Cities By Citizens – Study trip to New York City

Urban Garden anno 2015: Night-time movie screenings, concerts, yoga, art classes and a mysterious teepee, Williamsburg riverfront next to luxury housing and office tower development

Two main impressions from my study trip to New York City: The amazing openness from the people I wanted to meet – and those I met on the way – and the feeling that the problems we are facing when it comes to the development of our cites are more similar than I expected in spite of very different situations.

I was visiting the city to study how a more civil society driven urban development would make a difference from a European tradition where it is more run by states and municipalities. Would it mean that the approaches were more innovative and able to get much closer to what was going on on the ground – yes. But did it add up to address the massive problems that New York still faces (even) after years of (uneven) economic progress – no.

I visited New York at a time where mayor Bill de Blasio took over from Bloomberg in 2013 and the big topic is how to face gentrification – changing one type of segregation – mainly based on race – to another segregation based on income – gentrification. The mayor plans to rezone and to build large numbers of affordable housing – a difficult balance between engaging private investors in building affordable housing and still actually make it affordable – not just calling it so.

I met with Ron Shiffman who started the Pratt Center for Community Development more that 50 years ago and has been involved in these issues for decades. Joan Byron who used to work at Pratt Center and was just about to start working with community groups in their efforts to make their own alternative plans to counter the mayors plans for Zoning for Quality and affordability (and she just came from a meeting in the City Council).

I met with people who were already working with this and similar issues such as participatory budgetting: Community Voices Heard and Hester Street Collective that is an offshoot af an architects office working with alternative participatory processes in communities. Most of these are working on similar issues and are very well connected. One very interesting organisation is Center for Urban Pedagogy that functions almost as a graphic service to other actors in this field and as such know them all and as a byproduct can coordinate and cross connect.

Some heavier actors that were backed by big funds were Living Cities and Community Solutions who were trying to address the social problems that lead to homelessness and the need for more coordination and common goals among the big foundations and the big stakeholders such municipalities, regional authorities, health systems etc. (also called Collective Impact). I visited some of their activities on the ground in Newark, New Jersey  –SHCI – and more thoroughly in Brownsville, Eastern Brooklyn, where the concentration of injustice and inequality is overwhelming.

Brownsville – The iconic repetitive structures that are immediately associated with crime and social problems. Both Larry King and Mike Tyson come from here.

A fundraiser for IOBY – a community version of kickstarter – was held at the Brooklyn Brewery in the heavily gentrified Williamsburg. A very different part of Brooklyn to say the least and a stark contrast to my explorations in Brownsville the same day. In spite of the good work that the people in IOBY presented for a happy and affluent crowd the contrast to what needs to be done in a place like Brownsville made these efforts seem almost futile.

I was invited by Miodrag Mitrasinovic, Parsons the New School for Design, to do a lecture and enjoyed discussing the methods and approaches from a European context. The topic of the Nordic welfare state is quite relevant at this moment since the discussions among the democratic candidates to be the next president, especially Bernie Sanders, is using the Nordic model as a reference for a more just society with universal healthcare, free education etc. And this was the main point of my trip: to see if new methods could evolve out of comparing the Nordic/European with the American and more civil society approach to the same problems.


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