Matt DelSesto: Transforming cities requires understanding their histories—not just with a fixation on the past, but with an eye towards the future. This is especially true with the history of urban renewal in US cities because many of these “historic” plans are still active and have a significant influence on the structures and people of urban neighborhoods today. In a recent project with land-access advocacy organization 596 Acres, I participated in the creation of a map of urban renewal plans in New York City that highlights present impact of urban renewal plans and supports future action.
In NYC, urban renewal plans were mostly written and revised by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the organization that has has the 150+ plans on paper files. We set out to collect data from every plan including plan area, date adopted, the planned disposition. Our request for access to the agency records was granted in 2012 and we opted for the right to inspect these records instead of having the agency make copies for us at 25 cents per page (see more on the Urban Reviewer “About” page). 596 Acres volunteers went to the HPD offices several times a month (for about one year and a total of more than 100 hours) to collect that data from the plans that were made available. We knew that we wanted to make this data more accessible to the public, but the final outcome was flexible, open-ended, and uncertain until near the end of the data collection when 596 Acres partnered with SmartSign and Partner & Partners to create urbanreviewer.org.
One of the significant connections between past and present revealed on the map is that a startling number of vacant lots owned by the city today were also lots slated for demotion and clearance as part of urban renewal plans. In other words, HPD categorized a neighborhood as “blighted,” promised redevelopment, began demolition, and in many cases never actually got around the the “renewal.”
Today, New Yorkers can use Urban Reviewer to find the urban renewal plans in their neighborhood, and in some ways, continue the work that city officials began. Where lots are vacant and city owned the Urban Reviewer tool links to the 596 Acres online organizing platform, encouraging users of the site to take action about the future of their neighborhood.
In the process, I realized that the Urban Reviewer would continue to be a changing tool as New Yorkers interact with the website, especially because each urban renewal plan has a distinct format and history that changed people’s lives in very different ways. As the site was launching in June, I saw that in some ways the website was potentially just beginning. We have already revisited some of the plans for clarification, heard from individuals who want to help build out content for plan pages, and now 596 Acres has launched an Urban Reviewer exhibit within the "Spontaneous Interventions" residency at Governors Island for August 2014.
Urban Reviewer shows that history matters because through history we learn how cities have been shaped and who wields the power to shape them. An urban history aimed at designing urban transformation can seek to understand how the city has been shaped in a way that supports future transformative urban actions. MD.