These Planners Stepped Away From the Spreadsheets and Into the Community – Next City

These Planners Stepped Away From the Spreadsheets and Into the Community

(Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

Like many immigrant communities across the United States, those on Long Island have been living, working and raising families under a growing threat of deportation. In the past few years, they’ve faced waves of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, the continued limbo of DACA (the work permit program for immigrants who arrived in the U.S. undocumented as children), and the Trump administration’s overall stance on immigration. Most recently the White House announced it was ending specific programs for immigrants fleeing natural or manmade disasters in Central America and Haiti.

Walter Barrientos has spent a fair amount of time organizing resistance around these federal threats — but he has also seized an opportunity to effect change locally. He’s encouraged Long Island immigrant communities to participate in a regional planning process. It might seem absurd to think long-term under such conditions, but Barrientos believes the engagement has given them even more to fight for.

“At times, it felt self-contradictory, because it feels like we’re dealing with a fire, and here we are thinking about what we want our communities to look like in 20 years,” says Barrientos. “Many feel like the messages they’re getting now are that they don’t belong here, that this is not their home, but I think there was something very reassuring and empowering in the process of deciding priorities and taking ownership of their communities and saying this is what we want it to look like.”

As Long Island organizing director for Make the Road New York, Barrientos set up long-term planning discussions that were part of the drafting process for the Regional Plan Association’s Fourth Regional Plan, published on Nov. 30.

An independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit research and advocacy organization, the Regional Plan Association (RPA) has been around since 1922, when some of New York’s most prominent business and professional leaders launched an effort to survey, analyze and plan for the future growth of the NYC metropolitan region. RPA touts the way it thinks comprehensively about the region, which consists of some 23 million residents and nearly 800 cities and towns in 31 counties, across three states.

RPA published its first regional plan in 1929, a document that’s noted for its proposal for what eventually was built as the George Washington Bridge. In 1968, RPA published its second regional plan, which included a call for the creation of both NJ Transit and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The third regional plan, published in 1996, included a call to redevelop underused postindustrial waterfronts around the NYC harbor. Since then, there’s been highly visible waterfront redevelopment in Brooklyn, Queens and also Jersey City, New Jersey, in particular.

(Credit: Regional Plan Association)

The Fourth Regional Plan’s key recommendations start with reforming the region’s transportation authorities and reducing the costs of transit projects. That includes the establishment of a new Subway Reconstruction Benefit Corporation to overhaul and modernize the NYC subway system within the next 15 years. The next key recommendation is to expand and strengthen the region’s carbon emissions cap-and-trade program, based on California’s model, which would drive down greenhouse gas emissions and also create a new revenue stream that would then be used to invest in creating an equitable, low-carbon economy.

The plan also calls for local governments to take steps to engage with the public more efficiently and more inclusively. Few residents participate in many types of community decision-making, the plan says, and there is uneven representation by race, age and income. As a result, the plan charges, local institutions make decisions that often reflect the values and needs of older, wealthier, and mostly white residents rather than the population at large.

The drafting process for the plan itself attempted to model this key recommendation, and included the discussions that Barrientos helped to organize.

“RPA has a strong history of broad engagement — engaging a wide array of people, experts, academics, in different sectors,” says Pierina Ana Sanchez, New York director at RPA. “One thing we hadn’t done in previous plans was engaging directly with communities, and with grassroots groups in formal, contractual relationships as partners.”

Make the Road New York was one of eight grassroots organizations (plus one technical assistance provider) in the NYC metropolitan region that partnered with RPA to undertake a multiyear community engagement process as part of drafting the Fourth Regional Plan. Collectively, the eight grassroots organizations claim to represent more than 50,000 low-income residents and residents of color in the NYC region. Sanchez estimates that, as part of this process, those groups directly engaged around 1,600 people in scores of face-to-face settings, including issue area working groups, surveys, public forums and briefings, over the past three years. By the final draft, grassroots organizations had the chance to weigh in on every recommendation, Sanchez says.

RPA's grassroots partners divvied up organizing by geographic region. (Credit: Regional Plan Association)

The multiyear community engagement began in 2014, partly at the behest of RPA’s funders, including the Ford Foundation, according to Sanchez. (Next City receives support from the Ford Foundation.)

“For urban planners, the model generically is, you do some existing conditions research, then you go and you present findings to a group of stakeholders, get some reactions, start some discussions, then you go back and write up what the implications are and your plan,” she says. “With this process, it was, let’s look at the screen together at the same time, and let’s draft this together. It was a partnership from the very beginning in the sense that the RPA research and planning process mirrored the engagement process.”

At times, it was an awkward dance, especially in the beginning. Neither side was sure it would be a productive relationship. Language was a huge barrier — not English vs. other languages, but rather, the language of planning.

“An average community member or even most people with a college degree would have a hard time engaging in these conversations in a productive way,” Barrientos says. “In the first phase, even we as a staff were having such a hard time understanding how this works. We had to make it a priority to work with RPA to come up with a curriculum to teach people the language of planning and zoning. All of that helped build trust that historically we haven’t had.”

As RPA planners began gathering data, community engagement partners conducted surveys, focus groups, and other discussions to gather input to verify or provide additional insight into the issues planners were examining at the same time. Working with the Hester Street Collaborative, RPA and the community engagement partners created a series of games to illustrate long-term planning challenges and gather input on recommendations. RPA staff facilitated and sometimes played the games themselves alongside members or leaders from the grassroots organizations.

“It was not easy to rip [planners] away from their Excel sheets and GIS, but we did,” says Sanchez.

While it took time to get members truly up to speed on planning language, Barrientos recalls a definite breakthrough feeling about a year ago, as Make the Road New York began holding sessions for residents to vote on final priorities for the plan. He recalls a new level of engagement — that people at the grassroots level weren’t just providing input on preconceived priorities, but setting priorities.

“People are usually engaging in the design of a park, but somebody has already decided that park needs to be the priority,” says Barrientos. “I think for many community members, on our side largely Latino immigrants or children of immigrants, even if they have lived here sometimes for decades, this was the first time they understood how these decisions were made and they felt they were informing the process and deciding or suggesting to RPA in this case what the priorities should be.”

RPA President Tom Wright also acknowledges a steep learning curve.

“There was a diversity of feelings on both the community side and the staff side,” he says. “On the staff side, there were some folks who felt like this was always what they wanted to do and it was exciting, and there were others who felt initially they’ve been doing this for 20 years and ‘I know what I’m supposed to do.’ It was definitely a learning process, and I put myself in that.”

For example, grassroots groups taught RPA reps a lot about factors influencing the housing affordability crisis and displacement around the region.

“On the housing and community development side, this plan is much more robust and richer in its understanding of the factors that influence community growth and displacement than ever before,” Wright says. “I learned an enormous amount about it.”

The plan includes a map of the region showing areas where low-income or working-class households are at risk of displacement. The key recommendations include a call for cities and states to be more proactive in protecting vulnerable residents from displacement due to housing costs. RPA estimates in the metropolitan region there are more than 1 million low- to moderate-income households that are vulnerable to displacement, 70 percent of them black or Hispanic.

(Credit: Regional Plan Association)

Some of the displacement findings were published in March 2017 in a separate document, “Pushed Out: Housing Displacement in an Unaffordable Region.” Displacement is a regional phenomenon, RPA found: As demand for homes in cities like New York, Jersey City, and Stamford, Connecticut, push rents and sale prices upward, lower-income households are pushed outward, often into areas not yet equipped for their housing needs.

“You’ll see a neighborhood on the map that looks like it should be a lot of single-family homes but as you drive through the neighborhood, because of how expensive it is to live in the region, many of these properties are being used for multifamily housing that is going underreported and creating tensions,” says Barrientos.

Recognizing that reality, the plan recommends creating 300,000 homes across the region, including on Long Island, through simple policy changes like allowing just 10 percent of single- and two-family properties to add an “accessory dwelling unit,” or ADU.

Affordable housing was the number one priority among the communities Barrientos helped organize on Long Island. Overall, the plan also recognizes that the housing affordability crisis is a top concern for the region.

“We really need to work with elected officials and other stakeholders to develop a model for truly affordable housing for low-income and working-class families who are already working as much as they can work and still cannot afford housing throughout the region,” Barrientos says. “They may not be able to afford to live where they grew up because of gentrification.”

RPA estimates half a million new homes could be added to the region’s housing supply without constructing one new building, such as the homes added by permitting ADUs, or repurposing blighted non-residential buildings.

Calls for more housing are based on forecasts of growth, but such estimates aren’t guaranteed — another reality that Barrientos and Long Island participants were able to bring to RPA’s planners.

“Federal policy has major implications throughout much of the region, because much of the growth in places like Long Island and the Hudson Valley is very much being shaped by immigration,” Barrientos says. “That was a connection they didn’t necessarily have before.”

In Long Island’s Suffolk County alone, Barrientos notes, many immigrants from Central America and Haiti in particular have legal residency thanks to the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, which exempts from deportation and grants work permits to immigrants from nations besieged by natural disaster, war or famine. As reported in Newsday, residents with TPS program status account for $373 million in annual local spending per year in Suffolk County alone, according to the county’s Department of Economic Development and Planning.

But now the Trump administration is ending the TPS program, and telling immigrants who fled hurricanes or earthquakes in Nicaragua and Haiti to pack their bags and go home. Immigrants from Honduras or El Salvador could be next. Some 600,000 immigrants in the U.S. are here through the TPS program.

Moving forward, as RPA goes into advocacy mode, relying on its influential board made up of former public officials, real estate magnates, financial industry players, academics, and even a few activists, it’s also pursuing grant funding to continue working with grassroots groups to keep community voices involved.

“We will fight the fights we need to fight now, but this is the vision we were working towards,” says Barrientos. “The planning process gave people hope, and a vision for what we need to build on despite all the attacks that we’re dealing with and all we’re having to fight for at the moment.”

Oscar is a Next City contributing writer, and was a Next City 2015-2016 equitable cities fellow. A New York City-based journalist with a background in global development and social enterprise, he has written about impact investing, microfinance, fair trade, entrepreneurship and more for publications such as Fast Company and NextBillion.net. He has a B.A. in Economics from Villanova University.

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Tags: new york cityurban planningimmigrationcommunity-engaged design