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April 22, 2007 by Administrator in Spring 2007

by Ron Shiffman

I really liked Marie Kennedy’s definition of transformative planning. From the very beginning in our work at the Pratt Center we learned from the communities that we worked with. We learned early on that it wasn’t just doing the planning work or providing the direct technical assistance, but that it was also working with people to focus on education, community and coalition-building and at the same time addressing public policy. It was one thing to do a plan and another thing to change the public policies that fostered negative planning. We also learned the importance of doing what we call a participant education process. We would go into the living rooms and kitchens of the people we were working with and help educate them about planning. We learned very quickly that it was a mutual education process—we learned more from the people than they learned from us, and it was always a dialogue.

I think planners going into neighborhoods really have to understand that the vision and goals are going to be set by people in the neighborhood. Still, you can’t forget your own principles and ideas as well. There has to be this kind of critical tension between you and the folks in the neighborhoods. Be honest enough to debate with them when you feel there are differences. If you work in an all-white community, then you have to talk about issues of racial, economic and environmental justice. These issues don’t apply just in communities of color.

Planning is both reactive and proactive. A lot of the work we have done over the years has had to be reactive. Today, Forest City Ratner, a real estate developer, is coming into Brooklyn neighborhoods with his huge out-of-scale Atlantic Yards project by abusing the powers of eminent domain. You can compromise on the height of buildings but you can’t compromise on the misuse of eminent domain. We need eminent domain as a tool for essential public purposes but we don’t need it to guild the pockets of a private developer. Thus our reaction was to oppose to this plan. But we can also be proactive. The challenge facing planners in New York City is how to house a million more people over the next twenty years. Atlantic Yards will displace more affordable housing than it will provide. How do we take a project like this and turn it around so that it really meets the needs of the future? How do we take market forces and channel them so that market actors become true partners with the public sector rather than the public sector acting merely as the facilitator of private development?

Development really needs to be qualitative and can’t be just quantitative. How do you improve job opportunities and the economic vitality of the people who live there? How do you work towards the abolition of poverty and all forms of racism?

Planners and Organizing

We have to understand that community-based groups are not anti-development. In New York City these groups created over 80,000 units of affordable housing units and affected more than two to three times that through their advocacy efforts against redlining. But this resulted in the same sort of phenomenon that Elizabeth talked about, i.e., in many cases people are being forced out of their neighborhoods. We have to find ways to improve the quality of life in neighborhoods without leading to displacement.

The environmental justice movement gave us a new understanding of how to go back to the streets to realize change. That same kind of activism by housing advocates once helped to stabilize city neighborhoods. But once housing advocates started undertaking development, they lost their nerve and knowledge of organizing techniques. In addition to raising the substantive issues, the environmental justice movement reestablished the nexus between organizing and public policy. You don’t have social change, public policy and programs that rebuild cities unless you go to the streets when you have to. Organizing sometimes means being disruptive. It sometimes means knowing how to negotiate. You have to understand all the ways you can influence and use power. When you have power you negotiate; when you don’t have it you disrupt. You have to learn these tactics and communicate them to the people you work with, as well as learn from them.

We are in a movement for community-based planning to bring about social change and a better life for the people that we work with as well as future generations. The only way we can be effective as planners is to become part of the broader social change movements going back to the labor, women’s, civil rights and anti-war movements.

The Skills of Planners

We have to learn our skills. When we work with people we have to understand the nuances of how to really produce housing and community centers, and how to develop alternative plans. We also have to develop the vertical and the horizontal networks that tie us to other groups around the city so we can create coalitions.

When we talk about cumulative impacts, it all comes to rest where we live, play, work and learn. We have to look at these place-based strategies and see what the inter-relationships are between all factors. We have to create the vertical networks that enable us to link not only what goes on at the local level, but at the state, national and, in some cases, international level. This can really help us understand the phenomena that take place in our neighborhoods.

As planners, you have to understand that you don’t always need to accept laws and programs as they now exist. You have to understand the basics of what goes into housing finance, for example, but you also have to be able to craft your own programs, zoning regulations and land use controls to deal with different problems at different times.

We’ve got a big agenda ahead of us. We have to do things better than my generation did, but we shouldn’t throw out the history. There is a lot in that history that will inform us so that we don’t have to repeat the mistakes of my generation. Whether we call it transformative planning or advocacy planning, it’s really people-oriented, human-scale planning that we are talking about.

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Planners Network is an association of professionals, activists, academics, and students involved in physical, social, economic, and environmental planning in urban and rural areas, who promote fundamental change in our political and economic systems.

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