Throughout my planning education I have been faced with the question: what is planning? Increasingly, I have been thinking about planners as dreamers, tasked with imagining the future city and then working to create the pathway and framework to bring us there. This isn’t every planner, but I’d like to think that this is the task at hand for me once I graduate in six months.
In MIT’s introduction to planning course, we learn about the various theories of who planners are. It often leans towards a theory of planners, intentionally or not, being tools for furthering state power and advancing private interests while perpetuating inequality. For example, a simple rezoning, such a the one that took place along Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, is a fairly normal city function that is currently resulting in business displacement, luxury housing development, and the wholesale reshaping of the neighborhood. I think it’s easy to get caught in the system, to say that’s just the way it is, or that we should just make incremental progress. I don’t want to be that planner. I came to planning school to learn about these existing systems, but also to learn about alternatives–strategies for transforming our cities and our economies in ways that work for everyone.
In November, I attended a historic hearing in New York’s City Hall where this visioning began to take form in a big way. There, MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) convened state and local elected officials, community organizers, planners, business owners, academics, NYC residents, and students to imagine what an economy would look like that works for New Yorkers of color. For me, the hearing was powerful because it brought dozens of ideas and successful models together in one room, and was a reminder that a better New York is possible if we build the collective will to make it happen.
The hearing started with the 2017-2018 cohort of the Mel King Community Fellows, elected officials of color who represent the Bronx and Central Brooklyn, and who have been working with CoLab to expand their understanding of economic democracy. Through their work in New York, with CoLab, and their travels to Mondragón, Spain, they came to understand an economy and a region as an ecosystem that can build shared wealth through collective ownership of key economic assets.
Representatives of the community–all people of color–then proceeded to testify to the work they are doing to build that alternative economic vision. Communities in New York already have an incredible amount of assets, it’s just a matter of organizing and coordinating them to build collective wealth. For example, Angela Tovar from the Point CDC spoke of their work to create democratically controlled and community owned wifi and solar gardens that are structured to share profits among their members. Cooperative workers like Steph Wiley spoke of the transformative experience of building wealth and purpose as a worker-family.
The hearing also highlighted the importance of using the power and regulations of the city and state to support communities. Eduard Garcia of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition advocated for the city to use public resources to fight displacement. The ideas he highlighted included incorporating displacement metrics into the environmental review process and strengthening the Urban Land Use Review Procedure to allow for more community oversight. He also advocated for the city to expand its support for Community Land Trusts. Multiple speakers like Tim Gamory from from the BronXchange, Genese Morgan from Brooklyn Community Board 16, and Angela Fernandez from the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, spoke about the need to reorient the Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprise (MWBE) certification and contracting process to support existing businesses struggling to meet requirements and get to scale, as well as removing barriers for undocumented entrepreneurs seeking certification. Deputy Mayor, and MIT’s own, Phil Thompson, advocated for using procurement and pension funds to put more money and assets like land and housing more equitably into the hands of low income New Yorkers.
For me, this hearing came at an important moment. I have one semester left at MIT and I’m trying to figure out where I want to fit into this ecosystem. It was a powerful reminder that innovation comes from the margins, but it takes organizing and power to move it from the margins to accepted practice. As an MIT student, I have a lot of power simply because my institution is universally recognized as an authority. Throughout the hearing, people referenced their interactions with MIT as a means of legitimizing their practice. The MIT brand holds so much power and influence, and as a current and future representative of this institution, how do I leverage that to advance justice and lend credence to models of economic democracy? As MIT students and alumni who run so much of New York (and the world!), what is our responsibility to disrupt existing structures and to empower new ones that have economic democracy at their center?
As planners, it behooves us to use our gifts and our privileges to support movements to empower communities in shaping the future city. That is the kind of planner I want to be.
Alex Acuña is a second year Masters in City Planning student at MIT and a researcher with the Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) within the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.