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Nearly 100 New Yorkers “Crack the Code”

livable neighborhoods trainingOn May 10th 2008, nearly 100 New Yorkers attended second annual Livable Neighborhoods Program (LNP) training at Hunter College. The LNP trains community members to pro-actively plan for their neighborhood — tackling issues ranging from affordable housing, to 197-a planning, to the city’s land use review process. Navigating planning in New York City is a difficult task that requires community members to engage with multiple levels of government and consider a diverse number of interests. The LNP was designed to empower New Yorkers by helping them “crack part of the code” to planning in New York City as described by on of our Bronx participants and make planning work for communities. Growth is at an all time high and communities across the city are experiencing an unprecedented amount of change. Community boards are the neighborhoods’ “first responders” when it comes to land use and service delivery changes—making important recommendations about issues such as zoning, housing and transportation on a regular basis. While the demands on community boards are very high, especially as the city grows, they serve their neighborhoods without virtue of resources to hire planners and secure new technological tools. With community board poised to have even less funding in the next fiscal year, free training programs such as the LNP are crucial to helping board members increase their capacity to plan proactively. Andria Rodriguez a new community board member from Manhattan Community Board 12 described the challenge board members face stating “Sitting at the meetings that I’ve been to I realized that I didn’t know enough to make really good decisions”. When describing the training she added “…every moment was an “a ha” moment, because I needed all the information from today to be a good functioning member of my community board.” So while the MAS continues to call for the provision of greater resources to community boards to fulfill their planning responsibilities, LNP is training people now to participate as effectively as possible in planning decisions. The hunger for this type of training is apparent: community board members demonstrated their commitment to by their willingness to give up a sunny Saturday to spend a full day in training workshops. The LNP workshops are a mix of both technical and practical information using a mix of facilitators drawn from academia, city government and community based organizations. This year’s LNP training featured a stellar line up of facilitators that included Anthony Borelli from the Manhattan Borough Presidents office, Mercedes Narciso of the Pratt Center for Community Development and Professor Tom Angotti of Hunter College’s Center for Community Planning and Development which partners with the Planning Center annually to host this event. Having exposure to diverse perspectives from individuals who have worked in the field in varying capacities is priceless. Also, having a program that is NYC-specific—addressing topics and issues that are current and directly affect participants is what makes this program unique. In addition to workshop trainings, participants also receive a “soup-to-nuts” planning toolkit that covers community based planning from organizing to implementing. Participants also have access to a web-based network where they can connect with other participants and facilitators after the training to share ideas, ask questions and learn from one another. A part of the Planning Center’s overarching commitment to neighborhood-led planning, the LNP grew out of a 2004 summit on community based planning where over 100 planners, academics, community activist and city government employees underscored the need for better training and resources for community members. The Planning Center launched the program in 2007, receiving participation from a diverse group of neighborhoods from all five boroughs. In its second year, the Planning Center is continuing to expand its base, with over a third of the city’s 59 community boards having participated in the program. Although community board members are a core constituency of the program, the LNP is free and open to public with a special preference given to those individuals who are part of community-based organizations, neighborhood associations and other grassroots community groups. The LNP is created to be a forum where people from these groups can come and ask specific questions about the issues they are facing and learn from professionals and other participants. It is also a forum where individuals can be inspired to take a constructive and proactive approach towards managing neighborhood change. Molly Rouzie, a returning participant from Red Hook Brooklyn, came to the LNP in 2007 and used it as a catalyst for starting an advocacy group for Red Hook’s Coffey Park. She returned to LNP training this year with another Red Hook resident to learn more and find ways to continue incorporating community planning principles into the work she and her neighbors are doing. Her goal is to send even more Red Hook residents to the training next year. For some participants, not only have neighborhoods changed, but the entire process of planning itself has changed before their very eyes. Francis Conant a resident of Manhattan attended the training with his wife Veronica. Both are members of the West 54-55 Street Block Association. One notable observation of Mr. Conant was the diversity evident at the training among participants and facilitators. Mr. Conant who worked with Landstat satellite imagery over 30 years ago, learned how to use internet based mapping tools and data sources in that incorporate Landstat during the “Using Maps and Data” workshops facilitated by MAS Planning Center staff. According to Mr.Conant “…here I find so many people of diverse backgrounds who are in GIS. So it’s very welcoming to find that the user has widened and broadened”. He considers this new access to planning tools to be both “surprising and pleasing.” This program is generously funded by the Mizuho USA Foundation.