Connected Communities: NYC ‘video visit’ + discussion

What can we learn from overseas about partnership working and engaging communities for healthier places? For FoL’s first ever international site visit we took a virtual trip across the pond where the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and their partner the Trust for Public Land have been transforming the public realm and the health of NYCHA’s residents through the Connected Communities programme. 

Activating space for healthy communities

The New York City Housing Authority homes 1 in 15 New Yorkers. 70% of their portfolio is open space and their Connected Communities initiative aims to activate this while addressing social isolation and physical and mental health. Speaking at the virtual visit, Andrea Mata, Director of Health Initiatives at NYCHA, explained the consistent gaps in health between NYCHA residents and non-rent assisted New Yorkers.

Connected Communities has been working to reduce these health disparities through inclusive and transparent community engagement and partnership working. For Community Architect at NYCHA, Delma Palma the implementation of these principles “is key to being able to successfully activate a space”.

The role of partnerships

Connected Communities has promoted healthier lifestyles and encouraged community cohesion by allowing access to normally underutilised outdoor spaces like fenced lawns or asphalt areas. To achieve this, NYCHA have worked with The Trust for Public Land through a public-private partnership (PPP) at Carver Houses and hopes to scale to other developments in the future. Our visit gave us close-up look at Carver Houses, East Harlem, where the partners created a Fitness Zone in a historically low-income area, adjacent to the wealthy Upper East Side.  In this case, the private sector brought investment that got the project going. NYCHA brought community connections that helped to build support for the project and ensure it grows sustainably in the long term. Both contributed project management and complementary technical expertise in transforming these urban spaces.

“The public sector is where you really will scale up solutions.”

Carter Strickland, New York State Director, The Trust for Public Land

But partnerships for projects like this can take time. Delma told us that it took 5 years to build the legal agreement for NYCHA’s first project with The Trust for Public Land. Since then, they’ve been working on building “pathways for partnerships” to creating scalable partnership structures for future use.

Holistic health approaches

During the discussion, Stanley Lau, Planning Manager at LB Waltham Forest, asked the panel how they have integrated health into their strategy as a social housing provider. Andrea explained that NYCHA has taken a holistic approach to health and housing, moving away from prescribed urban design solutions and allowing communities to define their own health priorities.

“What health is and what creates health is something that is very much for the community to determine.”

Andrea Mata, Director of Health Initiatives, NYCHA

A holistic approach does not mean traditional approaches to public health programmes like using health indicators are disregarded, rather “layered in” as Andrea put it. These strategies and processes leave time and flexibility for community input. Carter Strickland, New York State Director at The Trust for Public Land, highlighted that health indicators can help identify the neighbourhoods most in need, but by letting communities define what health means to them, NYCHA are able to better respond.

Part of NYCHA’s approach is making public housing residents ‘Community Health Leaders’. Training residents through partnerships with health providers such as the local Mount Sinai Hospital, cultivates local stewardship, provides people with new skills and furthers this sense of ownership within the community.

Engaging communities

Community engagement and trust are critical to the implementation and longevity of any programme or policy that looks to take a holistic approach to healthier neighbourhoods. At the virtual visit, Delma explained that in NYCHA’s neighbourhoods “there is a lot of trust that needs to be built back up” between local authorities and the community – something which is mirrored in the UK. Addressing this has meant purposely slower processes to make sure resident participation and empowerment is properly realised.

Gemma Bourne, Investment Director at Big Society Capital asked the NYCHA team how they maintain high levels of resident participation in their programmes. Getting outreach right has taken “years of learning,” explained Delma, with the organisation reflecting on when and where trust has broken down with communities and how they can learn from this. NYCHA recognises participatory planning processes can be very extractive of residents’ time, so they focus on making sure programmes are worth their while. They recognise the need for face-to-face engagement, being creative in outreach that isn’t purely digital – something often achieved through grassroots partners.

The Connected Communities guidebook – created in partnership with the department of city planning –  was a huge milestone for the Connected Communities programme, providing a collection of urban design guidelines but also guidelines for community outreach for public housing communities  with a dedicated a chapter to community engagement processes. For expert practical insight into how you can translate this into your work, take a look here.


Connected Communities guidebook

Site maintenance

There is a lot of interest among London’s local authorities in using spaces like school playgrounds for the community beyond school hours, but there is concern about site safety and maintenance. At Crown Heights, a closed-off concrete schoolyard has been transformed into a vibrant, sustainable place for students, and the public after hours. Carter told us that due to community buy-in for the project, there has been hardly any vandalism at this stie. A focus on genuine participatory planning has resulted in a space that children and their families care for. Not only were students able to input on desired features, but the community was informed about the reality of budgetary restrictions and environmental factors like storm drains. At other NYCHA sites like their urban farms, local partnerships have been developed to help steward spaces. People will care for places they feel a connection to.

Before and after pictures of Crown Heights schoolyard transformation.
Before and after pictures of Crown Heights schoolyard transformation. Credit: The Trust for Public Land

Key learnings

The event’s discussion resonated hugely with participants, many of whom came from local authorities and were interested in finding out more about opening up public space and partnership models to make this happen. The conversation was lively and there was a real sense that London and NYC have so much to share and learn from each other. Key learnings for local authorities and partners from the private and not-for-profit sectors, include:

  • Make time to ensure transparent and inclusive community engagement – building trust is key to successful projects
  • Innovative partnerships can open up multiple funding streams for example, grassroots partner organisations can bring in funding by applying for grants unavailable to public and private stakeholders
  • New developments are great, but there is a lot of value in existing assets
  • Site maintenance doesn’t have to be expensive. A community will care for places that they value – participatory design will increase community buy-in
  • Work on efficiency. Build scalable and replicable models for partnership frameworks

Sharing and learning with another global city has highlighted the shared challenges and aspirations between London and NYC. The remainder of the Healthy Neighbourhoods programme will seek to provide more examples of how we as a sector can overcome the barriers raised. Find out more here.