Local Center Practice Notes: On Finding Neighborhood Partners

In Practice Notes, you’ll hear from Local Center teams and our own staff about what we’re learning as we support community-led design projects across New York City.

By Martha Snow

In October of last year, we put out a Call for Partners to community organizations across the city. We kept it open-ended – share your ideas for activating a public space with culture and heritage in your neighborhood, tell us a little bit about your vision, snap a picture of the site if you can. 

Over 70 responses came in. We heard from CDCs, arts organizations, BIDs, friends groups, CLTs, community gardens, interdisciplinary collectives and more. Folks came with ideas for streets and sidewalks, parks, plazas, NYCHA campuses and spaces underneath elevated transportation infrastructure. 

We heard from social service providers, artists, folks representing and cheerleading small businesses, people with decades of experience navigating the bureaucracy of our city, folks newer on the scene with big ideas about spaces for gathering, for culture, for community. So much local knowledge from so many corners! 

Around the holidays, I sat down (virtually) with 68 prospective neighborhood partners, for an hour each, to learn more about their ideas for their public spaces. We talked in depth about their vision and what could be possible with the resources we were offering. From there, we drafted proposals that our partners could review and rework. With co-developed proposals in hand, we turned to a panel of 10 representing longstanding cultural institutions, community development organizations, government agencies, design firms, and more from four boroughs to move from 68 prospective partners down to five. 

You might think — 68 hour-long calls? Drafting proposals with neighborhood partners? Why such a big effort? 

As we designed our process, we wanted to be intentional about the process being inclusive, so we looked to lower as many barriers to participation wherever we could. We recognize many local organizations are offering so much to their communities on a shoestring, and are working in neighborhoods that have faced decades of disinvestment, racist planning policies and more. How could this process offer a new path for partnership?

We also designed our process to reflect the Forum’s values of curiosity and learning: curiosity about what we don’t know, about what can emerge from a generative conversation, about what might be possible if we don’t dictate the outcome. In my other lives as a dancer, a printmaker, and (hopeful) ceramicist, I like to think about what connects us in human terms and I can’t help but bring this into my work here as well. How are we showing up as people for our potential partners at every step? Where does a trusting relationship begin? (At the beginning.)

In conversation with almost 70 potential partners across the city, I am also struck by the many ways we can think about culture and heritage in our public spaces. Culture can be a way to express and represent our many identities – like Chhaya’s vision for festivals and events that celebrate the South Asian and Afro-Caribbean traditions in Richmond Hill. 

Culture can also be a powerful tool to bring people together: when we come together around our histories and our creativity, we can connect more deeply with our neighbors, introduce them to services, build community participation in planning processes, and support the economic vibrancy of a neighborhood. 

And culture can play an important role in community healing, and in building a vision for the future – as with GrowHouse’s vision for sites of resistance and connection in Brooklyn. When I think about our city healing from the traumas it has experienced in the last few years, I’m hopeful that these approaches can be a balm.

I want to note too that in our process we saw ideas for projects in public space across a range of territories – some on sites managed by city agencies, some by state agencies, a few ideas for private space sprinkled in. We’ve ended up with three projects in city parks, one with a license to program under an elevated highway, and one on NYCHA campuses. We know that moving ahead with each project will require creativity and continuing to build robust relationships with our colleagues in the public sector. 

We have a lot of questions ahead – how can community organizations reclaim and steward more public spaces? How can we seed more local visions for our public spaces to take root? We don’t have all the answers, but for now, we’re starting at the beginning, with five partners. Five diverse approaches in four boroughs with partners who are thinking deeply not only about culture and heritage, but also about youth involvement, public safety, building coalitions, and providing social services. Together with our partners and ANHD, at every step we will ground our work in principles of repair, transformation, and solidarity.

I’m excited about what’s ahead. In Practice Notes, you’ll hear from Local Center participants and UDF and ANHD staff about what we’re learning. We hope our reflections can be a useful resource as we seek to seed more of this work. And we hope you join us. 

Martha Snow is Associate Director for Community Design at Urban Design Forum.

Practice Notes:
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