in Politics and Plans, System Change

Part VIII: Strategic Planning

Strategic Planning by a Community District Board

What if a Community Board decided they wanted to be something more than “advisory?”  If they did, it would not be stimulated by long-term comprehensive planning. It would be a calculated, tactical decision aimed at achieving an advantage in chosen situations. A strategic plan provides its users with a continuous test for internal strengths (S) and weaknesses (W) as its central function. Commonly called SWOT, that initial scan reveals opportunities and threats primarily external, but not exclusively.  Like the fighter, Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”  Doing this test leads to the first question.

Why does the Department of City Planning and its Commissioners want weakness at the community district level of change?

Weakness and Strength

That question makes it possible to list all challenges that might be attributed to this weakness. Some reasons are listed (here). In one Community District (CD-A), the issues could be listed under the headings of noise, signs, and potholes. It is an area with a higher median income than the city. Other problems in a Community District (CD-B) might cover deteriorating housing, food desert conditions, and poor education outcomes. It is an area with a median income lower than the city. The strengths/weaknesses portion of the SWOT scan is vastly different than others.

On the other hand, the opportunity (O) and threats (T) segment would be far more concerning to the city’s economic health in CD-B. The former (CD-A) would require an uncomplicated set of solutions. The CD-B would require partnerships involving an entirely different set of resource decisions. For this reason alone, strategic plans with Community Districts provide superior capability for resolving the intractable problems in the Districts that have them and rightly deserve priority treatment.  The series of images below come from searching for SWOT.  The resources available are extensive. Frankly, any small group or committee of a CD board can use them to get strategic.

Put “SWOT” in a Search Engine

Every CD has a different relationship with the central urban government authority. Once the initial scan and issues are revealed, the third part of a CD strategic plan is a specific agreement to a broad set of goals. They can be unique to each community and then linked to a citywide mission statement. Therefore, the content of the relationship between residents and Community Board Members and the central authority develops into the fourth part of the locally produced strategic plan.

In CD-A, there may not be a demand for injecting strategic planning into that relationship. If a need is expressed, recognition of it as an opportunity to build reciprocity occurs with ease. It is seen as a new learning relationship of enormous power (here). Reciprocity is underwritten by two forms of research conducted in four directions. These are internal and external assessments of “forces” identified by the parties involved in establishing a partnership. For example, these assessments could examine ways to alter the “advisory” power of a CD introduced as “the problem” in this description of strategic planning. Here, the CD and the CPD would look internally at its strengths and weaknesses. They would share concrete illustrations of the forces internal to their current ability to share power that may reveal external opportunities or mutual interest threats. (see Flushing example here). A strategic plan, in this case, would look to discover, disclose, and define divide and conquer structure in so-called “community benefits agreements.”

Initial evaluations would look to the past based on expense and capital budget decisions from one to ten-year “show me the money” periods. The process looks to the future by sharing neighborhood experiences with community development professionals. These individuals and organizations may be sourced internally from the community and externally as partners to confirm or enhance, deny, or challenge background socio-economic data.

The need for a CD and the CPD to enter a more substantial partnership-based exchange will develop with a sense of shared mutually beneficial content. The partners will recognize opportunities in their common interest and share in defense tactics against threats. The partnership with CD-A might take a day to negotiate. The resource requirements needed to build an alliance with CD-B present complex problems.  Creating joint ventures is implied here and should be recognized as one that may involve a year to negotiate and renew annually for a decade. Each implemented action is evaluated for success or failure using objective measures in a shared calendar for marking change. The heart of a strategic plan is the moment-to-moment, year-to-year sense of documented collective effort.

The current plan for democratic participation in the city’s development is well exposed for its inequity. As NYC urban planning stands today, CD-A gets stronger when CD “A” and “B” are asked to participate in the same way. In fact, CD-B gets weaker for the lack of comparative results or access to similar resources. However, community districts and their volunteer board members are responsible for supporting the democratic process. When this process is weakened or in trouble, what it needs is more democracy.

The city’s overall economic health provides the “commons.” The capacity to see differences in York City’s 59 Community Districts and resource-react differently is possible. The care and well-being of each of these hundreds of neighborhoods in each district can endure the ignorance of their wealth as well as the tragedy of their poverty with a strategic plan SWOT approach.

A Strategic Plan Outline

“Strategic Plan” in a Search Engine

Seek the term “strategic plan,” and resources become available. A small group or committee can click here and there and come up with something useful. The outline below is not a set of sequential steps. Each action description is an ongoing activity. With seven actions, seven people can develop one skill as the “go-to” person on one of them.  Constantly scanning, restating issues, mission, and goals in new ways, redefining internal vs. external objectives.  Participants will find ways to do things and redo them often and with delight. As one board member stated once, “Win or lose, succeed or fail, it is much better than wailing, and I really hate whining.”

Once the components are up and running in people, it is much like the SQ-3R method taught to students to help them realize a complex subject about which they will be tested, as are we all. The responsibility is to scan the environment, the narrative, and data (S) – prepare questions (Q) with responses and continuously read, recite, and review (3R) the content as it develops.  One other point on the answers repeated to the questions.  The answers can change.  The answer to the why are boards weak may stay – they will always be inadequate. That may not mean ineffective.

Seven Major Actions of a Strategic Plan

  1. Scan the environment.  Identify key factors and trends important to the community’s future. Determine how external forces will influence events in specific localities.
    1. Review existing planning and development activities used in the neighborhood environments. Prepare baseline bibliography of development approaches and intervention strategies currently in NYC, such as CBAs.  Include a focus on the applicability of methods implemented in other neighborhoods.
    1. The initial scan’s critical factors will involve measured trends regarding the persistence of an issue.  Examples might be poverty, housing affordability, or the quality of services tailored to meet specific community needs such as early childhood education, employment training, and adult education.
  2. Select key issues.  Based on the scan, jointly select a few problems whose successful resolution is critical.
    1. Use an integrative method to link issues most applicable to community-based development organizations with staff focused on those issues.
    1. Develop a list of community-based planning activities in NYC and seek practitioners’ experience in the field for their review and comment.
  3. Set mission statements or broad goals. Establish the direction for the strategy development process by setting general goals for routine review.
    1. The mission and goals process reveals directions specific to a Community Board schedule. If mission involved small business development and youth employment.
    1. The review and comment period establishes integrative mission concepts.
  4. Conduct external and internal analyses.  Look in depth at outside forces affecting the achievement of the goals. Identify strengths and weaknesses, along with the availability of resources.
    • A core curriculum provides tools to conduct analysis with a broad base of active practitioners’ participation in community-based development.
    • Publication of primer and training curriculum on comprehensive and strategic methods of “internal/external” analysis. Replication, adaptation, and use by others would be based on resources and identifying strengths and weaknesses.
  5. Develop goals, objectives, and strategies.  Based on the external and internal analyses, decide what can be achieved concerning each issue and how it will be achieved.
    • Conference, symposia, meetings, and workshops define series of activities implied through the development of goals implemented by applying a strategic planning method—a mission and purpose to connect businesses with youth. A strategic tactic would be to ask all fifty members to canvas five local companies with a five-question survey.
    • The day-to-day mission of community-based development corporations, regional and national analysts of trends, and related outside forces would facilitate achievable consensus regarding proposed activities with concepts for implementation.
  6. Develop an implementation plan.  Be specific about timetables, resources, and responsibilities for carrying out strategic actions guided by selecting projects led by stated priorities and policies.
    • Program timetables currently in preliminary form have been provided to isolate the resources and responsibilities of program implementation.
    • An outline timetable framework for program participants following the implementation of the major program elements will provide the strategic basis of continuity in continuing the work initiated.
  7. Monitor, update, and scan process recurs.  Ensure that strategies are carried out.  Adjust them as necessary in changing environments.  Be prepared to update the plan when significant changes occur in the background.
    • Implemented an evaluation to define local practitioners’ impact using data and planning services compared to trends other local, regional, and national analysts.
    • We control what we make recur. A methodology for providing impact data will serve as a program implementation component.

As indicated above,  there are literally hundreds of outlines available to become comfortable to strategically alter the condition in which you find yourself as a member of a Community Board.  

By Fitnr – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Map Widget

Several board members have run for a City Council office. The recognition is helpful, but the desire to do more is the motivation. Study the map below as a Board Member. Count the City Council members responsible for your district. Ordinary people can build organizational development and leadership skills. They don’t need permission.

Community Districts and City Council Districts.

A strategic planning process shapes a renewable agenda for up to five years. All 2,950 Community Board Members (assuming a complete roster) are appointees of the City Council and the Borough President. The City Councilmembers’ appointments are based on the political districts they serve, including one or more community districts. Fifty members are serving two-year staggered terms. Twenty-five appointments occur each year, and the entire board can be reappointed every two years.

Goals of the Strategic Planning Process

Provide broad strategic direction for the Community Districts role and responsibilities, considering trends in NYC, its metropolitan region, and in the fields of community-based economic development.

  • Reaffirm the mission of Community Districts, their vision, values, and theory of change.
  • Routinely set goals, services, and an organizational structure capable of adapting strategic controls.
  • Identify interesting/helpful questions facing Community Districts (CD) (see below).
  • Clarify implementation priorities.
  • Establish the infrastructure, planning, evaluation, and flexibility to achieve our mission and meet our priorities for the coming years.

Sample Questions

  • What role do we see Community Districts play in the “next generation” of community development (given changes in NYC and the region)? How can we encourage the best and most progressive tendencies within the field?
  • What should the future of C.D.s advisory role over the real estate development of the community look like?  What role should a Community District Board play in development projects?  How can C.D.s become more financially robust?  Can it become a mission-accomplishing agency?
  • How can the CD build upon relationships with other institutions to bring more resources to work toward mission-based accomplishments?
  • What is our role at various geographic levels – city, region, state, U.S., global? In addition to our work in the NYC metro region, what role (if any) should we plan in broader national and international efforts for sustainable, equitable, community development?
  • What is the IT/GIS programmatic relationship between the CD and the CPD?
  • Can a CD bring high-quality technical assistance to local community organizations?
  • Can it produce a broader policy framework for equity and sustainability?
  • Do multiple City Council Members strengthen or weaken internal Board functions? In either case, what are the opportunities and the threats?

Background Chapter 8 – City Planning

Over the last thirty years, New York City has weathered national economic and health crises. While supporting unprecedented population growth and economic prosperity, it struggles to find solutions to poverty’s concentration in several Community Districts. Every one of them has a larger population and, in some cases, more jobs than every other city in the State of New York. They comprise over 350 distinct architecturally, ethnically defined neighborhoods. Over a hundred languages are spoken. The remittances that come from the families who live in New York combine to be greater than national foreign aid contributions by the State Department to some countries.

The foundation of government is the measures of responsiveness to community needs that improve opportunities. The New York City Charter renews government functions. Most of the changes are reasonable. Others are obscure enough to be intriguing.  As briefly as possible, the following examines city planning as it developed over the last century. The 1898 Charter of the City of Greater New York gave the Municipal Assembly the power and duty to number and name 22 districts for community improvement. The 1938 Charter imposed a City Council elected by boroughwide proportional representation known as the La Guardia Reform. The eventual end of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment as a power-sharing system is best reviewed in a Gotham Gazette summary (here).1 The oral argument and opinion announcement (here) is a good listen regarding the BoE.

In 1957 the “Community Planning Councils of Manhattan were extended into the outer boroughs and became known as Community Planning Boards.   The 1963 revision of the New York City Charter extended “Community Planning Councils” (1951) to the outer boroughs as “Community Planning Boards,” which are now more commonly known as “Community Boards.”

The 1975 revision set the number of Community Districts to 59. It established the district manager position and created the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) to review land use proposals such as zoning actions, franchises, and special permits. A timeframe for the review would be added in 1989, just as the U.S. Supreme Court found the “Board of Estimate” (BoE) to be an unconstitutional government structure. The bottom line, a more representative (one person, one vote) government was required. Community Planning Boards became the ‘up from the grassroots” element for conducting dialogue on community development defined by the central authority to govern land use.1 The main question that has arisen since is repeated quite often.

Why should any community-based organization spend years on a 197-a plan and longer to get it approved? 

The evidence regarding this work is that it has no effect on future land use. The lack of city control over how and with who community benefits agreements (CBAs) are created is well criticized. CBAs are private agreements that are usually negotiated between developers and community groups connected with a community development project. However, sometimes the city or a particular elected official or community board does get involved.  Adding a thorough disclosure of all CBA negotiations is a reasonable tactic.  Full and complete disclosure of expected benefits to a locality and the city’s general fund is vital.

Over $28 billion in taxes were collected from New York City property owners in 2019. That alone stimulates the need for a strategic plan initiated by this question by Sen:

What is the relation between our collective economic wealth and our individual ability to live as we would like?

Real estate taxes are among the most significant expenses for households who own homes in New York City. New York City is classified as a special assessing unit that directly ties the law to a local authority. The New York Real Property Tax Law (NYRPTL) serves as a standard for other major cities and large municipalities. Still, real property assessment and taxation in New York City exhibit grave disparities between a property’s market value and the value upon which property tax is calculated.  The NYRPTL tax system allocates the tax burden unequally and requires reform.

The unfairness is further complicated by a process for appealing and challenging assessments in New York City.  It is inaccessible to the average taxpayer, and as such, it violates the average property owners’ constitutional rights. The lack of affordable access has also led to prejudicial judgments and discrimination against taxpayers of some property classes at others’ expense.

The unfair administration of New York City’s property assessment system, the property tax appeal process, and misclassified and unequal assessment practices have become a violation of taxpayers’ substantive and procedural due process rights under New York law and the New York U.S. Constitutions.

  1. 26 Years Since the Board of Estimate’s Demise March 22, 2015, by Janos Marton
  2. A significant source of what this period was like will be found in the papers of John E. Zuccotti (here).
  3. Sen, Amartya (1999) Development as Freedom (New York: Anchor Books). Google Scholar
  4. “So Much to Do” — A Conversation with Richard Ravitch  Talk at Hunter May 2014 (here)

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