Imagine New York: Bringing Diverse Visions into View

By Penelope Duda and Eva Hanhardt

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 profoundly affected us all. Within days property owners, politicians, the press and some planning and architecture professionals began to propose how the city and region should quickly rebuild, some even calling for a “redevelopment czar.” Yet, to many others it was clear that if the New York region was to successfully recover, the decision-making process would have to be democratic and inclusive and respond to the affected community’s needs, ideas and visions. The time had come for New York City and the region to make land use and resource decision-making processes and policies reflect the values that we as a society say we espouse–respect for human life and a commitment to participatory democracy, equity, quality of life and environmental quality for everyone.

In community-based planning, the affected community is usually defined as those living or working in a given area. But where is the “community” affected by the World Trade Center (WTC) tragedy? The events reverberated through all aspects of the region’s life. Nearly 3,000 people perished, but they were from many states and from over eighty different countries. Over 150,000 jobs were lost–both in Lower Manhattan and throughout the region. Residents were displaced from their homes. Small businesses were at risk of bankruptcy. Transportation systems were destroyed. Air quality and noise were and continue to be concerns. Affordable housing that was to be paid for through the lease of the World Trade Center must now find new sources of financing. Travel and tourism dropped off, causing declines in hotel and restaurant patronage and museum and performance attendance. City budget allocations and other financial support to meet pre-9/11 needs decreased. Now, strict security measures restrict access to buildings and places. Profiling restricts individual freedoms. People feel more anxious and less secure. Given the enormity of the physical, economic and emotional toll of 9/11, it was evident that, in this instance, the “community” included not only those living, working or owning property in Lower Manhattan, but also those who lost loved ones and jobs and everyone directly and indirectly affected by the tragedy.

The challenge was to develop a planning process that would make it possible for the dispersed and diverse voices to be heard. With the help of Gianni Longo and the staff of ACP Visioning and Planning, who had done other large-scale public visioning projects, Imagine New York was designed.

Creating Imagine New York

Imagine NY was conceived by the Municipal Art Society (MAS) in collaboration with a broad-based group of partners that included victims’ family members, Lower Manhattan residents and representatives from over fifty community groups, government agencies, businesses, universities and religious institutions.

In a period of seven weeks, from March 14 to the end of April 2002, over 4,000 residents of the New York metropolitan region came together to share their thoughts and ideas about the memorializing of the World Trade Center tragedy, the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan and the future of communities throughout the region.

Participants in Imagine NY became part of an historic experiment in participatory democracy. People of all walks of life met face-to-face, motivated by the desire to express their thoughts and by the opportunity to affect in profound and constructive ways the future of the region. Participants helped articulate diverse visions that, while addressing issues related to the site and Lower Manhattan, also addressed issues of community, social equity, education, culture and personal healing. These ideas were translated into vision statements that would serve as guiding principles for the rebuilding of the site as well as future plans and policies for the region.

Principles and Methods

Imagine NY has two objectives: 1) to gather ideas and visions from the broadest public; and 2) to ensure that those voices and ideas are heard by policymakers who in the months and years to come will be making decisions that are critical to the future of the region. The methodology of Imagine NY was based on a set of clearly stated principles that included:

  • Encouraging participation, regardless of a participant’s age, educational background and language;
  • Recording all ideas submitted by participants and displaying those ideas on the project website;
  • Opening the dialogue to all ideas, without limiting ideas to the geographic boundaries of Lower Manhattan and the WTC site; and
  • Developing multiple visions to better reflect the rich diversity of the region.

Grounded on those principles, the workshops were designed to allow for maximum flexibility. They could be held virtually anywhere and would allow for different types of activities and program lengths. Organizations from throughout the tri-state region were invited to host Imagine NY workshops. There were 124 different venues and 230 separate workshops. Workshops were held in local libraries, places of worship, schools, universities, museums and community centers. Some workshops were private sessions among friends, family members of victims or the membership of an organization. Others were open, public events that anyone could attend. Workshops were held in Cantonese, Spanish and American Sign Language, and many sites held art activities in which children took part.

The workshops were designed to allow the broadest spectrum of participants to contribute ideas in a safe and comfortable environment using words, drawings and images. Workshops were led by trained facilitators–nearly two hundred were trained to run the workshops. Some facilitators were from the hosting venue and others were volunteers. At each venue there could be multiple workshops and one of the three basic types of activities: visioning workshops, charettes and unstructured activities.

  • The visioning workshop consisted of a multiple brainstorming exercise. First, participants were asked to consider the past and present, and were asked to share their responses to two questions: As a result of 9/11, what have we lost?and How have we changed? They were then asked to think of the future and share their ideas in response to the question, How can we move forward from 9/11? In some venues, participants went beyond brainstorming and wrote vision statements and strategies to address recurring ideas in their session. In some venues, the first two questions sparked a long debate about American foreign policy. In others, participants focused intently on the needs of their community, such as jobs and housing. Other groups were very focused on the WTC site and ways to memorialize victims.
  • The planning and design charettes were facilitated by trained architects and planners and focused on physical design and planning solutions for the WTC site and Lower Manhattan. Participants rendered plans and designs for memorials, improved pedestrian circulation, waterfront access and mixed-use development.
  • In the unstructured activities, participants could draw, paint or sculpt on squares of colored paper, which were then placed on a gridded wall for display. Participants created images of their vision for memorials, emotional reactions to the attacks and their aftermath, and political and emotional messages to policymakers.
  • Finally, written and visual submissions were accepted through the Imagine NY website, which people from throughout the world visited to present their ideas.

For some workshops, people conducted their own outreach and publicity. Others depended on a citywide outreach effort that involved extensive media coverage, posters and flyers. A public service announcement was run on several television stations and on the “jumbotron” screen in Times Square.

The workshops and over 700 web and mail-in entries generated a total of 19,000 ideas. The forty-nine vision statements that resulted are based on those ideas and were written and finalized by participants in the last Imagine NY activity, the Summit, held June 1, 2002.

In preparation for the Summit, all ideas, drawings and artifacts were entered in the Imagine NY database. (They can be seen and sorted in the “Idea Gallery” of the Imagine NY website, The ideas were reviewed and categorized by the Imagine NY Steering Committee. The Steering Committee also developed preliminary drafts of the forty-nine vision statements, one for each category of ideas.

At the Summit over 300 participants worked in small groups to refine, change and finalize the draft vision statements after a careful reading of the ideas suggested by Imagine NY participants for each category. The commitment was to keep the vision statements in the public’s own words.

The vision statements that resulted from this process are eloquent and reflect a true determination to rebuild, recover and renew the New York region. They range in focus from the emotional to the political, from the site to the region. The visions are organized into five broad categories: people, place, social equity, public involvement in planning and policy. Each category includes a number of vision statements.

  • People. Visions about remembrance, honor and recovery–as individuals and community–focusing on spiritual and social rather than physical rebuilding. The vision statements focus on: building memorials, both on the WTC site and beyond; building community and solidarity; honoring the victims of the attacks; and focusing on personal recovery and priorities.
  • Place. Visions that deal with the on-site memorialization of the 9/11 tragedy, and the revitalization and physical redevelopment of the WTC site, Lower Manhattan and the region’s diverse communities.
  • Social Equity. Visions that address the far-reaching impacts of 9/11 and recognize the importance of a commitment to resolving pre-9/11 problems region-wide. The vision statements focus on increasing employment opportunities, making affordable housing a priority and improving the NYC school system.
  • Public involvement in planning. Visions that underscore the value of public participation and inclusiveness in planning and decision-making. The vision statements focus on establishing an ongoing, democratic decision-making process for Lower Manhattan, continuing the dialogue about 9/11 and the future of the city, and including the public in long-term holistic planning.
  • Policy. Visions that call upon local, state and federal governments to develop policies that will assist in recovery, guarantee safety and security and safeguard the future. The vision statements refer to improving public safety, engaging in comprehensive and regional planning, decentralizing businesses and educating the public about 9/11 and its causes and impacts.

Who Was involved?

The statistics on the Imagine NY participants are based on an exit survey at the workshops and a questionnaire on the Imagine NY website. The racial make-up of participants was very close to the regional averages, with slightly more Caucasian and fewer African American participants, and a higher percentage who identified themselves as Asian, Native American and Other.

The income of Imagine NY participants closely mirrored that of the region’s population. The percentage of participants earning under $15,000 a year was exactly the same as for the region’s population overall. Slightly more participants had household incomes of $50-75,000, and slightly fewer had household incomes of $75-150,000.

There was balanced participation by age, with nearly 30 percent of participants under the age of 30 (including 13 percent under 18), nearly 30 percent in the 30-44 category and 30 percent in the 45-65 category. Imagine NY participants tended to have a higher educational attainment level than the population of the region. Thirty-five percent of participants achieved some level of post-graduate study, compared to 13 percent of the region’s residents. Twenty-four percent of the participants had a high school diploma or less, compared to 49 percent of the region’s population.

What’s Next?

Imagine NY’s forty-nine vision statements were released June 10, 2002 in a summary report that was presented to the press and to a panel of decision-makers–both those appointed to redevelop the World Trade Center site and elected officials. The summary report and all 19,000 of the individual ideas are also on the Imagine NY website. ( The website continues to allow both written and visual submissions. It also identifies other organizations advocating for various visions, e.g. affordable housing, job development, memorials, etc., and encourages Imagine NY participants to work with them. An exhibition including many of the ideas and images was held at the Urban Center in New York City from July to October, 2002.

Imagine NY sponsors and participants have used the forty-nine vision statements as the basis for public testimony and lobbying and have presented the results and visions to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), the New York City Council and on radio, television and in newspapers. Getting the attention of the press continues to be difficult when it comes to “proactive” rather than “reactive” public involvement.

When the LMDC released six alternative scenarios for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site in July, Imagine NY participants were urged to attend the Listening to the City event held in the Jacob Javits Center, where over 4,000 people were able to view and vote on aspects of the six alternatives. Imagine NY participants were encouraged to use the forty-nine vision statements to help them in evaluating the scenarios. At that event the public overwhelmingly rejected the six alternatives, forcing the LMDC to re-think its planning principles.

Imagine NY launched another round of sessions to discuss the seven architectural plans presented to the LMDC in December, 2002.

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