Multifaceted Art of Community Planning

Ron Shiffman and Anusha Venkataraman consider the intersections of organizing, creative practice, and community-based development.

By Anusha Venkataraman

"We began to ask: How do we create more comprehensive and integrative ways of looking at communities and the total environment in which people are living?"

"Teaching and mentoring has truly been a two-way street. Just as I’ve learned immensely from the communities I’ve worked with, every student here at Pratt has been a mentor to me."

Anusha Venkataraman is a Brooklyn-based planner, writer, artist, and activist. She is the Green Light District arts and education manager at El Puente, a community human rights institution that promotes leadership for peace and justice through the engagement of members in the arts, education, wellness, and environmental action.

Ron Shiffman is a city planner with close to 50 years of experience providing assistance to community-based groups in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. In 1964, he helped to found the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development. He is a faculty member at Pratt Institute.

I first encountered Ron as a teacher, and he became a mentor for me both in school and, now, as a young planner working at a community-based organization. Ron has quietly—and sometimes loudly and forcefully—shaped many neighborhoods and organizations throughout the city, but it is his impact on how planners concerned with issues of equity and social justice go about their work that is most lasting. This conversation is only one of many discussions we have had and many interviews I have conducted with Ron, which hopefully makes it a deeper discussion of practice than we would have been capable of if we had just met.

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ANUSHA VENKATARAMAN: How do you describe your work to someone who is not from your world of work?

RON SHIFFMAN: It has been almost impossible. It’s funny, my parents never understood what I did. I was trained as an architect, and they understood architecture,…but they could never understand planning. Was I a politician? Was I a sociologist? Was I a social worker? A community organizer? None of those things was a specific enough profession that they could identify with. It wasn’t like being a doctor, a shopkeeper, or an engineer. But people don’t separate their lives into narrow professions. We all experience our lives through a variety of sensory awarenesses of the whole array of human needs,… everything from our need to participate, our need for love, our need for affection, the need for shelter, the need for food. All of those are our basic needs, and we all seek ways to satisfy those needs.

As I started into planning and working with communities, I began to very quickly realize that the kinds of interventions that were needed on a local level had to go way beyond designing just the physical layout of cities. They had to deal with education; they had to deal with culture, the arts, issues of health and mental health, and a variety of other factors. I began looking at things from a very holistic perspective very early on; it’s always been hard to try to learn how to weave it all together, and how to explain that to others. The tendency is to disaggregate it all into its different components,… and the challenge is to weave those strands back together again. In education, that is hardest thing I’ve found. How do you get people to look at the whole picture? It’s easy to address just housing or just the physical environment. It’s always been a pedagogical struggle. Even in our own planning curriculum at Pratt we do either a preservation studio, or a land use studio, or an urban design studio. But I don’t see it that way. I think it’s important that we look at communities in their entirety and complexity, try to understand them, try to help people improve their quality of life by touching on all those aspects.


Early on, our interventions [at the Pratt Center] followed the impulses of the people we worked with. It was both their impulses and our ability to react and garner resources. When there were resources for people in the Pratt Institute School of Art and Design to work with kids in the neighborhood, we did that, and when there were folks who could crunch numbers, we put them to work. We always associated with other institutions and other community-based groups. I think, to a great degree, it was that need to cooperate with and draw on the resources of others that helped us develop an approach where planning and community development and the work we did at the Pratt Center was never in competition with others, but always working in partnership with them. I found, later on, as resources became more difficult to acquire, that there was less and less of a commitment to community-based development, and it was a little hard to communicate those values to the next generation of planners.

VENKATARAMAN: Why do you think the following generations of planners were unable to build on your work to the degree you would have liked?

SHIFFMAN: First, everybody wanted to become an expert, and in becoming expert, they lost the sense of integration and multidisciplinarity; they developed their expertise in one aspect, rather than becoming an expert in being a generalist. I’ve been having this conversation lately with a few of my colleagues that are in a similar place, generationally, as I am. The impulse of some of the generations following us [in the planning profession] has been to focus and compete, rather than to look at things from a general and broad scope and cooperate with others. It has led to a different means of operating.

The other part was the pull by donors and foundations to produce results, and the results that could be easily produced were those you could measure. There are fewer resources, and those that provide the resources are looking for quantifiable instead of qualitative results. A lot of what you do in planning, in community building, and even in the arts,… the results are much more diffuse. You see the results of your effort in the long term, not in the short term. We’ve become too focused on short-term results, I think, that we forget too much about the long-term.

You can measure achievement by the number of units developed, for example, but there are softer things that elude measurement, particularly in the short term. Finally and inevitably, the fight for resources pushed you to look at others as competitors rather than as partners.

VENKATARAMAN: This issue of competitiveness is related to the trend towards professionalization you were speaking of earlier.

SHIFFMAN: Of course, when we got started [at the Pratt Center], we didn’t know what we were doing. We fell into a lot of things. There was more of a willingness by donors and foundations to take chances on us, and there were far more resources to experiment with. As I said at the beginning, communities’ needs are very diverse. You can start by asking who are the change agents in a community? You find that the change agents, in my experience, were women; they came into the field of community development because they were concerned about their children and particularly about education. They were trying to build better schools, and then they found that improving the quality of the neighborhood was an integral part of improving health and education. They worked to improve the safety of the neighborhood for their children traveling to school. There were issues of culture, and health—kids don’t learn if they’re not healthy. All of these issues began to overlap. We began to ask: How do we create more comprehensive and integrative ways of looking at communities and the total environment in which people are living?

We embarked upon addressing these neighborhood, personal, family, [and] community issues comprehensively and simultaneously. Everything led to something else, the discovery of something else, each project to another one, and each time we would take on something new, the threads began to connect even further. It becomes hard to even discuss it now or to even communicate it as a discipline because it is so diffuse, and each time you touch on something, you’re brought out to a different world. It’s hard to discuss, and the idea of bridging worlds—which is initiating this discussion—really fascinates me.

Part of the approach deals not only with the different strands of interventions, but with different ways of intervening, from organizing to political campaigns to being supportive parts of different social movements. I could never describe myself as a Civil Rights activist, but that was part of what we were doing and whom we were working with. We worked with people who were deeply involved in antiwar efforts, but we didn’t focus on that. We were never the leaders in any movement, but we always tried to connect the various movements to each other and to what was happening on the ground in different neighborhoods.

VENKATARAMAN: Can you think of an analogy to use to describe this role of the community-based planner working in this way?

SHIFFMAN: The analogy to a conductor is almost correct, but not exactly. The conductor leads the orchestra, and you don’t want to lead, but somehow you want to be able to mix together all of the different leaders working out there. So it’s hard to find an analogy.… The person who came closest to articulating this tenuous position is a Chilean philosopher whom I came across when I traveled there, Manfred Max-Neef. He talks about things as being transdisciplinary … that an expert can describe a problem, a multidisciplinary team can explain it, but you can’t solve it unless  you move to a transdisciplinary state. I think that’s what we’re all seeking to do.

VENKATARAMAN: You have had a long history of working to build young community organizations from the ground up in neighborhoods around New York. What does it mean to work deeply and meaningfully in a community that you are not from? What does it mean to build a bridge that is sustainable, lasting, and goes in both directions?

SHIFFMAN: We can talk about being the outsider. Sometimes being an outsider really helped. In one struggling community in Brooklyn, for example, one of the early challenges was gaining the trust of the community. One of the early directors of a nonprofit housing development organization in that neighborhood once confided in me that he did not have the full confidence of the community because they did not believe he had the skills to get them out of the dire housing situation they were in. Building indigenous leadership is extremely significant, and building the capacity of people from the neighborhoods [in which] we work is important, but also is cultivating ‘followership’: How do planners help people to engage with each other and really trust each other? These were—and are—complicated dynamics that had to be dealt with on a local, interpersonal level.

People trust you because you’ve stayed. I continue to work with the model that an architect or a planner has to have a client in the community they work in. The word ‘client’ has become somewhat corrupted; as an architect or a planner, you understand the client as ‘the boss’. In the social work field and in the government, the client has become subservient—the client is the one you are managing, in a way. When I use the term ‘client’, it means that the community sets the direction for your work together.

VENKATARAMAN: What does that mean for collaboration?

SHIFFMAN: I don’t see organizations like the Pratt Center being in a leadership role; I really believe we can collaborate, but that the communities need to be the ones setting the strategy. We are helping them to achieve a goal themselves. They are the clients. When you move too much into the partnership model, you then pick people who only agree with you, or who are helping you to achieve your goals. It’s a fine line. It’s a discussion I’ve had many times over the years: How do we avoid driving our own agendas, rather than pushing the agendas of the people we are working with and for?


We envisioned these varying roles as a triangle. One point was direct technical assistance to community groups—the clients. Another point was the convening of clients as a coalition. And the third thing was that, because we knew the strengths and weaknesses of all the organizations we worked with, we could bring in training programs to strengthen those organizations from within. But we never functioned as an intermediary, as a gatekeeper. Each of those three roles served to strengthen the others: We were better technical assistance providers because we knew public policy, we were better policy advocates because we worked with people in the groups, and we were better trainers because of the trust we had developed with each group and individual.

VENKATARAMAN: You have been an inspiring mentor to so many people at Pratt and beyond over the years. I’m interested in what it means to build bridges between generations, and what it means for the next generation of activists to learn from the lessons or challenges or failures of the previous one.

SHIFFMAN: Teaching and mentoring has truly been a two-way street. Just as I’ve learned immensely from the communities I’ve worked with, every student here at Pratt has been a mentor to me. I say that very honestly and very humbly. I’ve learned more about food security issues, for example, from a few recent students in a way that I wouldn’t have if I were just teaching. Students come into planning from many different backgrounds and disciplines—planning itself is a bridge. Not only do they con you into thinking you’re a lot younger than you are, they also introduce you to things you were never aware of before. As long as you are open to that, and don’t close the door to that, it becomes an enormous learning experience. For instance, you’ve reconnected me to the arts and gotten me to look back critically at things that happened years ago. As long as you understand that education is not a one-way street—between teacher and student, as well as [between] the technician and the community—then it works. You must seek to bridge generations because the generations growing up today come in with new attitudes and experiences that challenge you and force you to think about things you wouldn’t otherwise think about. I could be as tired as hell in the morning, but once I come in here I become reinvigorated and can’t fall asleep at night.

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At the time this interview was recorded, I did not know that I was about to be offered (to my surprise and excitement) a position working with El Puente, a respected grassroots organization in Brooklyn that Ron has worked alongside over the years. El Puente works in the predominantly Latino (though changing) neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Bushwick in Brooklyn, promoting leadership for peace and justice through the engagement of community members in the arts, education, scientific research, wellness, and environmental action. It is a big-thinking, far-reaching, and deep-reflecting institution whose history and roots remain central to the work that is done.

Adjusting to a new position at an organization that is very rooted in a community that I have a history with, though I am an outsider to nonetheless, has given me much to think about in light of Ron’s personal and historical insights. I can identify with Ron’s struggle to describe—and have others understand—what he does, and what his brand of planning is.

The ‘doing’ of the work is almost innately understood once experienced, but the ‘talking’ about the work remains a challenge, both for me and my field in general. This is perhaps one of the reasons why I am interested in dialogues—such as these Bridge Conversations—which, through conscious articulation of values and intentions, seek to tackle these discursive, practical, and pedagogical struggles.

As the arts and education manager for a new neighborhood-wide sustainability initiative that seeks to rethink and reorient ‘greening’ strategies to resonate with and spring from the indigenous and mostly low-income residents of the neighborhood, I certainly walk a fine (inter)disciplinary line. Though I am trained as a planner, am I a planner? It’s nowhere in my job title nor in the style of work I do, yet I certainly use the skills I’ve gained on a daily basis, and many of the problems faced by the community I work with are, in great part, planning issues.


Further, while I am also an artist and a writer, in what ways does my own creative practice intersect with my work to support and facilitate others’ creative development? Affirming creative and cultural practice is an integral part of self-determination; our own creative development (which involves an affirmation of one’s own agency) is intertwined with that of others. In this way, El Puente’s work is grounded in the belief that community development and personal transformation are inseparable. The organization models this transformation within the staff of the organization, with its members (youth and adult), and outward into the wider community.

While it is my time at El Puente that has ingrained these truths in my thinking, the seeds were planted by Ron and what I’ve learned from his work. If anything, talking with Ron (always) assures me that path I traverse as a hybrid planner/activist/artist will coalesce into coherency if I am intentional about the work I do. Ron channels these tensions in describing the multifaceted nature of the work he does, which is many things to many people, depending on their own perspective. Knowing Ron as a person—a caring, open, and yet inquisitive and critical individual—signals that intentionality extends to the interpersonal dimension as well. It is clear to me from Ron’s example and my own experience that justice—social, environmental, political—cannot be lived or accomplished without love.

Original Arts & Democracy publication: July 2011