At the age of 17, high school senior Scott Stringer was the youngest person ever to serve on a community board in New York. Now 51 and Manhattan borough president, Stringer highlighted today’s community boards, the most local of governing bodies in the city, as the types of grassroots political discussion forums he wants to see more of.
Stringer gave the keynote address and a panel of intellectuals discussed the future of the city at an event organized by the School of International and Public Affairs on Monday.
Stringer outlined three “arms of improvement” for New York: fostering community-driven politics, increasing the role of the “creative class” of professionals like artists and social workers, and expanding infrastructure.
According to Stringer, it is necessary to have “institutions that foster a sense of community, a sense of place,” especially in local units such as the community boards. Stringer revived the community board system when he took office in 2006, with the numbers of African-American and Asian-American members increasing by 40 percent. Half of all new members, he said, are under the age of 40. (The average age of a community board member when he served in the late 1970s, he joked, was “around 80.”)
Without community boards, he argued, Columbia’s, Fordham’s and New York University’s campus expansions would have been impossible. “They give neighborhoods a say in their own futures,” he said.
He pointed to a recent proposal by Community Board 7 that would institute new zoning regulations on the Upper West Side—limiting the storefront width of banks and preserving mom-and-pop shops—as an example of both public participation in the design process and a way that community boards can preserve the character of the city.
Stringer also expressed support for greater government transparency, advocating for the open distribution of data from the government.
A potential mayoral candidate in 2013, Stringer took more than a few jabs at Mayor Michael Bloomberg, noting to the amusement of the crowd that the mayor cannot be up for re-election in 2025—a reference to Bloomberg’s workaround of the two-term limit policy in 2008 to serve a third term.
The event featured a panel of experts, including sociology professor Saskia Sassen, an expert on global urbanism, who voiced different perspectives on the central concerns related to city development.
Alexander Garvin, an architect and an urban planning professor at Yale University, emphasized the importance of city planners in shaping the city’s development.
“They must engage in a process that leads to actual changes,” Garvin said, adding that city planning “brings together the forces of government, business, finance, politics, and public opinion.”
Kavitha Rajagopalan, SIPA ’03 and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, highlighted the challenges surrounding the immigrant experience. Rajagopalan echoed Stringer’s criticism of “retrograde” immigration policies, such as the cap on H-1B visas granted to students. The limit on visas, they said, prevents foreign students who studied in the U.S. from staying in the country and working.
According to Rajagopalan, although industry and policy experts have argued for the economic benefits of relaxing immigration policies, “the conversation about immigration continues to be an emotional one.”
Panelist Greg Lindsay, a journalist, said that studying global issues at a city level is important because the city is “quite literally where they are situated.”
He said he was “very pleasantly surprised” by Stringer’s keynote address, although he was skeptical of Stringer’s emphasis on providing open data to the public and enabling cities to be privatized.
According to Andrea Moore, SIPA ’12 and managing editor of SIPA’s student-run Journal of International Affairs, the panel reflected SIPA’s increased focus on examining city affairs. The journal’s 65th issue covered similar topics, and SIPA recently introduced a concentration in urban and social policy.
“It’s becoming increasingly in demand by SIPA students,” Moore said.
“We couldn’t do an issue, ‘State of the World 2012,’” Ethan Wilkes, SIPA ’12 and marketing director of the journal, said. “But we felt the city was a good vehicle to filter a lot of the issues we discuss in SIPA.”
Audience member Puleng Botlhole, SIPA ’12, said she came to learn more about New York City’s plans and was “amazed at what it takes to actually plan a city.”
“The kind of questions that the audience asked truly reflects the passion that they have for the city,” Botlhole said.