“In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
-From the Great Law of the Iriquois Confederacy
Privatization and Planning
The Fall/Winter New York Planners Network Forum featured three sessions on Privatization that brought out some important issues for progressive planners. This isn’t just a technical or organizational issue. It’s not about figuring out the best way to deliver services or saving public funds. It’s a political issue that gets resolved in the political arena. And these days the political debate is ideologically charged by well-endowed right-wing think tanks. In New York City, for example, the Manhattan Institute has an impressive stash of dough to wine and dine policymakers and intellectuals, finance a slick policy journal and pull strings in the conservative administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. At times they’ve been successful in appearing balanced by welcoming debate, but the agenda is decisively for privatization.
The progressive alternatives are not so well endowed. The Five Borough Institute in New York City brings together progressive policy advocates from universities, unions and community organizations. Sumner Rosen, the organization’s Chair and long-time PN member, ought to be fighting off advances from the “liberal” foundations who purport to advance progressive social policy, but that’s not the case. The foundations who bankroll policy advice to the powerful give only the scraps to progressive and grassroots groups, who have to spend most of their time scrambling for the scraps and have precious little time to influence government policy.
Some union locals have argued long and hard against rampant privatization and the contracting out of public services. Too often, however, the argument is made only from the narrow perspective of saving union jobs, or trying to show how in-house services save money. The unions haven’t had much success striking up coalitions with community groups to deal with the quality of services. This leaves them vulnerable to an administration that bawls about real problems of service delivery in a way that promotes privatization and neutralizes the unions. District Council 37, the largest municipal employees union in New York, was just taken over by its parent federation amid revelations of corruption. Perhaps the most damaging corruption in the union is the leadership’s willingness to strike sweetheart deals with a conservative, privatizing mayor. The fact that Giuliani has made only modest progress with privatization has as much or more to do with community opposition than union opposition.
City planning is still a public function. The City Charter requires that all major land use decisions must be made by the City Planning Commission and City Council in consultation with the Borough Presidents and Community Boards. However, since the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the city planning staff that advises the Commission has dwindled to less than 250 professionals. In a city of almost 8 million people, that’s one of the lowest ratio of planners per capita in the nation. And in the current administration the planners are not allowed to plan. Under the leadership of Planning Director Joseph Rose, son of a local real estate magnate, planners have been instructed to be “user-friendly.” This translates into obediently processing developer proposals. The planning staff does not work with neighborhoods in preparing plans. They review plans that neighborhoods submit, but they do little to support and engage in the planning process. Communities must either be well endowed with underemployed professionals, raise their own funds, or go to area planning schools for assistance. In effect, community planning is privatized. And when it comes to the high stakes development proposals, the city’s planners are no match for the legions of attorneys, architects, and planners employed by builders to do the planning the way they want it.