East Harlem: An Example of Community-led Development Plan

East Harlem: An Example of Community-led Development Plan

east-harlem-neighborhood-planThe problem of neighborhood change, due to movement of people, public policies, investments, and flows of private capital mediated by conceptions of race, class, place and scale is a fundamental factor affecting the development of modern cities. Scholars from University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Los Angeles, have studied this phenomenon and its consequences, such as gentrification and displacement related to urban renewal, and they have identified some important findings:

  • Neighborhoods change slowly, but over time are becoming more segregated by income, due in part to macro-level increases in income inequality.
  • Neighborhood decline results from the interaction of demographic shifts, public policy, and entrenched segregation, and is shaped by metropolitan context.
  • Gentrification results from both flows of capital and people. The extent to which gentrification is linked to racial transition differs across neighborhood contexts.
  • Cultural strategies can transform places, creating new economic value but at the same time displacing existing meanings.
  • Displacement takes many different forms—direct and indirect, physical or economic, and exclusionary—and may result from either investment or disinvestment.

These results show us how complex the situation is in terms of economic differences, racial transition, cultural displacement and public policies. Moreover, on the subject of affordable housing, an important study is the Report on The Effects of Neighborhood Change on New York City Housing Authority Residents, prepared for NYC Center for Economic Opportunity and published in 2015.

According to the Report, New York City and New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) have maintained the traditional public housing model of 100 percent low-income developments. Nonetheless, many residents of traditional public housing in New York City may experience mixed-income environments. The most relevant issues are:

  • Two thirds of NYCHA residents live in public housing developments surrounded by census blocks with an average income that is greater than the NYC median.
  • Developments surrounded by persistently low-income neighborhoods have higher violent crime rates and are zoned to attend schools with lower standardized test scores than developments with increasing- and persistently high-income surrounding neighborhoods.
  • A lack of opportunities for young people is a theme. In particular, residents feel that their communities have lost after-school enrichment and skill-building programs for youth, and offer few opportunities for youth employment.

These evidences show the problem with the traditional paradigm in urban planning because, today, this model doesn’t satisfy the real needs of citizens. At this point, new solutions are welcomed because it is clear that urban planning traditional approach is inefficient and doesn’t fix problems. The solution can be seen in a statement written in the Report: “Community-based organizations can play a critical role in improving resident’s lives and building connections to the broader neighborhood”. Hence, a possible solution should concern a new paradigm in urban planning: according to “Linee Guida per la predisposizione di un documento programmatico di indirizzo delle politiche urbanistiche di Battipaglia“, we are talking about collaborative urban planning based on an “institutional mending”, namely an alliance between public, private and plural sector or a polycentric governance of urban, territorial and local commons.

According to this perspective, East Harlem community-led initiative expresses a community-oriented approach in urban planning which is consistent with the aim of promoting a new institutional and economic system based on the model of collaborative urban governance. A similar community-based approach was also implemented in Italy in Bologna in the project called Bolognina. Bolognina’s main purpose is acting as a link between the different planning actors already existing, in order to increase their potential and to offer them new occasions to collaborate. The whole process is supported by Federcasa, which looks at it as a useful experimentation for the innovation of housing policies at a national level.

East Harlem Neighborhood Plan

First of all, it is necessary to remember that, in May 2014, Mayor de Blasio released his plan to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, creating 80,000 new housing units through the introduction of two new policies: mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH) and zoning for quality and affordability (ZQA). This plan and the 2015 proposal were welcomed with wariness and trepidation by many citizens.

Many times before the MIH/ZQA plan passed into law, Community Voices Heard (CVH), an East Harlem-based advocacy group founded by low-income residents, reached out NY’s second-most powerful politician, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to ask around more information about the rezoning city plan. She agreed and in May 2015, she convened with around 400 community members and community-based organizations to kick off a process to create the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, a neighborhood-led vision for the proposed upzoning of East Harlem. So, the final plan was released in February 2016 and includes 232 recommendations covering 12 topics such as NYCHA, housing preservation, affordable housing development, zoning and land use, etc. The plan was a great achievement because there were only nine months to draft the plan to avoid a loss of 282 units of affordable housing and because Mark-Viverito would be leaving office in 2017. According to her, this plan is not going to be a panacea but a try to replace the number of losing affordable housing and to add more benefits into the community.

Formally, in the revision of Universal Land Use Review Process (a seven-month timeline to approve zoning changes in the city), the key moment for the community stands when Department of City Planning certifies a plan, because that’s the moment when the plan is handed to the community board. It’s important because,here, communities can voice their concerns or proposals.

The East Harlem Neighborhood Plan’s project partners sought to create a process that would inform the actual rezoning plan for East Harlem that the city will eventually take through ULURP. So, CVH, Mark-Viverito’s office, the Manhattan borough president and the Manhattan Community Board 11 came together to lead. 21 organizations were invited to serve on a steering committee thanks to their long-term experience in the community.

Organizationally, Hester Street Collaborative, a non-profit specialized in community engagement, had the role of indipendent facilitator. There was also the Neighborhoods First Found, a consortium formed by different foundations with the aim to coordinate resources to support engagement by the communities in terms of both organizing and technical assistance. To help prepare residents for a community visioning workshop on different themes such as affordable housing development, zoning and land use and impact on transit, Center for Urban Pedagogy was invited to conduct different simulations.

Nearly 200 people attended the community workshop. What emerged was some cognitive dissonance, i.e. people say yes to more affordable housing but they say no to more density and a lot of private development was already happening without affordable housing. This led people to be against the mayor’s plan. But, knowing how difficult the conversations would be, the project partners also decided to bring in a second facilitator to facilitate subgroup meetings, steering committee meetings and the actual drafting of the plan. So NYC-based architecture and planning firm WXY won the bid and in June 2015 began to work with the project partners and Hester Street.

According to WXY’s Adam Lubinsky, their aim was: “Set up a process by which the visioning workshop findings would go back to these subgroups that were built around the themes, and they could digest the results, present those results to the steering committee, get feedback from the steering committee and then start to formulate draft recommendations.” Subgroups were responsible for combining input from the community visioning workshops with their own research and discussions to formulate recommendations to present to the steering committee”.

The last problem concerns the implementation of the plan because there was a huge amount of work to translate that plan into actions. Fortunately, some institutions are interested in implementation process: for example, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene plans to award $275,000 in grants to 10 local organizations for projects that are helping to achieve recommendations from the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan.

The plan process officially closed at the end of January with a community forum that involved around 350 participants. Lubinsky stressed that the level of ownership of the subgroup leaders was so disbursed that facilitators had to do anything at the event.

In the future, the community will face some challenges, for example, it is fundamental that the future leaders will hold accountable for the plan and the steering committee will continue to meet in order to coordinate follow up with city agencies, advocate for recommendations and set up an evaluation process for the plan.



Alla luce degli studi effettuati sui fenomeni legati all’affordable housing e al più ampio tema della trasformazione dei quartieri, il piano di sviluppo di East Harlem si rivela un importante caso studio in termini di urbanistica collaborativa, strategia che è parte di una visione più generale basata sulla co-governance del territorio e dei beni comuni urbani, territoriali e locali.