Bronx seniors take a crash course in urban planning

Nestor Rivas grew up near the sprawling St. Mary’s Park in the South Bronx, where families have barbecues and kids play baseball.

But it wasn’t until Rivas began researching the park as part of a new urban planning program at his school that he realized anything: unlike Central Park or Union Square, St. Mary’s does not have food vendors.

“You go to different parts of downtown Manhattan, and they have these parks with food and farmers markets,” said Rivas, 18, a senior at the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in the South Bronx.

This disparity didn’t really upset him, he said, “but more so, I questioned it.” So Rivas and eight other peers came up with a proposal to create food kiosks in the park that they could rent out to local restaurants.

It’s a one-of-a-kind program in New York public schools that got Rivas thinking more deeply about his local park, where there are were also concerned about drug use and sanitation – two issues that other students have pointed out. Launched by the New York City Department of Planning and shaped by four government teachers, the 12-week pilot course taught Rivas and about 60 of his peers how to advocate for their neighborhoods and what a career in law looks like. town planning.

The course ended with a fair last week in the school cafeteria, where they pitched ideas to city officials and legislators. Their ideas were based on “real things – the things of life,” said Adolfo Carrión Jr., commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, who inspected various projects and spoke to students during the week. last.

“The kids figured out that if you’re in the park with your kids or your family or your friends, you have to walk 7-10 minutes to get a snack or something to drink, so they said, ‘Why don’t we build not the kiosks, rent them, and people can start businesses, and it can give a family the convenience and security of keeping the kids there,” said Carrión, former Bronx borough president and councilor municipal, about the food vendor project. “It’s really super convenient and really cheap to implement.”

The course began to take shape last year, when a team of city planners who focus on raising awareness in local communities emailed schools to create lessons on the town planning. The four government teachers at the School of Finance and Technology Laboratory seemed to have the most interest in taking on such a project, planning officials said.

In February, the urban planning program became part of three government courses at the school. First, the students shared what they thought the South Bronx had to offer and what more it needed. Next, the planners explained to the students what urban planning is and how advocacy works. The teachers surveyed the students to see what projects they wanted to pursue, and they came across three things: St. Mary’s Park, affordable housing, and a new prison site which arrives in the neighborhood as part of a plan by the de Blasio administration to replace Rikers Island with a smaller network of borough-based prisons. Each class focused on each of these topics.

With the help of planning officers who visited the site weekly, the students did what a planner or developer could do. They proposed project ideas, researched and gathered data to make their case, and identified the people who would be affected by their proposals. At one point, they took on various roles to simulate the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure to understand the formal process behind making a proposal.

The students took on a variety of roles, such as developers and planning commissioners, and some finished class wanting to improve their public speaking skills, planning officials said.

High school students are usually checked at this time of year, said Juan De Jesus, one of the teachers who led the class. But these students stayed interested because they came up with their own ideas and therefore felt “they can actually make a real impact”.

At one point, De Jesus students asked him if city officials would take their ideas seriously.

“If you don’t care and just think it’s just another assignment for a grade, then why would I want to invest in your ideas if you don’t invest in them yourselves?” De Jesus remembers telling them. “And I think it was kind of a reality check for them, and they were like, ‘OK, I really have to care about this, or no one else will.

When asked if he would take any of the ideas he saw at the fair seriously, Carrión replied, “Absolutely.”

A group of students from the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in the South Bronx rehearse their pitch to clean up St. Mary’s Park, the day before a fair where elected officials and city officials were asked to consider their proposals.

The day before the fair, the students sat in their groups with their presentation boards filled with images, data, maps and diagrams. Then they rehearsed their presentations.

Brianna Rodriguez, 17, opened her practice pitch with “OK, so that’s my proposal,” which was about improving sanitation in the park. When she finished, two class planners encouraged her to start with her story of seeing dog poo and syringes on the floor.

So when Rodriguez presented her pitch to Carrión at the fair the next day, she began by saying, “I went to the park this weekend and the sanitation wasn’t so good.” The commissioner responded by telling Rodriguez that she had done “a good job.”


Brianna Rodriguez, 17, pitches an idea to New York City Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Adolfo Carrión Jr. about improving sanitation in St. Mary’s Park.

It is unclear if the class will return to school or if it will be expanded. Planners will analyze the program and get feedback from the school on what worked and what didn’t before making a decision.

Rodriguez, who is starting college this fall, said the class didn’t convince her to become an urban planner. But she felt like she had “actually contributed something” to the community by coming up with her idea. She dreams of opening a community center where Bronx residents can get therapy, and she thinks the course gave her insight into the work she’ll need to do to get there.

Rodriguez said the class required a lot of research and work, which was difficult to juggle. At the same time, she said she now understands the amount of work involved in planning projects across the city.

“We’re going to college soon, so I feel like it’s about time we started getting into the real world, and I really like that we have, like, a little piece of what it’s like. is inside the Department of Town Planning and how we can be potential contributors in the future,” she said.

Reema Amine is a journalist covering New York City schools with a focus on state politics and English language learners. Contact Reema at