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer gave the welcome address to a group of more than one hundred people representing all five boroughs. The all-day training was held at Pratt Manhattan and co-sponsored by Pratt Institute’s Programs in Sustainable Planning and Development. The semi-annual event brings together a diverse group of participants from community boards, community organizations, and the planning and design fields to learn from experts with practical experience in city planning, economic development, zoning and more. Instructors included city officials, non-profit leaders, academics and experienced community activists.

In preparation for Manhattan Borough President Stringer’s speech at the MAS Livable Neighborhoods Training, we asked him a few questions about his experience in public service, his thoughts on community planning, and the need for programs like Livable Neighborhoods.

You were appointed to Manhattan Community Board 12 at the age of 16. What made you want to join the community board at that time?

I grew up in a family that put a high value on the importance of political engagement and the idea of public service in the life of New York City. As a teenager, I believed that my local Community Board offered a golden opportunity to get involved in major issues facing Washington Heights, especially City programs affecting teenagers. And I felt then—as I do now—that these boards perform best when their members include a diverse representation of people from all ages and walks of life. I was proud of the work I did on Community Board 12, and it paved the way for future public service on my part, as it has for many other New Yorkers.

What were some of the challenges facing community boards and community-based planning back then?

When I was first appointed to the Community Board in 1977, our neighborhood—and New York City as a whole—was focused on efforts to cut down street crime. We wanted to find meaningful solutions to a growing problem, and I worked on programs that tried to give teenagers something positive to do after school. I helped set up Washington Heights Aid to Teen-Agers, for example, which put a priority on centralizing city services to youth. We also dealt with concerns that City Hall needed to pay more attention to community voices and engage residents in long-term planning initiatives. Needless to say, we grapple with similar problems today in our efforts to help neighborhoods grow and thrive across the City.

What is one way community-based planning can be improved in NYC? 

While there are many ways I have used my office to advance community-based planning, I believe our City could have the greatest impact by simply giving communities the resources needed to engage in proactive planning.  We could start by giving every Community Board in New York City the budget to hire an urban planner.  In 2006, I launched an Urban Planning Fellowship Program, which provided each of Manhattan’s 12 community boards with a second-year urban planning graduate student to work on community-identified projects.  The program has been a resounding success.  While many fellows have worked on projects traditionally associated with urban planning like rezonings or historic resource studies, others have worked on neighborhood policy issues–like analyzing retail diversity, artistic and cultural resources, sidewalk conditions, and affordable housing stock.  If we took this program to the next logical step, by giving each board a full-time urban planner, we would be magnifying these already positive results for all New Yorkers.

You have long been a supporter of MAS Livable Neighborhoods Training? Why should people who want to get involved in the planning and development of their community attend Livable Neighborhoods? 

I strongly support programs like MAS’s Livable Neighborhoods Training, because they give Community Boards and community groups the most important tool anyone can have—which is knowledge.  No one understands New York City’s neighborhoods better than the people who live in them. But the language used by urban planners and lawyers can often seem like a cryptic alphabet soup, a foreign language that drives an obscure public review process. It is easy for people to get lost in the jargon and even easier for communities to feel left out of a processing that affects them so directly. We cannot let that happen.

By engaging residents we can gain a unique understanding of our neighborhoods, and gather valuable information about the best ways to shape development projects and rezoning proposals. So it is crucial that we make communities feel comfortable about participating in the planning process, and knowledge is the key. It will expand residents’ understanding and also help them advocate on a host of issues. Once community leaders know the lingo and the rules that planners and lawyers use, it will create a more even playing field in our neighborhoods when it comes to discussing and improving projects. I truly believe that major projects have the best chance of success in New York City when they actively engage residents in the planning process. I am proud to have been able to contribute over the years to MAS’s Livable Neighborhoods training, and to pass on my office’s expertise in these areas. It is my strong hope that, one day, every interested resident of New York City will be able to decipher a sentence like: “HPD and DCP have a certified ULURP pursuant to 197-c to increase the FAR but with an R7A height limit”–and use that knowledge to improve the quality of life in their communities.

Livable Neighborhoods, generously sponsored by the Altman Foundation, is aimed at providing community activists with the knowledge they need to effectively participate in decisions that impact the livability of their neighborhoods. Since Livable Neighborhoods started in 2006, we’ve provided hands-on training to almost 1000 New Yorkers (including over one third of the city’s 59 community boards).