On April 1, 2014, new Community Board members across the city will begin their new terms. As the five Borough Presidents get ready to make their appointments, we dug through our archives looking for clues on how this form of decentralized government came to be.
A pamphlet by the Citizens Union Research Foundation from 1962 titledHome Town in the Big Cityanalyzed the shortcomings of Manhattan’s Community Planning Councils, the predecessors to the Community Boards that the 1963 City Charter envisioned. Although the pamphlet was supportive of the effort to decentralize local government, it warned that Community Planning Councils’ advisory role often led them to be uninfluential and that city agencies were unaccountable to Councils or to the Borough President who appointed them. It also cautioned that “specific organizations, rather than the community at large were being represented on the boards” and that “incompetence and lack of interest on the part of the appointees was often encountered”. In the view of the Citizens Union, these obstacles could be overcome if the functions of the new Community Boards were increased from physical planning to coordinating all activities in their districts -including health, welfare and social services- into integrated programs. For this to succeed the Boards would need to be more representative of their districts, which would best be achieved by mayoral appointment of the board members. Finally, all city agencies should coordinate at the district level and share an administrative headquarters within each district so that a “seat of government” would be known to all the people in the community.
The Citizens Union sought the input of other good government organizations for its pamphlet, including the opinion of the Citizens Housing & Planning Council. In response to an early draft of the pamphlet, CHPC’s Roger Starr alerted that “some of our major decisions must be made on a city-wide or even a region-wide basis”. Starr added, “Increased local control in housing, for example, may well mean institutionalizing our patterns of racial segregation () and economic differentiation. It will continue to mean that New York as a whole will be prevented from using its land use resources most effectively”.
The 1963 Charter gave the Planning Commission five years to draw the boundaries of the new Community Districts. This map of tentative district lines, which the Planning Commission was already using for its urban renewal planning program, was included in the Citizens Union pamphlet as an example of what the new Community Districts might look like.
The debate over the appropriate level of government decentralization and of community input in the decision-making process has certainly not been resolved. The idea that city agencies should coordinate their activities on a more local level, however, is widely accepted (if not always put into practice). CHPC’s recent publicationSteering the New Coursebrought attention to poor coordination between city agencies in neighborhoods, among other issues that the administration should address.
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