(Excerpts from an essay by Professor James E. Hickey, Jr. published in the Harriman Review)

One of the pressing questions facing urban governments is how to simultaneously accommodate urbanization, economic vitality, and quality of life. That accommodation requires, among other things, legal, political, and policy processes in which competing interests with a stake in urban environmental issues can participate in a meaningful way. The decision-making process should assure an opportunity for participation by public interests such as local, regional and national governments and private interests such as businesses, consumers, and citizens living in neighborhood urban communities.

If neighborhood community interests are not meaningfully taken into account in the urban environment equation, the quality of life for residents may well deteriorate. In any event, the responsibility for the quality of life in urban communities does not rest with government alone. Urban communities and neighborhoods must shoulder some of the responsibility themselves. The question for urban communities is how best to carry out that responsibility.

CIVITAS provides a model for community-based participation in urban environment decision-making.

CIVITAS is a union of citizens who live in East Harlem and the Upper East Side of the borough of Manhattan in New York City. It was founded almost two decades ago as a voluntary community organization to work for improvement to the quality of life in East Harlem and the Upper East Side.

CIVITAS may serve as a model for urban communities if for no other reason than that it has been successful. During the years of its existence it has had a substantial and significant impact on the quality of life of citizens in East Harlem and the Upper East Side. CIVITAS has over 2000 members. It functions through a board of directors, organization officers (President, Vice-President, Treasurer and Secretary) and an advisory board. The boards and officers are part-time volunteers and are not paid for their services. CIVITAS is funded by voluntary contributions received from individuals and private foundations.

The primary focus of CIVITAS is to seek urban planning and zoning that maintains affordable housing and the integrity of the neighborhood character on the Upper East Side and East Harlem.

Over the years CIVITAS has worked formally and informally with municipal government, politicians, other neighborhood groups and associations, and consultants to produce information and recommendations that affect urban planning and zoning matters in the community.

The primary vehicles used by CIVITAS to address these matters are surveys, reports, and studies.

One lesson of CIVITAS’ activities is that an urban neighborhood organization, to be effective, should focus narrowly on a particular subject matter for its work. This helps the organization avoid dissipating scarce financial and human resources.

It also enables the organization to develop an expertise and a reputation in the larger community for that expertise. In turn, this helps the organization to raise money and to have its work taken seriously.

One vehicle for the active participation of urban communities in the quality of life of their neighborhood is for citizens in specific urban neighborhoods to form and support non-profit volunteer organizations like CIVITAS. The CIVITAS model used in New York City provides an effective way for urban residents to actively participate in the economic development and in the improvement of quality of life in their neighborhoods. CIVITAS’ example has helped to foster reliance on the democratic process and produce a more responsive municipal government in urban planning and zoning matters.

James E. Hickey, Jr. is a Professor of Law and director of International Programs, Hofstra University, School of Law, Hempstead, New York.