Get This Right
Albany is about to embark on its first comprehensive planning
process. It is, in many ways, astounding that the capital
city of Albany doesn’t have a comprehensive plan yet—and tremendously
exciting that it’s going to have one.
If this sounds dull and wonkish, consider: A planning process
steps back and asks the big questions about where we want
to go as a city. What is our vision? What are our assets,
and how do we make the most of them? What are creative solutions
to our challenges? Where should development go and not go,
and what kind should it be?
Then you align everything else—the zoning code, capital investments,
transportation planning, planning-board decisions—with that
plan to help coax it into reality. A well-done planning process
can energize a community, focus investment, inspire creativity,
allow consensus to form around difficult decisions and catalyze
change for the better.
Public input and buy-in is essential to a well-done planning
process. The Albany Common Council’s planning committee acknowledges
this. “This is not going to be a limited effort,” says Dan
Herring (Ward 13), the committee’s chair. “Communication will
be key,” agrees Cathy Fahey (Ward 7). This is going to be
“as open as possible,” says John Rosenzweig (Ward 8).
That is great news. But unfortunately, Albany doesn’t have
much experience with running a truly inclusive, transparent
process. We’re not alone. Many, many cities and organizations
underestimate just what it takes to generate more than token
turnout, to have more than the same devoted citizens turning
up and then feeling suspicious that they weren’t heard.
Here’s the baseline: A couple newspaper ads and notices to
the neighborhood associations is not enough. Both of
those things are great. The Council of Albany Neighborhood
Associations in particular should be given immense amounts
of credit for prompting the city to undertake this planning
process in the first place. But there are thousands of residents
with a stake in the future of this city who don’t read the
papers in detail or participate in a neighborhood association.
Notice needs to reach people who aren’t looking for it, and
it needs to reach them several times. Think marketing.
For an idea of how to do it right, Albany can look to Youngstown,
Ohio, which just won the American Planning Association’s national
award for public outreach. “From radio, newspaper and television
coverage, to billboards, T-shirts and balloons, city officials
left no stone unturned in their public outreach campaign,”
says the APA’s press release. In a seriously distressed city
somewhat smaller than Albany, 1,400 people came to the initial
visioning presentation and 1,300 a year later.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Albany’s efforts should
at least include the following: A separate and frequently
updated Web site that contains all the relevant information
about the process, including current drafts of relevant documents
and dates of all meetings open to the public (i.e., all of
them) posted well ahead of time. An e-mail announcement list
open to any interested person. Hearing announcements sent
to all local media, posted on numerous community and
library bulletin boards, discussed on the mayor’s radio show,
and distributed to constituents (directly) by council members.
Hundreds of smaller meetings to supplement the formal public
hearings. Partnerships with interested organizations and institutions,
large and small.
When in doubt, think of it like running for office, but with
everyone who doesn’t show up counted as a vote against you.
(This is not up to the Common Council, but various media outlets
might also want to consider partnering with the city to get
the word out and committing to cover the process in a regular
fashion, as one of Youngstown’s radio stations did.)
Also, though this shouldn’t need to be said, even the appearance
of the possibility of any closed, back-room dealing should
be assiduously avoided.
Luckily, we’re early in the process: The planning committee
is working on the enabling legislation. They hope to pass
that at their next meeting, which is April 19, 6 PM, in the
mayor’s conference room on the first floor of City Hall. The
Common Council is expected to pass it in early May. Then a
call for applications to an advisory board will go out. They
will be shepherding the process along, hiring consultants
and eventually making a recommendation to the Common Council.
Serious outreach efforts need to start around the application
process at the latest.
Now, let’s acknowledge this upfront: Albany’s politics are
ugly. There is a lot of cynicism in the city. Many people
distrust the motives and integrity of different parts of city
government. Without getting into how right or wrong they are,
the fact of that suspicion is still real.
Right now this is playing out in discussions about the size
and make-up of the advisory board. It is a tricky dance, trying
to include as many different stakeholders as possible, while
not making the board so big as to be dysfunctional. Some people
are concerned about having city employees on the board (usually
assumed, since their buy-in will be essential to successful
implementation) or the balance of appointees coming from the
Common Council versus the mayor. These are important questions
I don’t have particular answers to them, but I do have a strong
recommendation for all involved in these early decisions:
Take the high road, without being naive. Avoid answers that
involve power struggles, but instead craft a strong process
where a slim majority cannot trample over anyone else in the
room. Craft a process where it would be unthinkable for a
few members of the board to be acting not in good faith, because
all eyes are on them. Make this so public, and so grounded
in consensus, that everyone involved must step up to the ideal
of trustworthiness. This does not have to be adversarial,
Meanwhile, to everyone with a stake in the city’s future:
I look forward to hearing about your vision for Albany. Be