Community-Centered Development: Your Neighborhood, Your Voice


Pilot Projects at work…


Development: Two sides of a coin

The word “development” in New York can mean a beautiful new park, or an ugly new apartment building occupying your neighborhood.

“Development can have a negative connotation, but in its most basic sense, it means making something new,” says Scott Francisco, founder and director of Pilot Projects, a design company that works to solve complex urban space challenges. “It all depends on what we make, how we make it, and who we make it for.”

“In the city, development always has to work within a vast set of systems that includes social and cultural layers, transportation, utilities, regulations, economic factors, and environmental concerns. And this includes the people who will plan and execute a design and the people who will be living with it. So it’s important that all of these people—we call them stakeholders—are represented when it comes time to design something. That inclusive approach is the bedrock of participatory design and planning.”

“When all stakeholders have a say in what gets developed in their neighborhood, they’re more likely to take care of it, to enjoy it, to be proud of it, to talk about it, to understand it—all the feelings and actions that come with a sense of ownership,” Scott says. “Studies show these engaged communities are safer and happier than those where residents don’t have a say.”

“What we love about cities is that we feel like they belong to us, but we also have the sense that it’s not just ‘mine’—it’s ours. Our city belongs to millions of other people.”

Participatory Design: “Pilot Projects was founded on participatory design,” Scott says, “and one of our big investments has been creating ways for more stakeholders to get involved in planning, even if they’re not trained architects or urban planners.”

“One tool we’ve developed for this is called the Sandbox—we create a small 3D model of a space with movable components that a group of stakeholders can all gather around and use as a physical show-and-tell object to help them express their needs, hopes, and concerns for the development. This simple and engaging—and fun!—format puts everyone on the same level: you don’t need a degree in design to show someone where you’d like to see a new bus stop or bench on your block. The depth of person-to-person involvement this encourages has made a huge positive difference in the outcomes of our projects, and in the quality of relationships we build with people along the way.”

“One of our most successful projects in terms of public participation has to be Orchard Streetscape Community Planning. This is an infrastructure upgrade project to improve the sidewalk experience for everyone: pedestrians, merchants, cyclists, building owners, and residents. It involves more trees and plants, bicycle parking, better loading areas for retailers, and more. To help us flesh out our original ideas, we worked with the Lower East Side Business Improvement District (BID) to take on-street surveys of people walking by, send an email questionnaire to the BID’s mailing list, hand out hard copies of informational flyers, and talk extensively with local merchants and residents. The most important event, though, was a live Sandbox evening we held for stakeholders at the Tenement Museum. We presented a 16-foot-long model of the whole street, with every bench, lamp post, and bike rack represented with tiny plastic models, like you see in a kid’s train set. More than 50 people rolled up their sleeves and got to work. The discussions were intense!”

“After all that, the BID mounted the completed model and all the results on a wall in their office on Orchard Street for everyone to see. Now, the public can review the plans and provide more input as the project continues to be refined.” New trees have already been planted, and construction will begin in the spring.

Cases in Harlem: “Right now in Harlem and surrounding neighborhoods, there’s a ton of development happening,” Scott says. “Examples of two types of projects that have gotten a lot of input from the community are the Montefiore Park Expansion and 175th Street Plaza.”

“The Montefiore project has been in the works since 2008, and is slated for completion in 2018. In this 10-year span, the Harlem Community Development Corporation—with cooperation from several city agencies—received very positive feedback from Community Board 9, nearby small business owners, local elected officials, and even neighborhood schools.” You can read about the extent of this community involvement here.

“The 175th Street Plaza improvement project was spearheaded by the Washington Heights and Inwood Development Corporation and Community Board 12. It’s one of many of the Department of Transportation’s Plaza Program sites. For these projects, the city holds ‘public visioning workshops’—among other events, like presentations at community board meetings—to invite neighbors to comment.”

Okay, I want to get involved in my neighborhood! How do I start?

“Every project is different, so there’s no one path to getting informed and speaking up,” Scott says. “But there are a few basic steps to participating in almost any development design process in NYC.”

“One, you have to be aware of what’s going on. In a big city like New York, where everyone is busy, it can be difficult to keep up with what’s being planned in our neighborhoods. And sometimes, a developer won’t want to make their plans very visible. But it’s up to all of us to make sure we stay informed about what’s happening around us.”

How can we do that?

“Neighborhood news outlets like newspapers and websites, nonprofit organizations with a vested interest in your community, your local BID, and your community board can all be great sources of info. Read these organizations’ websites, attend their meetings, sign up for their mailing lists. You don’t even have to know what you’re looking for or how you want to get involved. The first step is just to get in touch.”

See more about this in the sidebar. 

“Two, be smart about how you express your opinions,” Scott suggests. “One angry, off-the-cuff comment at a community board meeting won’t be considered as seriously as a thoughtfully-written email to the appropriate elected official.”

“Three, Involvement can be enjoyable and rewarding. Remember that this is your city, and the more invested you are, the more you’ll enjoy it. It might be easier to watch Netflix on Tuesday night than go to a community board meeting, but once you get started, it is fun to be involved. There are lots of structures and resources in place to encourage you to express your point of view. Your tax dollars pay for services like 311, and they’re here for you to make use of.”

“So go ahead—get involved!”

For more information about Pilot Projects’ work and more examples of projects that use participatory design, visit If you’d like to discuss a project of any sort with Scott—public space, retail design, workspaces, etc.—feel free to reach out to him at [email protected]


Contact freelance writer April Greene at

•    Community boards. Every neighborhood in New York City is represented by a community board. They do not write or pass laws, but act as the eyes and ears of different communities for the city’s elected officials. Almost every building and infrastructure development that happens in NYC goes through a review process with the local community board. Find your community board here, and check out its meeting schedule and posted agendas.

•    Community development corporations (CDCs). These nonprofits provide programs (such as classes for new businesses owners) and offer services (such as affordable housing counseling) to the residents of specific neighborhoods. The Harlem CDC, Washington Heights and Inwood Development Corporation, and the West Harlem Development Corporation are three great places to get in touch with your neighborhood.

•    Make requests. In addition to what’s already proposed or underway, you may have an idea for a new project or improvement that has yet to be talked about. If the idea is relatively small in scale (for example, if you’d like a bike rack installed or a tree planted in your neighborhood), the request process is fairly simple. Start by calling 311 and following the prompts.


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