For over 100 years, New York City has taken a piecemeal approach to development and capital spending. As a result, our City has fundamentally failed to plan for its current and future challenges. Underlying inequities in the City’s economy, housing market, and environment have produced disparate health outcomes for Black and brown communities who are suffering and dying at double the rates of white New Yorkers as a result of the coronavirus. Our housing and homelessness crisis will only continue to worsen as we confront the highest rates of unemployment in this country’s history since the Great Depression. As the City faces a period of significant budget constraints as a result of COVID-19, a backlog of capital needs continues to grow by billions of dollars as our 19th and 20th century infrastructure degrades. And by 2100, many neighborhoods including Coney Island, Jamaica Bay, the Rockaway Peninsula, the South Shore of Staten Island, Red Hook, and parts of Lower Manhattan, are expected to flood every day at high tide due to sea level rise.
These challenges are big and extremely complex—but we did not get here overnight. It has become increasingly clear that the process by which the City makes its land use, policy, and budget decisions is ill equipped to address the existential threats that face our City today and over the next several decades.
New York City is now faced with a choice. We can continue to ignore how our increasingly contentious and insufficient planning regime undermines New York City’s ability to equitably respond to crises, adapt, and grow. Or we can adopt a new approach—a cyclical, integrated comprehensive planning process that cities all across the globe use to center equity and inclusion as they balance citywide and community needs to confront challenges together.
This report reviews the history of planning in New York City, explores the failures of our current planning framework, and identifies trends and national best practices in comprehensive planning. The report concludes with a proposal for a new comprehensive planning framework for New York City designed specifically to help correct neighborhood disparities and decades of disinvestment in communities of color and support equitable growth to create a more resilient and inclusive City.
Key Issues Summary
Fragmented and insufficient planning mandates
While the New York City Charter requires many reports and processes related to planning, the City has no requirement to actually plan – to holistically examine the existing conditions of our city, identify challenges, opportunities, and goals, and propose policies to address and achieve them. Instead, New York City’s goal-setting documents are scattered across several disconnected Charter mandates, raising issues of public transparency and accountability. The long-term planning mandates that do exist—such as PlaNYC/OneNYC—insufficiently assess the City’s needs and fail to effectively coordinate citywide goals with the City’s land use and budget planning processes. This lack of coordination maikes it difficult to integrate goals pertaining to equity and inclusion into our land use and budget planning processes—which arguably have the most tangible impact on New Yorkers’ built environment and lived experiences-and leaves us without any meaningful mechanism to track the completeness or efficacy of those goals.
Lack of coordination across agencies
Increased coordination across City agencies is critically important as the City faces significant budget constraints as a result of the COVID-19 crisis—we cannot afford the inefficiencies and redundancies across City agencies that undermine our ability to achieve citywide goals. At present, there is no regularly occurring opportunity or mandate for City agencies to coordinate or collaborate. As a result, our current citywide planning framework—or lack thereof—creates inefficiencies in how the City operates, limits innovative multi-disciplinary policymaking, and undermines New York City’s ability to achieve broader citywide goals of sustainability and equity.
Insufficient proactive planning for our neighborhoods
The City’s approach to updating the Zoning Resolution on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis without a clear citywide vision or process rooted in equity also contributes to a growing distrust of government and a sense among community stakeholders that the City is unfairly targeting certain neighborhoods to bear the burdens of growth in exchange for long overdue investments in schools, child care centers, street safety improvements, parks, and playgrounds.
There are few broader conversations about where growth should or should not go to undo the harms of the City’s historically piecemeal approach to planning and zoning, citywide. Only this year, with the City’s “Where We Live” report on fair housing, have City agencies begun to publicly consider how better planning might help rectify decades of neglect, insufficient tenant protections, and disinvestment in communities of color. For Black, indigenous, and people of color, there are rarely if ever conversations about what people actually want to see in their neighborhoods—there are only conversations about how much to mitigate future harms. Without structural mechanisms to proactively plan for growth or development, communities are pushed into reactionary and defensive positions, contributing to a contentious land use review process that fails to foster or encourage equitable growth.
Uneven zoning landscape that exacerbates socio-economic inequality
The City’s piecemeal approach to planning responds best to the neighborhoods with resources to agitate for change, which has resulted in an uneven, unequal, and unfair distribution of zoning policy—and the de-prioritization of the needs of low-income people, immigrants, and people of color. Over the last several decades, many of New York’s well-resourced neighborhoods have successfully advocated for restrictive and exclusionary zoning that prevents the development of critically needed affordable housing in transit-rich neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, less privileged communities with fewer resources to organize have often either been left with outdated zoning that encourages car-centric urban design and includes no housing affordability requirements whatsoever—or targeted for increased density with little explanation or citywide rationale for why their neighborhood must bear the burdens of growth over other neighborhoods. These restrictive, exclusionary rezonings and uneven applications of zoning policy across diverse neighborhoods have exacerbated racial and socio-economic inequality in New York City.
Uncoordinated long-term budget and capital infrastructure planning
While the de Blasio Administration has made an effort to better integrate rezonings with community investments, the City’s long-term budget planning still bears very little meaningful relationship to the City’s priorities. Our long-term budget planning remains uncoordinated with broader policy and land use goals, undermining the City’s ability to achieve them.
Unrealistic Ten-Year Capital Strategy
The long-term planning that the City does complete with respect to capital infrastructure through the completion of the Ten-Year Capital Strategy (“TYCS”) is unrealistic and does not align with the City’s demonstrated ability to execute capital projects. The document front-loads spending toward short-term priorities and neglects longer-term infrastructure needs, making it difficult to accurately track performance in completing capital projects, prevent excess appropriations, or effectively prioritize the City’s short- and long-term spending.
Insufficient assessments of capital needs
The City’s budget decisions remain divorced from assessments of capital needs, which are often insufficient. As a result, the budget process fails to sufficiently maintain existing infrastructure, enhance infrastructure to reduce neighborhood disparities, improve the climate resiliency of the infrastructure we fund, or fund the infrastructure needed to accommodate projected growth.
This report proposes a ten-year comprehensive planning cycle designed to encourage equitable, just, and sustainable growth by meaningfully connecting the City’s budget, land use, and strategic planning processes to build a proactive vision for the future of New York City. This citywide comprehensive planning framework would streamline and integrate more than a dozen planning and budget-related documents, reports, and plans already required by local law, to dramatically improve coordination across City agencies. The Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability (OLTPS) would oversee the new planning cycle and produce all related planning documents in partnership with relevant City agencies and informed by a robust and continuous public engagement process.
First, the City would review and report on our population and economy in a new Conditions of the City report which would include an analysis of racial and socio-economic disparities, access to opportunity, displacement risk, short- and long-term risks to the City and its vulnerable communities, the impacts of prior development and budget decisions, and current and projected infrastructure needs, among other areas of analyses.
Informed by the Conditions of the City report, OLTPS would then work with a new representative Long-Term Planning Steering Committee to develop a Citywide Goals Statement that would be required by the Charter to reduce and eliminate disparities in access to opportunity and the distribution of resources and development across race, geography, and socioeconomic status. The Citywide Goals Statement would include Measurable Citywide Targets for housing, jobs, open space, resiliency infrastructure, City facilities, schools, transportation, public utilities, and other infrastructure and would be informed by public input and engagement.
Following the production of the Citywide Goals Statement, the City would engage all neighborhoods in a proactive land use planning process in order to prepare a Draft Long-Term Plan, which would consist of five major elements:
- Strategic Policies for all issue areas traditionally covered in a comprehensive plan including but not limited to housing, transportation, open space, public health, arts and culture, sustainability and resilience. This would also include capital and expense budget needs for each agency to implement each policy within a clearly articulated timeline.
- An Analysis of the City’s Zoning Resolution, recommendations for citywide zoning changes, and policies for managing the City’s waterfront.
- District Level Targets, developed and adopted by the Long-Term Planning Steering Committee, that would distribute growth, infrastructure, amenities, and services equitably throughout the City. These targets would be required to correct historic disinvestment and prioritize growth in areas identified with low displacement risk and high access to opportunity.
- Community District Land Use Scenarios to accommodate the measurable District Level Targets described above, including indications of relative height and density.
- Community District Budget Needs which would include the capital and expense budget needs of the district under current conditions; existing budget commitments, where applicable; and additional funds needed to accommodate the District Level Targets over ten years.
Through requirements for on-going public engagement and the creation of new diverse and representative decision-making bodies to develop, review, and adopt key elements of the plan, the ten-year planning cycle would integrate and balance citywide comprehensive planning with community-based planning at the neighborhood level. This proposal requires City Council adoption of the comprehensive plan. With Council adoption, the comprehensive plan would represent a shared vision for New York City across the Council, Mayoral agencies and the New Yorkers that Council Members represent to fulfill our citywide and neighborhood-specific needs for housing, open space, schools, and other infrastructure.
The final adopted Long-Term Plan would then serve as the foundation for both public and private development decisions. Future land use applications that are consistent with the comprehensive plan would only be subject to a Council vote if the Council voluntarily “calls up” the application, thereby incentivizing land use actions that further the implementation of the plan, while maintaining mechanisms for review.
A mandate that the City complete a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) for the Long-Term Plan will both further incentivize development consistent with the plan by reducing project costs, which can be redirected into community benefits, while ensuring the City evaluates the impacts of the comprehensive plan’s planning and zoning policies. Future development that is deemed consistent with the plan would then only be required to complete supplemental environmental review on the impacts specific to that project.
Finally, the Mayor would be required to produce an updated Conditions of the City Report and would have an opportunity to amend the Long-Term Plan halfway through the ten-year planning cycle. The new Long-Term Planning Steering Committee would play an ongoing role in both the development of the plan and the implementation of its recommendations, convening annual public hearings to help ensure that every Mayor is held accountable to its commitments and priorities. This robust and inclusive planning process would support equitable growth while strengthening critical checks and balances in the City’s planning process.