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]