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Smart Growth America
04/25/2012

Where does change come from? Who comes up with the ideas and proposals needed to reinvigorate neighborhoods?

Ask New York City Councilmember Brad Lander and he’ll tell you.

“The community.”

To Lander, who has represented the 39th district of Brooklyn on the New York City Council since 2009, community involvement and outreach aren’t just buzzwords. They’re a source of the best inspiration and help shed light on the real reasons to move forward with any project; those that live in a community tend to know what’s best for that community.

In the 39th district – which encompasses the neighborhoods of Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Columbia Waterfront, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Borough Park and Kensington – Lander hears the concerns of a racially and economically diverse constituency. From young urban-dwellers with higher education degrees to working-class immigrants, Brooklyn – like the rest of New York – has it all. For Lander to do his job successfully he must find ways to integrate planned improvements and Council agenda items with the personal goals of the people who elected him.

“All of my time in Brooklyn has been, ‘How do we bring people together in our neighborhood, preserve what we love about it, and change the things we want to work on?’” Lander says.

Perhaps one of the reasons for Lander’s success is that he is no stranger to community organizing and the legwork necessary to build local consensus in a demanding city. An academic and educator by training, Lander previously served as director of the Pratt Center for Community Development.

Since the start, Lander has focused especially on the need to maintain access to affordable housing options even as urban areas experience growth and business resurgence. At Pratt, Lander helped shepherd several campaigns for inclusionary zoning as well as tax breaks for affordable housing construction, and he’s continuing to champion those kinds of progressive policies today.

Lander’s district is the first to utilize “participatory budgeting,” wherein 2,213 residents submitted proposals for the City to fund. The seven projects receiving the most votes will be prioritized as part of the City’s FY2013 budget, which will be adopted in June with just over $1 million committed by Lander.

“We are unfortunately at this low time in faith or confidence or belief in the role of government, and what it can do,” he notes. “People don’t have a lot of confidence that government can deliver the things they want … as opposed to, ‘Government is the decisions we make together about what we want to invest in for the neighborhood we’re going to have tomorrow and our kids are going to have in 20 years.”

Quality of life is the ultimate aim – it means economic development; it means more walkable, livable streets; it means investing in infrastructure with long-term goals in mind; it means a more sustainable future; and it means an expansion of opportunity to every community member, rich or poor. As Lander notes again and again, it all starts with what residents want to see.

“This is taxpayer money and the folks who know what we need in the neighborhood are the people who live here,” he says.

 

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