A Citizen’s Power: City Planning

While there is some affordable housing in New York City, such as the Mitchell-Lama Program and public housing through the underfunded NYC Housing Authority, an affordable housing crisis remains the norm in NYC. This crisis in affordable housing can be traced back to a lack of government subsidies in the form of financial support to build affordable housing. The only way for affordable housing to interest private developers is for the government to provide business incentives. This paper unpacks how community frictions and social power interact, specifically how citizens and communities can influence city planning. As an example of how community organizing impacts distributions of affordable housing, we will consider the development of World Trade Center Building Five (5WTC) and its troubled path towards affordable housing. We will conclude that the best method of change is to get experts in support of a movement, whether through politicians who have power over experts or employing an equity planner who will support the public community.


Midway through a course that considered frictions in New York City, my mind returned to its departure point; the question of who has a right to the city. When our discussion began on the first day of class, I thought everyone might have a different right to the city; Mayer, the author of “The ‘Right to the City’ in Urban Social Movements,” believes that each individual should have a right to authorship of the city’s culture. Amid our discussion of gentrification, the point came up that certain people feel more entitled to police public space than others. It is apparent to me that when some people feel more entitled to police a space, they have greater authorship and political power. Authorship of a space and social norms entails a passive counterpart, or reading, of these social norms and spaces. As Walter Benjamin reexamines the separation between author and reader, the separation between citizen and policymaker is also permeable, in that somebody can move between sides of the divide (Benjamin, 1970). Authorship means shaping the context for experience, like the architecture of a street or building or the activities socially tied to (or barred from) these constructed spaces. If authorship is considered essential to residency, and our government is representative of our community, then our government should be ensuring that each citizen has and feels political power. When individuals exhibit differences that employers do not value, or characteristics that neighbors do not appreciate, these people have less social authority. This lesser authority results in less confidence and ability to police others socially and a reduced political power.


I mentioned above that city planning or architecture can act as a medium for social authorship: Social policing is another way to author a culture. The ways in which we might author the culture of our community are limitless. Social policing requires both authority and confidence. If social policing doesn’t require much more than confidence, and perhaps respect coming from other community members, one may have greater authorship or power to change a culture the more they identify with the community.


When everyone has a right to the city, culture is a fluid, local thing; when only certain identities have a right to the city, the culture of that city is specific to those identities. One might be inclined to say that when fewer identities make up a city, culture doesn’t evolve as much. We are concerned with culture because frictions are present when a community is subjected to unwilled changes to their culture. A community with disagreeing parts will always have friction. Friction is inherent when the city’s community is made up of so many different sorts of people. When the community is homogenous, they can evolve together, circumventing friction between identities as culture evolves. As a result, cutting most identities out from having a right to the city might seem like a logical thing to reduce frictions; however, this course of action comes from a fear of friction, instead of an acceptance of the community that actively inhabits the city and confidence that frictions are worthwhile. Seeing frictions as negative would result in a motivation to remove opposing positions. Accepting frictions means being willing to share borders with others, benefitting from their existence and supporting them in times of crisis. It seems clear to me that frictions should be accepted as a worthwhile tradeoff. More interesting is the question of authorship and who exercises its power. When people are excluded from authoring the culture of their city, they lack political power over their own experiences. With no power over our experiences, we have no hope that our situation will improve and no motivation that our actions can change our lives. I think everyone deserves the hope that their energy can meaningfully impact their lives. Therefore, it should be accepted that authorship over a space comes with living in it.


Authorship over culture and space, as Mayer describes it, is precisely what Jane Jacobs recognizes is lost when people are churned through a neighborhood so fast that community members are unable to make relationships and sustain a neighborhood identity (Mayer, 2012; Jacobs, 1961). Jacobs believes that social power comes with creating a neighborhood community through developing relationships with other residents (Jacobs, 1961).Perhaps, then, a universal right to shelter could equate with a universal right to authorship. The question of an individual’s rights might then be secondary to developing the political power that comes with a neighborhood’s identity. Surely a diverse body of ideologies makes a community richer, even if there might be more friction. The truth remains that some neighborhoods enjoy the luxury of a consistent social interplay while others have less stable exchanges and thereby less of a community identity. 


Even when a community has found and developed its identity, the superstructures of city planning in New York City make it difficult, but not impossible, for communities and citizens to exercise their social power. The plan to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway was proposed in 1929, and supported by Robert Moses and Governor Rockerfeller. Chinatown’s community leaders, Jane Jacobs, and her Greenwich Village allies banded together to oppose and revoke the plan that would displace “2,000 families and 800 businesses employing 10,000 people” until the next proposal to redevelop Chinatown was announced (Stein, 2015). It is a chronic feature of housing in New York City that experts determine zoning and only people with political power have a right to the city (Angotti & Morse, 2015). One solution is that experts should represent the will of the population who will live in the space being designed or zoned; the solution of bottom-up planning where communities are represented by an advocate who brings the community’s wishes from people to the planning table. These ‘equity planners’ might be the best solution to bridge a planning system that requires experts and the need of citizens for authorship. What needs to change in order for experts to represent residents who bring the city to life, rather than corporations that live off of it?


For example, look at how a community coalition worked to bring affordable housing to 5 World Trade Center. The ownership of the World Trade Center site was complex; just before the 9/11 attacks, Silverstein Properties entered a lease-buy agreement, which allowed them to rent without guarantee that they would buy the space. After 9/11, Silverstein renegotiated their WTC lease to apply to less of the WTC site, but after many disputes, Silverstein Properties either owns or leases WTC buildings 3, 4 and 5. In the initial proposal, the WTC 5 building was to be one-fourth affordable housing, but the Coalition for  Affordable 5WTC brought it to one-third affordable housing as of 2023. Public forums and conferences like the public assembly in 2002 and the Coalition’s town halls helped to build a movement and reinforce the movement as bottom-up; supported by the experiences of real citizens (World Trade Center History, n.d.). Recognizing the political power of citizens and organizing our authority is perhaps the greatest tool activist planners possess.


In conclusion, the Coalition for Affordable 5WTC did not propose financially-intelligent changes, when financial subsidies to support the construction of 5WTC appeared to be lacking; however, more affordable housing certainly needs to be subsidized and designated, and it is good for 9/11 survivors and first responders to be preferred on this site, which doesn’t happen when experts and the real estate market are left to their own devices. The government should do more to support affordable housing, since it conflicts with the financial interests of the real estate industry. Our social authority relies on obtaining government subsidies which will shape our city planning and structure our lives as citizens. It is the duty of communities who wish to have a right to their city to organize, so that their coalitions can better influence the decisions of the government and corporations in the community’s favor.


Works Cited

Angotti, T. (2015). Land Use and Zoning Matter. In T. Angotti & S. Morse (Eds.), Zoned Out! Race, Displacement, and City Planning in New York City. Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute.

Angotti, T., & Morse, S. (2015). Racialized Land Use and Housing Policies. In T. Angotti & S. Morse (Eds.), Zoned Out! Race, Displacement, and City Planning in New York City. Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute.

Gelinas, N. Freeing Us from the Freedom Tower. (Autumn 2006). City Journal. Retrieved January 21, 2024, from https://www.city-journal.org/article/freeing-us-from-the-freedom-tower 

Hussaini, S. (2023, October 18). City Housing. Accounts.google.com. https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1HcG6VB34aSTA0W4F4i6KLmr-s6cuSd3x

Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities (pp. 1–25). Random House.

Javed, M., & Heckman, J. (Eds.). (2014, September 6). The Author as Producer by Walter Benjamin 1970. www.marxists.org. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1970/author-producer.htm

Mayer, M. (2012). The “Right To The City” In Urban Social Movements. In Cities for People, not for Profit: Critical Urban Theory and the Right to the City (Vol. 13, Issues 2-3, pp. 63–85). Routledge; Cities for People, not for Profit.

Poblete, G. (2023, May 25). 5WTC Gets Affordable Housing Boost But Neighbors Demand Pause for More. THE CITY – NYC News. https://www.thecity.nyc/2023/05/25/world-trade-center-affordable-housing-boost-5wtc/

Stein, S., & Kwong, P. (2015). Chinatown: Unprotected and Undone [Review of Chinatown: Unprotected and Undone]. In T. Angotti & S. Morse (Eds.), Zoned Out! Race, Displacement, and City Planning in New York City. Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute.

History. (n.d.). Official World Trade Center. Retrieved January 21, 2024, from https://wtcprod.panynj.gov/en/local/learn-about-wtc/history.html#remembrance-and-renewal