In the wake of 9/11 New Yorkers and community members across the region responded in droves, hoping to find some way to help and heal from the attack. This coming together helped to usher in a new standard for community engagement and planning in New York City, the impacts of which can still be felt today.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey held decision-making power for the Ground Zero site and much of the surrounding area. However, many other civic, educational, and business institutions saw the importance and potential of rebuilding the site and creating a memorial—both living and formal—to those lost on 9/11. These organizations worked together to create opportunities for a large cross-section of community members impacted by the attacks to share their visions for the future of the neighborhood. 

The Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York, arguably the most impactful of these groups, brought together 85 organizations and thousands of community members to develop recommendations for the future of Lower Manhattan. They created space for design, planning, and business professionals to collaborate with neighborhood residents and business owners—as well as any other interested community member, of which there were many—to explore strategies for navigating the complex emotions and tensions between rebuilding and memorializing. Through town hall meetings, forums, and public workshops, including to two “Listening to the City” events which together reached over 5,000 people, the Civic Alliance collected feedback that culminated in “A Planning Framework to Rebuild Downtown New York.” 

The report, the community engagement process that accompanied its development, and the actual rebuilding process can be seen as a pivotal point today not just because of the forward-thinking strategies recommended, but because planning on this scale had not happened in New York City for decades. Community engagement on this scale had arguably never happened before. In the opening to the executive summary, the report writers say “Lower Manhattan can become the world’s first 21st century city, incorporating the best practices in urban design, green buildings and technology, transportation, and economic development. […] We have a vision of a new downtown that builds on New York City’s historic past, but takes it into a new era that will be the best of its almost four centuries of existence.” Their vision was grounded in the potential of the future of the site and the importance of making sure the plan reflected community members’ needs, but it extended beyond the World Trade Center Site to encompass the entire neighborhood.

Today, planning at this scale is not exactly commonplace, but it happens much more frequently, albeit without the mass involvement of civic organizations. Some notable examples include Hudson Yards, Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, and the proposed development around Penn Station (for which Public Works is facilitating community engagement efforts). Community engagement has also become a standard component of almost any large-scale construction project, place-making strategy, infrastructure improvement, or community visioning process in the City. 

The planning and rebuilding process following 9/11 invited New Yorkers, developers, and government to think bigger and find new ways to work together. 

Crisis often fosters innovation. Today, challenges brought to the surface by the pandemic, including how streets are used, park and green space access, community support, and housing security, have benefitted from big thinking and collaboration between activists, government, and community-based organizations. Who knows where these trends will take us?

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