Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Social Communities (NYC Pt 3)

So, here is one last, potentially shorter (he writes with a smile) blog entry about community involvement in New York City. This blog entry stems from a discussion I had with the friend I was staying with in New York City. As many readers will recognize, I have a passion for community involvement in planning and government, so I asked her about the community and how it is defied in New York. Is she a New Yorker, a Manhattan, a fill in the ______?

I mentioned that it seems like it would inhibit community involvement to have a community of over 8 million people. How can you relate to the government if it employs more people than live in Dover? That is hard to grasp. I know that things scale, and that things are adjusted to deal with sizes, mass and density, and that the New York City structure didn't happen over night (well, maybe it did in 1898), so things are relative. Here is the thumbnail sketch:

New York City is made up of five boroughs, which also happen to be counties, and follows the strong Mayor form of government, with a City Council. The Mayor and 51 Councilors are elected to 4 year terms from residents of the five boroughs. The five boroughs also elect a Borough President, who advises the Mayor on local issues relative to their borough. 

In addition, there are 59 administrative districts, each served by a Community Board. These Boards act as local advocates for residents and their communities. Board members are appointed to 2 year terms, half of the members' terms expire each year. Borough Presidents appoint the members. The appointment procedure is more complicated, than I need to get into for this blog. Suffice it to say, these Boards might be more closer to the residents than the Council would be. Community Boards deal with neighborhood issues, are the point of contact for land use and zoning issues, and address community concerns.

Phew... so when you live in New York, how do you relate? My guess is that you relate to your neighborhood, which might, in other places actually be a town or city of its own. My friend works in the borough of Queens, but when I talked with her about it, she said that the section of Queens she works in has its own name and acts as a town (very simplified description - mine not hers). The residents of this, and other neighborhoods, operate within themselves. 

It felt like New York was the state, the boroughs are the county (though there is no "county government") and the neighborhood was the town or city. These communities seem to function very strongly. I am not sure, and neither was my friend, how strong the Community Boards are, but it appears that people interact and communicate strongly within their neighborhood.You certainly shop in your neighborhood and walk to the neighborhood park, and you rely on your neighbors for day to day interaction. 

Defining the neighborhood was also an interesting exercise. Is the neighborhood what's walkable? Well, how do you define that? Is it the area around your subway stop? Well, that's a moving target, I would think, and also undefinable because you might not have a subway station right in your face to use as a starting point. 

The impression I got was that a neighborhood is the like the Supreme Court definition of pornography, you know it when you see it. If you feel that an area is your neighborhood, it is. I like this because it encourages residents to get out, explore and interact with their surroundings and doesn't limit that interaction. I suppose that the boundaries of the 59 Community Boards is also a defining factor, but unless you need their input, do residents know where that boundary is?

One interesting process is the land use review process. In Dover, the Planning Department reviews all site and subdivision plans for technical merit. The Planning Board has the power to approve them. Zoning amendments are reviewed and approved by the PB and then forwarded to the City Council for adoption. The Zoning Board reviews applications for variance or special exception. 

In New York, it appears that there really isn't site and subdivision approval (I could be missing something). The Planning Commission, after a review by the Community Board and Borough President, reviews zoning designations, changes to the city map, capital project locations, and use of public property by private entities, as well as other larger scope issues. Once the zoning designation is in place a site can be used or reused as designated, it seems without review by a board. There is still a technical review that occurs. 

In essence this is close to what the process for a traditional form based code follows. The community review is on the overall plan, which covers the height, massing and density of land, while the specific site review is done by staff based upon that plan. 
It makes me wonder about community advocacy. In a way it might nip NIMBYism in the bud, but it also removes that last bit of "hey did you think about this" that can occur at a local level. Just something to think about I guess.

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