The following commentary by Paul Bray, published Sunday, February 10, 2002 in the Times Union, discusses the Neighbors building Neighborhoods program in Rocheser.

The vision to move beyond NIMBYism
Times Union First published: Sunday, February 10, 2002

My experience with neighborhood organizations has found them mostly on the defensive. Neighbors often rally when faced with changes they perceive will harm their well being, such as the loss of parkland, a new or expanded highway or out-of-scale development. Their success is reflected in the growth of the anti-development phenomenon NIMBY -- "not in my back yard.''

While NIMBYism can be perceived as blocking "progress,'' organized neighborhood action many times has stopped environmentally bad development, such as the coal-fired generating plant proposed for Halfmoon in the 1980s, or led to beneficial redesign that makes for better change.

But can neighborhood organizations work as a proactive force in making for better communities? Do residents have the interest, time and resources to make ongoing commitments to their neighborhoods and communities? Don't we have professional planners and outside consultants to do this work, and mayors and town supervisors to make decisions?

Jennifer Plunkett and Doug Rice of Rochester recently offered participants in Albany's annual neighborhood conference a good example of what empowered individuals and neighborhood organizations can contribute to their city. I was on the planning committee for the December conference.

Plunkett, who has lived her whole life in the same zip code area, is a young mother and business owner on a Rochester street a bit like Albany's Central Avenue. She became a neighborhood activist after she heard Rochester Mayor William Johnson say that he could not improve the city's quality of life without the active participation of its residents.

Johnson advanced a robust planning process for resident empowerment called "Neighbors Building Neighborhoods.'' Campaign One in Rochester's vision for the 21st century is "Involve Citizens.''
Plunkett said that NBN worked for her because it was built on a "supportive city government,'' "open communication'' and "mutual respect'' between governmental officials and citizens. NBN offers manuals to instruct citizens on the ongoing process of organizing their neighborhoods, identifying available resources and tools, and developing neighborhood visions, goals and action plans.

Rice, a sound technician, tested NBN when he and others objected to what was initially viewed as a routine road resurfacing and widening project to "move traffic'' on Rochester's University Avenue. They thought the road should reflect the character of the neighborhood, including the priority on pedestrian use.

They used the tools and relationships developed through NBN to get the design scaled down and made more pedestrian friendly. But they also advanced the idea and got federal, state and local funding for "Artwalk,'' an elaborate $300,000 interactive project of public art along University Avenue's sidewalks. Here neighbors acted defensively to have the road project redesigned, but at the same time proactively brought about a significant improvement to the public realm.

Mayor Johnson and his administration are justifiably proud of NBN and have sought to foster its application in other cities. They succeeded, for example, when Syracuse adopted the process for its "Tomorrow's Neighborhoods Today.'' You can learn about it at http://www.rochesternbn.com.

Empowered citizens like Jennifer Plunkett and Doug Rice are Mayor Johnson's best allies for making a better city. They are a barometer of neighborhood conditions and a catalyst for constructive improvements like Artwalk.

Paul M. Bray is founding president of the Albany Roundtable civic lunch forum. His e-mail address is secsunday@aol.com.