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In the News: New York Needs More Equitable, Collaborative, and Transparent Urban Planning

Read the latest op-ed from Rebecca Karp and Cali Williams in Crain’s New York. In their article, New York Needs More Equitable, Collaborative, and Transparent Urban Planning, they consider the future of New York City and make the argument for systemic change in our planning and development processes. Rebecca and Cali discuss the need for collaboration across the private, government, and nonprofit sectors, for equitable decision-making, and for clear pathways to facilitate cross-sector information sharing.

This article originally appeared in Crain’s New York on July 15, 2020.

New York Needs More Equitable, Collaborative, and Transparent Urban Planning

As the city begins to reopen amid protests against the racial injustices that have plagued our country since its inception, we must consider the future of core urban planning and development efforts that were in progress before the crisis hit—initiatives such as the New York City Housing Authority's rehabilitation, the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Plan and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's modernization.

Given the tsunami of a budget crisis washing over our city and the unrest over our fundamentally inequitable systems of power, will these efforts advance? How will they move forward?

The road ahead will be tough; it is going to require new, nimble approaches as we envision and adjust to our “next normal.”

Now is not only the time to determine which projects remain a priority, but it is a moment to learn from the crises of this year and to create a new model for advancing development across the city.

But we can’t do anything before committing to an anti-racist model—one that includes breaking down and rebuilding within our own houses.

The past few months have put, yet again, a tragically fine point on the structural racism that underpins our systems, from the death of George Floyd to the disproportionate economic and health burden that Covid-19 has had on Black and Latino communities to the hate crimes experienced by Asian communities.

We cannot chart a path forward without seriously examining what got us here. While we recommend operational fixes to improve our chances of an economic recovery, we must first recognize that they must all be done in the context of the crucial work of anti-racism.

As we look to the future, we know that streamlining and critiquing our economic development processes so that they better serve all New Yorkers is essential.

First, this public health crisis has shown us our potential to collaborate across the private sector, government and nonprofits. This collaboration should carry us through the next era of development.

During the height of the pandemic, city agencies provided direct services normally handled by nonprofits; private companies delivered social services support; community-based organizations conducted analysis and advocacy that transcend their normal operations and center decision-making locally.

We should take that willingness to innovate and shift power dynamics one step further, to create a new paradigm—less siloed and duplicative—for a multiyear recovery from the coronavirus that is more equitable for all New Yorkers.

Second, it’s past time to provide more equitable access to projects and to give them greater transparency. Infrastructure management needs to better serve people of color.

The city and developers must ensure that the decision-making group for every project reflects New York's diversity. That is the only way we can hold planners accountable to the ideals of equity and community benefit around which so many of these conversations start. That means bringing traditionally disadvantaged voices in to lead the design process from the beginning. It also means prioritizing the hiring of minority- and women- owned businesses so these firms are integral to realizing inclusive projects.

Third, it’s time to create clearer pathways of information sharing among agencies, the private sector and the communities they serve.

Better data platforms and interagency working groups with action-oriented mandates will foster meaningful collaboration and build faith between parties that have had a deeply acrimonious relationship for too long.

But equally important is transforming the planning and development process itself.

The city and development community operate within a rigid bureaucracy that limits our ability to shape resilient, equitable projects—which we need now, and quickly.

Our current land-use review process too often excludes community-driven planning and delays critical projects in a nightmarish web of approvals and paperwork that can omit the hard questions. Racial impact analysis would make strides toward requiring applicants to assess the impact and potential displacement of residents in a project area based on race and ethnicity. It’s time to move this City Council proposal to reality.

Ironically, the environmental quality review process is particularly onerous—and based on an outdated and inefficient model that doesn’t reflect the true impact of a project. The result is that essential projects get left in limbo.

Covid-19 has revealed a flexibility by necessity within the infrastructure and urban planning sphere. We may not have known we were capable of it, but the lesson now must be to create new long-term practices to help us innovate and do better.

Urban development professionals have a unique opportunity to realize a new vision for the city. Now is the time for a collective reckoning to understand what parts of the development process are ripe for reform so we can drive more equitable outcomes.

We hope that others will join us in seizing this moment.

Rebecca Karp is the founder and CEO of Karp Strategies, one of the region's leading MWBE urban planning consultancies whose projects include the YourLIC redevelopment and the BQX.

Cali Williams is a former senior vice president at the New York City Economic Development Corp., where she oversaw planning for initiatives, including Sunnyside Yards.


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