Author Archives: urbandemos

Board to Death?

Crowded community meeting
At a November 2013 meeting of Manhattan Community Board 1, residents react to a proposed high rise to be built in the footprint of the Old Fulton Fish Market. Photo by Cristian Fleming courtesy of AIGA/NY Design/Relief Project

Urban Democracy Lab Associate Director Rebecca Amato wrote this piece for our friends at Urban Omnibus on March 8, 2018.  Many thanks to Urban Omnibus for allowing us to reprint.

What’s the relationship between liquor licenses and local democracy? The city’s 59 community boards mete out approvals, but they were intended as a framework for citizen participation in planning and land use decisions. Set in motion in the churn of urban renewal, the idea was to give citizens a say in the dramatic physical changes affecting their neighborhoods. In practice, when it comes to making decisions about the city’s future, community boards’ hands have been tied from the start. The official conduits for input in planning and land use may be strictly advisory, but that doesn’t mean they’re no place for participation. Meanwhile, from redevelopment coalitions to community benefit agreements, New Yorkers find other formulations for their desires. Below, Rebecca Amato looks at the aspirations and evolution of the city’s community boards, and at the many other ways that New Yorkers have demanded a voice and a say in the shape of their neighborhoods.

Participation will resuscitate the asthmatic democracy of American cities! The inclusion of ordinary New Yorkers in municipal decision-making will reflect the people’s will! Who could argue with such declarations? After all, what is a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as Lincoln so potently put it, if not one in which the people have clear mechanisms for participation? At a time when New Yorkers are braving controversial rezonings, gentrification pressures, overloaded infrastructure, climate change threats, and rising homelessness — and as the nation endures a stunning test of democracy’s resilience — calls for local community control and lively citizen participation are increasingly alluring. This energy echoes, in many ways, the moment when community boards were established in New York City decades ago. Yet, if one were to rate community boards on their ability to represent their constituencies, influence policy, or corral democratic feeling around specific community issues, the results would be mixed. Just as they provide a platform of inclusion for “the people” — a legitimized place for that elusive participation that we so desperately believe will keep our democracy afloat — community boards also have a history of being painfully ineffective, even undemocratic, when it comes to forging monumental urban policies. And in a city driven by real estate activity, planning and development are two of the areas in which the boards’ role and validity are most vexing. [Read more here]


The Help-Yourself City | Book Launch featuring UDL Board Member Gordon C.C. Douglas

Please join author and UDL board member, Gordon C. C. Douglas for the launch of his new book The Help-Yourself City: Legitimacy and Inequality in DIY Urbanism.  

Details below:

The Help-Yourself City | Book Launch

03/26 Monday | 6pm | Institute for Public Knowledge, 20 Cooper Square, 5th Floor

NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge invites you to join for the launch of Gordon Douglas’s The Help-Yourself City: Legitimacy and Inequality in DIY Urbanism. The author will be present in conversation with Caroline Leeand Harvey Molotch.

When local governments neglect public services or community priorities, how do concerned citizens respond? In The Help-Yourself City, Gordon Douglas looks closely at people who take urban planning into their own hands with homemade signs and benches, guerrilla bike lanes and more. Douglas explores the frustration, creativity, and technical expertise behind these interventions, but also the position of privilege from which they often come. Presenting a needed analysis of this growing trend from vacant lots to city planning offices, The Help-Yourself City tells a street-level story of people’s relationships to their urban surroundings and the individualization of democratic responsibility.

Gordon C. C. Douglas is Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Director of the Institute for Metropolitan Studies at San José State University. He is a multidisciplinary urbanist whose work sits at the intersection of urban political-economy, community studies, and cultures of planning and design. Prior to joining the Dept. of Urban and Regional Planning at San José State, he was the Rebuild by Design Postdoctoral Fellow at New York University, where he also served as Associate Director (2015-2016) and Acting Director (2016-2017) of the Institute for Public Knowledge.

Caroline W. Lee is Professor of Sociology in the Anthropology & Sociology Department at Lafayette College. She is a comparative institutional sociologist with research and teaching interests in the following areas: political sociology, social movements, economic sociology, law, sociology of knowledge and culture, urban and environmental sociology, and research methods. She is the author of Do-It-Yourself Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2015) and an editor of the volume Democratizing Inequalities (NYU Press, 2015).

Harvey Molotch is Professor of Sociology and Metropolitan Studies at New York University. His writings focus on cities with special attention to economic development, urban security, artifacts, and product design. He is the author of several books including Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger (Princeton University Press, 2012), and Where Stuff Comes From: How Toasters, Toilets, Cars, Computers and Many Other Things Come to Be as They Are (Routledge, 2003).

El Semillero (The Seedbed) at Loisaida Center

Our community partner, Loisaida Center, located at 710 E. 9th Street in Manhattan’s East Village/Lower East Side, is launching a community tech incubator for artists, technologists, and innovators committed to the creative and economic sustainability of the Loisaida neighborhood and its communtiy.  El Semillero (The Seedbed) is a community and Latinx led Tech, Media & Maker incubator at the Loisaida Center, which is set to launch in summer 2018.  The project has been in the pipeline for over five years, and Loisaida’s staff and allies are proud to be able finally to launch this enhanced and essential set of cultural services that affirm Puerto Rican, Latinx and LES working artists’ livelihood and innovation.


Click here for more information about El Semillero

Click here for a short video clip about Loisaida Inc

To help support the creation of El Semillero, please consider attending the February 27 benefit at Loisaida Center.  More information here.

“MUNICIPALISM IN SPAIN From Barcelona to Madrid, and Beyond” (repost from Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung)

From UDL collaborator Vicente Rubio-Pueyo, this December 2017 publication fromthe Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung’s New York Office previews some of the questions about municipalism that the UDL will be posing in the coming year. (Downloadable in English/Spanish via this link.)

From Barcelona to Madrid, and Beyond  
Vicente Rubio-Pueyo – December 2017

In Spain’s municipal elections of May 2015, a constellation of new political forces emerged. For the first time in almost 40 years of Spanish democracy, the country’s major cities would no longer be ruled by either the Partido Popular (PP) or the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), or any of the other long established political forces, but by new “Municipalist Confluences” such as Ahora Madrid, Barcelona en Comú, and Cadiz Si Se Puede, to name just a few.

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Book Launch | Who Cleans the Park? 12/04 Monday | 6pm


Featuring UDL Director Gianpaolo Baiocchi….

Book Launch| Who Cleans the Park?

12/04 Monday | 6pm,

20 Cooper Square, 5th Floor Conference Room

NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge invites you to join for the launch event of John Krinsky and Maud Simonet’s new book Who Cleans the Park? Public Work and Urban Governance in New York City. Author John Krinsky will be present in conversation with Penny Lewis and Gianpaolo Baiocchi.

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After/Life Tells Untold Stories of the ’67 Detroit Rebellion

From friend of the UDL, Kristin Horton:

After/Life is a new play about the ’67 Detroit rebellion that braids together oral histories with archival materials, poetry, song, and dance, and is the first theatrical accounting of the rebellion told with a focus on the experiences of women and girls. Lisa Biggs developed and produced the script in Detroit, Michigan, under the direction of Kristin Horton, Associate Professor of Theatre Practice at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. After/Life was performed the last two weeks of July 2017 in conjunction with several community commemoration events that marked the fiftieth anniversary of the rebellion. Here Biggs and Horton discuss how the decision to offer the piece as a site for community commemoration shaped the content and aesthetic choices of the production.

Kristin Horton: Lisa, how did After/Life begin?

Lisa Biggs: When I moved to Michigan in 2013 from Chicago, Illinois, I knew very little Michigan history. That fall, stories about the collapse of the auto industry, police brutality, mortgage crisis and water shut offs, the emergency management situation, the poor conditions of the roads and schools across the state dominated the news. Michiganders around me specifically identified the issues of police brutality, workplace and housing discrimination, and nonresponsive elected officials as contributing factors to the historic and contemporary conditions….

Read the full interview here.