Urban Planning: How to Build a Better New York

Community developers throughout New York City are bringing urban planning to the people, ensuring that new spaces are both functional and fit for the neighborhood.

In 2004, ground broke on a waterfront park in Hunts Point in the South Bronx—the first to exist in the area in 60 years. What used to be an illegal dumping ground was transformed into a landscaped oasis for kids and adults to splash, kayak and take yoga classes.

Urban planning and revitalization strategist Majora Carter described spearheading the creation of the park in her 2006 TED Talk “Greening the Ghetto.” She explained how years of unjust public policy initiatives and banking practices had discouraged investment in and ghettoized the neighborhood while imposing environmental burdens like asthma-inducing air pollution on its residents.

Carter, whose life has been deeply affected by her upbringing in Hunts Point, urged her deep-pocketed TED audience to support “triple bottom line” initiatives. She argued that only developments that help the community, the developers and the government equally, with members of each present at the table from the beginning, are truly sustainable. Recent attempts by city agencies to revitalize the area by creating stadiums and big-box stores were ignoring the needs of the neighborhood, she said, adding that “their approaches to local economic and job development are so lame it’s not even funny.”

Carter has been subject to a not insignificant amount of criticism among her South Bronx neighbors for supposedly “trad[ing] on credibility” to represent corporate rather than neighborhood needs, as a 2013 New York Times article claimed. Yet hers is one of many theories of change that women in the urban planning and community development fields are choosing to put into practice rather than bemoaning problems or working within beleaguered systems—the only way for true change to occur.

While New York can feel like an impossibly complex urban system, it’s also a perfect study of how to create a better city—for everyone.

Questions of gentrification and displacement are at the forefront of New Yorkers’ minds now more than ever. Increasing media coverage makes it hard to ignore the wild economic disparities that exist between many adjoining neighborhoods. Hunts Point, after all, is just a few subway stops north of the quietly moneyed Upper East Side. While New York can feel like an impossibly complex urban system, it’s also a perfect study of how to create a better city—for everyone.

Urban Planning
Means Power
to the People

The practice of razing working-class neighborhoods was a fixture of 20th-century American governance, alternately labeled urban planning, urban renewal or slum clearance. Robert Moses laid much of the groundwork for today’s New York during his long, mid-century tenure as the city’s master builder. He led highway expansion projects including the Cross Bronx Expressway, which tore through the South Bronx. Even the site of the Hunts Point Riverside Park was a Moses-era abandoned bridge project. But Moses wasn’t alone—municipalities across the country based their planning on such practices, often anchored on racist and classist notions that “slum” neighborhoods could not possibly be productive or vital enough to invest in.

Meanwhile, social justice began as a civilian movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Women such as Lillian Wald, a nurse who founded the Henry Street Settlement House on New York’s Lower East Side, led the Progressive social agenda at a time when a vast wave of immigrants contributed to the urban crowding of tenement life. The Progressives’ work led to lasting outcomes. For example, New York State placed its first legal limits on child labor in 1903, 35 years before the national ban. But while Wald was a champion of equal rights, the overall Progressive model of privileged, mostly white people stepping in to save the poor (often with accompanying moral and religious guidelines) helped set the stage for government-sponsored displacement of low-income people.

Based on the tenets of public-interest architecture and community control, the resounding belief was that communities know best what they need.

A major shift in thought occurred in the 1960s, when the CDC (community development corporation) movement began. Based on the tenets of public-interest architecture and community control, the resounding belief was that communities know best what they need. The job of the CDC was simply to provide people with support to meet those needs with a combination of private and government funding.

While these issues are intensely complicated, with a tangle of bureaucratic and financial considerations, today community development favors grassroots organization over top-down mandates. “People know best what they want and need in their neighborhood,” says Betsy MacLean, executive director of the Hester Street Collaborative, a community-centric planning, design and development center founded in 2002.

MacLean says that Hester Street’s work is indebted to the pioneers of the CDC movement, such as Pratt Center co-founder Ronald Shiffman. “It’s hard to find community developers who do design well, and designers who do community development well,” she says. “We’re really trying to do both.”

MacLean, who had worked in housing and community development for a decade previously, says she truly started to understand her field when she was working at Cypress Hills Verde, a green-focused development project in Brooklyn. The project began with the goal of building Brooklyn’s first “green,” or environmentally sustainable, public school. After that project was completed, “it became hard not to see connections” with other community needs, such as access to healthy food, public transportation and “green” jobs like retrofit and weatherization training.

Those connections form the basis of sustainability, MacLean points out, and make it more than just a trend for the well-to-do. Whole-house retrofitting (a series of energy-optimizing steps like insulating walls and replacing old heating systems), for example, helps struggling Cypress Hills families save on their utilities bills while improving their living environments.


A long-term project in the Rockaways facilitated by Hester Street offers one example of this sustainability-focused approach which connects diverse parts of a community ecosystem rather than siloing them. The eastern part of the neighborhood, home to miles of peaceful beaches, also contains stark apartment blocks that house thousands of people, many of whom live far below the poverty line. The area has long been plagued by high unemployment and scant access to food, commercial services and health care: “stuff you don’t see in the developed world, frankly,” says MacLean. These deeply entrenched problems were only exacerbated by Hurricane Sandy, which flooded the area and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.

Hester Street partnered with a number of local organizations, including the Ocean Bay Community Development Corporation, to hear their needs and provide “community development 101” trainings before making a long-term plan for the area’s development. That started with recognizing that the Rockaways had a rare commodity in New York’s metropolitan area: an abundance of vacant space. Hester Street and its community partners secured a site for a mixed-use retail complex that will include a grocery store, pharmacy, credit union and other basic services the area lacked. It will be just “one piece of a larger neighborhood vision that we just started to form with community members,” MacLean says.

The team of organizers and developers found out this summer that they were awarded the vacant site by the city, and are now “diving in” to pre-development and development stage. The retail building is scheduled to be completed in three years.

While those longer-term plans are in the works, Hester Street is also in the process of converting thousands of square feet in first-floor New York City Housing Authority apartments that were vacated during Sandy into an economic development incubator. Budding entrepreneurs will be able to visit the incubator to get licensing support, small-business counseling, loans and more.

So where does design come into it? At every step of the process, MacLean says, from the best use of the NYCHA space to the participatory design process of the grocery store. For example, a survey showed that there was nowhere to buy fresh fish in the area, so Hester Street put a big fish counter into the grocery store plan.

“To me, if we can pull all of that off and make a really beautiful building that serves the needs in a really neighborhood-specific way, then we win,” says MacLean.

A Public
Space in Urban

Paula Segal, founder of community land access advocacy group 596 Acres, is interested in the ways that government policies change urban planning environments. It’s for that reason that communal spaces are so important: space that is “community-controlled and demilitarized has become increasingly rare.” Importantly, such spaces are essentially immune from the whims of landlords and real estate developers.

Segal, a lawyer with a background in education, was living in northern Bed-Stuy when she realized that she didn’t know what land was public and what was private. A park that had been promised to her neighborhood never materialized, so she started a campaign with interested local constituencies to push for its construction. They encountered resistance from local officials who said they needed more vacant space for housing—though anyone could see that the neighborhood was full of unused lots. “The city has all this land and isn’t telling anybody. Nobody knows.”  

Segal went looking for data and found Map Pluto, a map produced by the Department of City Planning that connects data from the Department of Finance with geospatial information. She found that there were 596 acres of free public land across the New York boroughs. “I was pretty stunned,” Segal says. “I was like, wow, the city has all this land and isn’t telling anybody. Nobody knows.” The problem was that the map was locked behind a $3,000-a-year paywall; public space was not public knowledge.

Spurred by the growing interest in neighborhood food-growing projects, Segal set out making the map openly accessible. “I knew there was a hunger for this information and someone had the information. So I made it my business to share it,” she says. The result, the interactive map Living Lots NYC, has been openly accessible since September 2013. It now includes tools to connect neighbors to useful information about vacant public land in their area, such as the site’s zoning history, tax roll, and property transaction records. Perhaps more importantly, it also connects them to each other. Segal sees the map’s principle service as a “broadcasting mechanism” that links neighbors who want to become organizers.

She points to a recent example in East New York, Brooklyn. 596 Acres helped a small not-for-profit organization, The Bangladeshi American Community and Youth Development Service Corporation, transform “a place where people got mugged, because there was a fence and a blind where the trees grew up really really tall, into an open community garden.” Vegetable plots and a nearby food truck soon followed.

Simply taking down the fence was a major first step in changing the way people felt about the block they walked down every day. “I sat on that corner a couple of days after we installed the plants and beds, and every single person—like 45 people walked by, I was there for half an hour—every single person said something nice,” Segal says. “That changes everything.”

New York:
The Next Chapter

Jeanette Estima, a research associate for New York’s Center for an Urban Future, says New York City is at a pivotal moment in community development. New Yorkers are more aware than ever before of the “speculation slash gentrification” that causes displacement, drives up rents and banishes a neighborhood’s character forever. (Williamsburg, anyone?) The question, as Estima says, is, “How do we harness this interest now, but use it to build things and revitalize the community in a way that’s helpful to the current residents, meeting their needs with new amenities and resources that are severely lacking?”

Hester Street’s MacLean believes that community developers need to be proactive in thinking about issues of higher land values and displacement “on the front end” of development. “Everyone is still trying to find the discrete set of tools that effectively addresses displacement,” she says. “How can we do this better and smarter?” “Our job is to make stuff understandable, interesting, engaging, not beautiful, in whatever our narrow definition of beautiful is.”  

She is also wary of “socially engaged design,” which runs the risk of losing focus on concrete benefits to the community. “If you lose sight of the implementability portion, you just get super excited about your own ability to be a beautiful designer,” she says. The right approach includes making sure the design elements are appropriate and relevant to specific cultural communities. “Our job is to make stuff understandable, interesting, engaging, not beautiful, in whatever our narrow definition of beautiful is,” MacLean says.

But design is not solely important in the construction phase. Innovative, design-based outreach tools like infographics, 3D models and interactive activities can help get community members involved and explain complex processes, just as they can help bridge the gap between regular people and policymakers. Data often helps underscore long-understood realities; sharp design helps gets attention. A successful community-driven campaign, Estima says, can hinge on knowing how to “fight back with the same tools” as real estate and corporate developers: “a nice presentation with glossy pictures and actual numbers.”

Other initiatives show that community development doesn’t have to be about knocking down walls or putting in parks: it can also be about channeling resources that already exist. The New York Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund, for example, provides financial support to food markets in areas that lack access to fresh food at affordable prices. This isn’t just for feel-good farmer’s markets. Often the organization facilitates the opening of a full-service grocery store, which creates jobs as a side benefit. A new Key Food doesn’t necessarily come to mind when one thinks of helping those in need, but it’s an example of Carter’s “triple bottom line”: a business initiative that provides a service that is sorely needed.

Planning in the
Digital Age

Other urban planning programs are exploring a different kind of community development by bringing sophisticated tech skills to anyone with interest and motivation. The New York Public Library system, for example, began offering coding classes in 2015. According to the New York Daily News, 73 percent of participants in the first round of classes were women, many of whom hope to start their own small businesses or build a web presence to help existing businesses grow.

Another program, Access Code, aims to form “an inclusive tech community” that is reflective of the borough and the city at large. Run by the nonprofit Coalition for Queens, Access Code teaches mobile app development to women, minorities and immigrants who demonstrate financial need. According to the program’s website, the first round of participants walked in earning an average salary of $26,000. Their average salary soared to $76,000 after graduation.

Even Google has climbed on the bandwagon by backing the New York-based urban innovation company Sidewalk Labs, which promises to use technology to solve problems like “cost of living, efficient transportation, and energy usage,” according to Google CEO Larry Page. But the only public initiative so far announced by Sidewalk Labs is far more likely to please executives in midtown than struggling families in the Rockaways: blanketing the streets with free wifi. Is this the kind of tech-driven development that New York most needs?

“Cities are an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success, in city planning and city design,” Jane Jacobs wrote in the introduction to her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Before the detailed, observation-based analysis of successful cities that made her work as influential as it was provocative, she indicts city planners who concern themselves with only utopian ideas of what cities should be, rather than what they are. “The pseudoscience of city planning and its companion, the art of city design … have not yet embarked upon the adventure of probing the real world,” Jacobs writes.

“Today, data-driven tools, savvier designs and entrepreneurial outlooks are helping get away from “‘planning’—in quotes—that did not have our best interests in mind,” as Majora Carter put it in her TED talk. The adventure of knowing our city is far from complete. But if we’ve learned anything from centuries of urbanization, it’s that successful innovations are based not on theory, but on the actual ways that life flourishes in even the most unnatural of environments.

This feature originally appeared in the Future issue. For more inspiring stories dealing with the future, check out Apocalypse Then: The Positive Side of Exploring Dystopia and A Woman in Wine.