Columnist: Planning For People: 50 Years And Counting

March 11, 2013

By Neal Peirce

NEW YORK -- It was a blustery winter day in March 1977. Ronald Shiffman, the Pratt Institute's star planner, guided me through the streets of the ravaged South Bronx. Devastation was everywhere: abandoned, gutted, burned-out buildings, rubble strewn across sidewalks. Could this be happening in America?

Yes. I learned that the city housing commissioner was even urging neighborhood euthanasia for the South Bronx -- cutting off urban services, letting the area die as part of "planned shrinkage" for the area.

But Shiffman showed me another side to the South Bronx. We visited an abandoned apartment building that a group of young Puerto Ricans had taken over, negotiated for a city loan, gutted the interior and rebuilt -- mostly with their own hands. Even then -- before anyone talked "green" -- the building had a solar collector, a windmill, recycling bins on each floor, and basement composting hastened by thousands of worms the tenants had ordered.

Across New York in the 1970s, in neighborhoods such as the South Bronx, East Harlem and Brooklyn's Williamsburg, a multiethnic, multiracial group of young neighborhood housing activists were mobilizing residents to save buildings that owners were either abandoning or letting burn.

Flash forward 36 years. New York has revived dramatically. Abandonment in the South Bronx and similar sections is a distant nightmare. There's still disturbing poverty. But the neighborhoods pulse with activity. Today's issue is more likely neighborhoods' struggles to protect their turf from massive buyouts by real estate interests.

Next month, the American Planning Association's prestigious Planning Pioneer Award will be awarded to Ron Shiffman -- veteran urban planner, still involved after a half-century counseling low- and middle-income community groups how to organize, resist evictions, engage city government, open employment opportunities and enhance the quality and livability of their neighborhoods.
A key principle, he notes: enabling development so places can "retain their genius loci -- their genetic footprint." This is the form that gives each community its distinctiveness and unique character.

Through the Brooklyn-based Pratt Institute's Center for Community Development that he co-founded in 1964, Shiffman has also trained hundreds of young planners to grasp the exciting potential of quality planning merged with community activism, skills they now apply both across the U.S. and internationally.

An early landmark was the work he undertook with residents of Brooklyn's economically threatened Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Initially, many feared that Shiffman and his colleagues were plotting one of the destructive ground-clearing urban renewal plans of that era.

But Shiffman won them over and helped lay plans for what would become America's first community development corporation (CDC) -- an idea raised to national visibility in 1966 when Robert F. Kennedy visited the neighborhood. Kennedy endorsed and helped to refine the CDC concept and then lent a hand raising startup funds. The model has spread phenomenally: Today there are about 5,000 CDCs working to revitalize communities across the United States.

Fast forward to 2013: Shiffman is heading the Pratt Institute's response to Superstorm Sandy. The project is called "RAMP" -- Recover, Adapt, Mitigate and Plan. A set of studios, looking forward, is examining varied steps to adapt and protect New York's varied building types, saving historic structures and adding to the resilience of entire neighborhoods.

Retaining some part of the manufacturing base that once characterized New York, especially its outer boroughs, has been a key Shiffman concern. His goals: both economic diversity and creating jobs for new immigrants and craftsmen of varied skills levels. This means, for example, resisting strong pressures to convert factory sites to housing. "Today we can have mixed-use neighborhoods without noxious side effects -- years ago it would have been impossible," he notes.

Each spring, Shiffman is off to Austria for the annual Salzburg Congress on Urban Planning and Development. It's a chance to rub shoulders with European planners and has led to multiple exchanges, from the study of efforts to clean up and transform old industrial sites in Germany's Ruhr Valley to learning steps the Dutch and Germans have undertaken to address rising seas and other challenges of climate change.

And Shiffman's vision looking forward? At 74, this full-bearded man of quiet passion, constantly teaching and leading by example, sees the urban future in terms of learning green imperatives, building resilient communities as environmental threats mount.
Will it cost a lot? Yes, he agrees. He endorses a "Robin Hood tax" levy -- a tiny 0.1 to 0.25 percent assessment on every stock transfer in New York, enough to raise tens of billions of dollars yearly.

"The city and our problems," he told me last week, "are like a woven fabric. All strands need to be woven together in a comprehensive way. We're all weavers -- all of us concerned with the city. Pull out any one strand and the whole bunches up, falls apart. The real beauty is to weave a fabric that's aesthetically pleasing yet functional and equitable. That's the way to healthy and viable communities."

Neal Peirce's email address is nrp@citistates.com.

(c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.