Friday, June 8, 2018

Neighborhood Change and Why Public Participation Matters

We have a problem in this country. While some urban communities are facing unprecedented growth, the benefits of this economic development success are not necessarily being spread evenly around. More to the point, as cities like New York continue to grow and attract residents and investors, those who have weathered the ups and downs - both residents and small business owners - are increasingly finding themselves at risk of displacement. Frankly, this should come as no surprise. The market pressures to find higher paying tenants (both residential and commercial) and the rewards for finding loopholes in the rules that protect residential tenants in particular have never been greater. (See this fantastic series in the NYTimes that discusses the many challenges tenants face).

We are a victim of our own success. The problem is that none of this is in the long term best interest of our urban places. A city where those who provide critical services are unable to get to work without a long commute, or crippling transportation expenses that rob them of time and ability to manage their homes or finances, all while incurring child care costs that they can already ill afford, is a city that squanders the resources of its citizens. Not only that, but the situation deeply undermines their ability to participate in the very decision making process that affects the urban investments that potentially impact and improve their daily lives.

Our client, Livingston County, NY gathered hundreds of residents to discuss downtown recommendations in November 2017. Great staff, long-standing community relationships, and strategic outreach were key to ensuring that a broad section of residents were in attendance. For those unable to attend, the County issued an electronic survey to get additional feedback.

Why does this matter to our work? 
In our analysis of place we lean heavily on both qualitative and quantitative data to inform our assessments and recommendations. But what happens when only a small segment of a community participates in that process? People who are barely making ends meet don't have time to participate in most community planning efforts. Too frequently, the plans that inform resource allocation and public policy are not necessarily reflective of the community as a whole, but rather a small subsection of those who have the time, resources and inclination to participate. For those of us engaged in community planning efforts, we must do better and we must explore innovative ways to engage communities on their terms, not ours. It is hard work and sometimes the budget to engage communities and residents is simply not there.

Another challenge, particularly for the work we do along commercial corridors, is that the success of a business is inextricably rooted in market realities that are hard for us to change. With higher income residents come opportunities for both existing and new businesses. Generally this is good news for businesses who now have more customers with more discretionary spending. But in some markets, "improvements" come at the expense of those living there. As rents and property values increase, neighborhoods inevitably change. In New York City where I serve as one of thirteen City Planning Commissioners, I witness firsthand the skepticism that many community members bring to their public testimony - concerns that improvements that accompany rezoning efforts are precursors to displacement. The question that is often posed is "why didn't we get park improvements or streetscape improvements or really any kinds of improvements BEFORE?" As a result, residents often find themselves in the strange position of rejecting improvements that they themselves acknowledge would make their communities and lives better. But what good are those improvements if they are no longer able to afford to live there? That is the rub.

As we think about rapid changes in technology we have new opportunities to challenge our methods of engagement and explore ways to ensure that community planning is more effectively than ever before. Some great best practices can be found in the annual awards given by the American Planning Association. Making sure these great examples are not simply the exception to the rule will take time and resources - but most off all it will take a commitment to participatory planning that to date has been in limited supply.

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