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Comp-ish Plan-ish

by Miriam Axel-Lute on July 20, 2011

I’d like to say that I read the draft of Albany’s Comprehensive plan so you don’t have to, but I’m going say up front (perhaps predictably) that I think you should too (or at least skim it)—at least if you have any particular stake in the direction of the city of Albany, which, being part of the Capital Region, you do. Also, I can’t go through its 272 pages point by point here (though I intend to on their feedback site and maybe I’ll share the file with y’all. Look for a link online).

But here’s my quick take: There’s a lot of good in there, more than I can call out item by item, and if even half of the prioritized items come to pass, Albany will be in much better shape.  It’s really heartening to have the city on record as planning for climate change—both prevention and adaptation. It’s also very good to have in there that Harriman should be connected to the street grid, and be mixed-use. Urban ag, connections to the waterfront, heavy emphasis on reducing car dependency, mentions of local institutional purchasing. . . . Most of the time when it gets specific, it’s good stuff.

But that, of course, gets to my first critique, which is the same thing I said about the vision statement: too much of it is vague and squishy. Too many “strategies” read like goals (“increase this good thing”), while goals are not phrased in measurable fashions.

So, for example, adding grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods is a really good goal. But what’s the actual goal? I would propose something like “By 2030 (or sooner), no city resident shall be more than X miles (or X minutes by foot or bus or whatever) from a full-service grocery store.” Goals like this may not be definable for every single strategy or action suggested in the plan, but they could be for many if not most of them, creating a document whose success is much easier track and which is easier to use as accountability tool. That which gets measured gets done, as they say.

Also, there are some holes in content. I’ll just mention two. I heard people say over and over at the citizen meetings that one of their primary concerns was the neighborhoods that are being left behind. I applaud the drafters of the plan for including the concept of equity by name, and for the various specific strategies proposed that could serve to advance equity in the city, from expanded transit service to the grocery store idea to the focus on dealing with abandoned properties.

But if we are serious about economic and social equity being part of sustainability, they need to be threaded through every section in the plan explicitly, just like climate change is. This is not secondary to revitalizing the city and its image. It is the foundation. Researcher Manuel Pastor has proven that regions that are equitable have higher economic growth and better outcomes for everyone.

Neighborhood neutrality is about politics, not outcome. To overcome the sorts of neighborhood disparities in opportunity and outcome and quality of life that we have in Albany, it is widely recognized that you need to target resources to the most distressed areas and populations. But targeting is barely, if ever, mentioned in this plan. In fact, as written, it’s neutral whether a new grocery store is put in the high-car ownership but grocery-store lacking neighborhoods around Buckingham Pond, or in Arbor Hill, where residents regularly are shelling out for taxis to get their groceries.

There are models for targeting, such as Richmond, Va.’s Neighborhoods in Bloom, a program where after a very detailed assessment of various indicators (indicators the whole city agreed upon ahead of time), the city agreed to target resources (federal development dollars, code enforcement, etc.) to six neighborhoods in most need. The results have been measurable and remarkable.

There’s also a hole in the plan about good government and political process. That was, as I recall, the number one concern at the citizen meeting I attended. The planners responded that that was out of the purview of the plan.

That’s bullshit.

Obviously a comprehensive plan is not going to, and shouldn’t, get into specifics about particular leadership or electoral politics. But if proposing a marketing campaign about healthy living is in its purview (which I find questionable, but it’s in there), then goals and strategies about, for example, increasing transparency and accountability of city government to its citizens, improving how representative appointed bodies are, and increasing citizen participation and voter registration and turnout across the board most definitely belong.

Tell ‘em what you think before the summer is out: albany2030.org.