[excerpt from open Letter to New York Mayor de Blasio]
It’s time for New York and other cities to connect urban planning to social equity.
It’s time to reintroduce communities into the planning process. New York must move beyond the oppositional model of planning that has too long dominated, best exemplified by our beloved Manichean struggle between cardboard versions of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Although there is no contradiction in planning both inductively and deductively, our process is too skewed toward money and away from people: the capacity of neighborhoods to meaningfully participate in planning their own destinies—and that of the larger realms we all share—is fundamental. Wisdom doesn\’t belong to any particular group (although needs are best assessed locally), and a mayor must empower everyone. For this, we look to you with high hopes.
When the New York City charter was revised in 1989, it created a system of community boards and a medium of participation (the 197-a plan) that promised a new way of making decisions that would channel ideas from the grassroots to the top. But, despite the completion of many such plans across the city (out of 59 community boards, only 11 plans have ever been adopted) and despite the deep engagement of citizens and neighborhood groups in working toward ameliorative transformation, these efforts have never had real legal standing and depend on the sanction of a recalcitrant planning department. Let the de Blasio planning department pay better attention, return to the task of physical planning attuned to local desires, and more aggressively pursue architecturally significant outcomes. Instead of simply being the adjudicators of the circumstances for construction, our planners should produce more facts, more designs—and should set priorities that are both concrete and truly visionary.
This means displacing zoning as the primary instrument of planning. The logic of zoning—the idea that development best takes place “as of right,” with clear rules, formulas, and frameworks—has a certain, nominally libertarian, appeal. What\’s concealed, though, is the structure of constraint that defines the territory in which those rules operate, whether via prescribed uses and densities or the smorgasbord of incentives and exceptions that a canny operator can call upon to enlarge a project in exchange for some marginal public benefit. We must ask as of whose rights all this complexity is designed to defend. In the postindustrial city, much of the basis for zoning is simply obsolete, and the 19th-century model of isolating obnoxious uses and classes from more privileged ones tends to make concrete exactly the kinds of differences you seek to erase.