World Trade Center – A Vision Coming Back to Life

Big Projects don’t come much bigger than this: The rebuilding of the World Trade Center in New York City. As we all know, what is now being built in Lower Manhattan is much more than brick and mortar. It is the memorial to the lives changed and a representation of moving forward as a community.

The World Trade Center Memorial at night.
(Credit: East County Magazine)

Gianni Longo, the founding principal of ACP Visioning + Planning, played a huge role in this process as his firm coordinated the effort to make certain that New York City area citizens had their voices heard when it came to the redevelopment of the site. Public involvement is vital for all Big Projects, but, in this case, it was paramount. Voices needed to be heard.

For Mr. Longo, New York City is home. He lives a half of a mile from the Twin Towers. On September 11, 2001, he remembers hearing the first of the airliners. It made him pause. He had never heard one fly so low before. He went to his fire escape and saw the second airliner hit.

“I live in this city,” he said. “It wasn’t just a job. It was personal.”

His firm puts people into the very heart of the planning process to make certain their ideas and concepts are incorporated into future developments. His firm has had wide success in helping create award-winning transportation, redevelopment and visionary plans. Mr. Longo led an effort in Chattanooga, Tennessee, called Vision 2000, using this intensive citizen participation method. And it’s credited with bringing in over a billion dollars of investments.

But the World Trade Center project was a whole other challenge. “The ruins were still smoldering when we started,” Mr. Longo said. “The reality of what happened was literally in the air.”  Mr. Longo worked with The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) and created what was called, “Imagine New York – Giving Voice to the People’s Vision.” They went to work soon after the terrorist attack to get input on what future project should be built on the site and how the victims should be memorialized. This story describes the challenges. It reads in part:

“In community-based planning, the affected community is usually defined as those living or working in a given area. But where is the ‘community’ affected by the World Trade Center (WTC) tragedy? The events reverberated through all aspects of the region’s life. Nearly 3,000 people perished, but they were from many states and from over eighty different countries.”

World Trade Center Damage
(Credit: Flickr user PicHunting)

Longo’s firm has done many visionary projects, helping citizens create pathways for brighter futures, but none that contained so much raw emotion as this. Comparisons are futile. “It was very different situation,” he said. “The community was stressed to whole different scale.” The number and diversity of the participants also was daunting. More than 200 civic organizations were involved in the vision, Mr. Longo noted. Family members of the victims participated. So did residents and businesses of Lower Manhattan.

A facilitated group discussion during the Imagine New York visioning process.
(Credit: ACP Visioning + Planning)

The public outreach was to serve two purposes in this case, he noted. One, it was to help people get involved in the planning process. The second one was even more vital and that was to give people the opportunity to heal, he said. Mr. Longo was not concerned that people would be too numb from the attack and be leery of participating. He felt just the opposite would happen. “I knew that the emotional comfort created (by the visionary plan) was going create a response.”

And it did. Oh goodness, it did.

In seven weeks, from March to April 2002, more than 4,000 people participated in Imagine New York. In all, 250 workshops and 25 charrettes were held. The participants came up with 19,000 ideas, which were condensed to 49 vision statements.

Credit: Imagine New York

A website was created as well, attracting visitors from all over the world. The events were publicly scheduled and many were intensely advertised. Naturally, the meetings brought out many emotions. Some people broke down and cried at them, Mr. Longo said. “We were very flexible in the process,” he said, noting that if people got too choked up and couldn’t voice their thoughts, they could write down their ideas. Mr. Longo also noted that meetings could be held on demand if people wanted them. They were held in every venue imaginable, from libraries to community centers. He had 300 trained facilitators at the ready to host them.

The process of creating a vision plan consists of three parts, he said. The first is to listen to the community. The second is to take all of those many ideas and sort them into key themes. The third step is to work again with the community to develop and define recommendations in an all-encompassing summit meeting.

Construction is well underway and much of it is nearing completion. Remarkably, many of the ideas the community came up with during the Imagine New York public involvement process have found their way into the reconstruction of the site. Indeed, the plan has received many accolades, including “The American Vision Award” by the 2003 American Planning Association (APA) National Planning Awards Jury. “The 2003 APA awards jury was impressed by the unique way the Imagine New York project brought together people who would not normally think of themselves as planners in a collective effort to rebuild their community,” APA Executive Director Paul Farmer said at the time.

The project also was named as one of the “Top 25 Planning Stories Worldwide in the past 25 years” by the APA.

Ongoing construction at the World Trade Center site.
(Credit: CBS News)

Mr. Longo, naturally, is proud of the effort. And proud of his fellow New Yorkers. “This process discredits the notion that New Yorkers don’t care, don’t get involved,” he said. “They do.”

We thank him for his careful and thoughtful way to bring about a most meaningful big project for New York and our country.

Mike Stez, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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