Good planning lowers tax burdens. Planning helps governments deploy limited resources more efficiently (which means “cheaper”) and it can help avoid expensive mistakes that have to be fixed later. None of Nassau County’s towns even had a formal department dedicated to planning until Hempstead created one in 1965, when the county’s population was already higher than it is today.
How many tens of thousands of dollars have you paid just in property taxes to fix planning errors that should have been avoided in the first place? The costs for some of it should have been borne by developers as part of the approval process, but everything was done piecemeal, and every problem seemed to come as a surprise.
America’s suburbs face a complex and fluid futurescape of changing needs, desires, costs and resources. We can’t afford a lot of really big mistakes anymore. Long Island has thousands of talented residents eager to apply expertise and life experiences to improving their community.
There has been a growth spurt in “citizen planner” programs in other states. There are many flavors and models, but most are sponsored by some public-private partnership (often involving the regional American Planning Association chapter). They’re usually geared not just to official community development staffers and advisory board appointees, but to civilians who want to be informed participants and play a role in the future of their neighborhood.
Citizens take courses in the basics of land use, urban design and transportation, usually leading to a certificate as a Citizen Planner. Armed with this knowledge, they are in a better position to identify problems and organize efforts to fix them, right at the block level. They can also form an advisory corps and a ready conduit of information into neighborhoods with new projects or problems.
Finally, Citizens Planner programs have a foothold in New York State and it would be great to see it take root here on Long Island.
Last year, SUNY University at Buffalo, which has a School of Architecture and Planning, began holding a Citizens Planning School, open to any resident of Erie or Niagara Counties. Most of the funding comes through a federally-funded regional planning consortium of public agencies and not-for-profit organizations. Local experts teach four core sessions covering issues and techniques, but there are also optional advanced workshops in which citizens can receive advice about organizing projects in their communities.
Philadelphia’s Citizens Planning Institute and Orange County, Florida’s Citizen Planner Academy
in Orlando also offer core courses over a few nights and a choice of more advanced electives. Some are online courses.
These programs and many others like it recognize local residents not just as recipients of information, but as a useful resource in solving problems and extending programs into neighborhoods. It can work at different levels for different parts of the community.
The City of Seneca, SC has half the population of Mineola. It sponsors a Junior Planner Certification Program to “promote youth participation in city planning.” The program’s ostensible goal is to build “good citizens, responsible decision-makers, and community pride,” and some of the hands-on projects teach skills that the kiddies might actually use in life (map-reading, graphing and charting, civics). There may be another motive for the city government. The kids also walk and survey neighborhoods, reporting on natural resources, interesting architecture, even traffic. The classes take on little improvement projects. The kids are doing some of the little helpful projects for
which the city’s staff never has enough time.
Building up a local knowledge base can only make things easier in the long run, but it takes some guts. Making new information technologies work so that time and money get saved and problems get solved means relinquishing control of discussions. Scary stuff.
Michael Miller (email@example.com) has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.