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Plan to Plan


‘We don’t lack for ideas in our city, we lack for responsiveness from our public officials.” The man was at the mic at the recent Albany sustainable design town hall meeting, thanking the assembled team of national experts in a heartfelt way for the simple, respectful act of taking notes while people got up to offer their ideas, concerns, and suggestions. Many who attended the “SDAT” (Sustainable Design Assessment Team, the name of the American Institute of Architects grant funding the work) meetings were very excited by the chance to discuss issues from bicycle safety to vacant properties to the Pine Bush in an atmosphere that was not confrontational or narrowly circumscribed, but yet supported by the city, who was promising to take the results seriously.

On the other hand, there was also a weary edge to many of the people who showed up to the first of the small-group working sessions, or “charettes.” Albany has dozens of plans, many of them not being acted upon they said over and over. How would this be different? Some of them, feeling that the charettes were merely extended and unfocused rehashing of the same old litany of issues, didn’t even come back to the final presentation.

That was a shame, because the SDAT team, through a combination of research, their own expertise, and a drawing out of themes from what the participants told them, came up with a useful and insightful set of recommendations about how to move Albany to the next level of sustainability and livability. The most concrete big-picture items involved steps to solve our vacant property problem and ways to encourage residential rehab and downtown residential growth. There were also strong recommendations about process (e.g., coordinating the city’s planning and that of our major institutions), and some very interesting suggestions that bear further exploration, including multi-modal corridors and using greenways to connect some of our far-flung parks together. For more details and a link to the team’s presentation, check out metroland.typepad .com/the_big_questions.

But all those great ideas are not all Albany can get from the SDAT process. All along, the planning department has been saying this is a dry run, a learning process leading up to the comprehensive planning process. And there are some concrete lessons to be gotten there:

First, we’re not yet there on getting a diverse cross-section of the city to come out and participate. The SDAT meetings were all very, very white. Now, I think the planning department put more effort into outreach for this than I have seen the city put into outreach about anything else of citywide import, and they deserve props. The turnout in terms of numbers wasn’t bad, and getting beyond the usual suspects is hard. It’s also really important.

The comp plan will be more accessible by its nature, because there will be dozens of meetings, in every neighborhood. And we have time now to start planning to take it to the next level for the comp plan: Beyond snacks to child care, beyond direct mail to congregations to direct contact with pastors and other leaders.

Second, there’s a tricky balancing act called for between those who will want the process to be a free-wheeling forum to say whatever’s on their minds and feel heard, and those who want to roll up their sleeves and work together on just what exactly our goals are for the city and its key assets (neighborhoods, Harriman, Pine Bush, downtown, waterfront) what we’re going to do about some of the tricky problems (I-787) and how we want to hand the hard trade-offs (Bike lanes and bus rapid transit are great, but how do we talk people into giving up on-street parking for them? Should we always? Where?).

People of the latter persuasion are going to feel impatient with open-ended meetings that satisfy the former. People of the former persuasion are going to feel constrained by a focused work session where no one is asking the particular question they want to sound off on.

Given this, I suggest that the comp plan process organize two parallel sets of meetings: One set would be open-ended neighborhood-based meetings to get big-picture feedback from everyone on their vision for the city and their neighborhoods and their top concerns. These meetings will help the Comp Plan Board get the pulse of the city and see which concerns or desires rise to the top.

The other set would be topic-based, organized like charettes, and very carefully facilitated so they stayed on topic and moved through stages like identifying issues, brainstorming, and prioritizing. They would tap the collective creativity and brain-power of the city looking for solutions to specific questions like “How do we connect better to our waterfront?” One of them could involve turning the participants loose on a zoning map with some colored markers.

Both sets would make essential contributions to the planning process, and having both kinds would make more people feel happier about their participation, which will generate more participation and support better than nearly any other kind of outreach you can do.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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