Harnessing Data and Knowledge of New York City Facilities to Respond to COVID-19

About This Episode

New York City's response to COVID-19 required unprecedented creativity and collaboration among its city agencies. Bob Tuttle, director of the New York City Department of City Planning's Capital Planning Division, comes on the podcast to describe to Ann Dillemuth, AICP, senior research and professional practice associate, how the division was asked to use its datasets and knowledge of city facilities in the early days of the response to identify possible locations for surge hospitals.

The conversation also delves into the capital planning team's work in general, which aims to integrate planning perspectives and data-driven planning analytics into the city's capital budget planning and decision-making process. Bob describes a few of the resources the division offers, including the Facilities Explorer, a combination of more than 50 public datasets, and he points to department success stories, such as how one planner realized a police department intake site in the East New York neighborhood had the potential for something greater. After a multiyear, cross-agency effort, a youth center emerged — all because the team reviewed their extensive data sets, listened to community needs, and brought in the expertise of the full suite of the city's agencies.

Episode Transcript


[00:00:00.600] Bob Tuttle: And I think it was such an amazing model of showing that agencies don't work independently. And so we were able to really speak as an entire city. And it went a long way in building the trust with the community. And so I think that that piece of engaging and and being transparent, it just is so important day to day. But it's even more important because you have to build that for so long. And you need those relationships, and they are really, really important in situations like this that you already have those relationships established.

[00:00:45.330] Ann Dillemuth, AICP: Welcome to this episode of the APA podcast. I'm Ann Dillemuth [AICP], senior research and professional practice associate at APA. Today we are speaking with Bob Tuttle, the director of the New York City Department of City Planning's Capital Planning Division. The Capital Planning team works to integrate planning perspectives and data-driven planning analytics into the city's capital-budget planning and decision-making process. The division's role in coordinating agencies and bringing a planning lens and important data to decision making has gained even more value as the city responds to COVID-19. Bob, thank you so much for talking with us today. How are you? How are things in the city?

[00:01:29.040] BT: Well, thank you very much for having me. You know, of course, this is a stressful time, and it's difficult to watch a city that you love suffering. But every day is truly feeling more hopeful, and New York has a good track record for recovering from crisis. And so at this point, I'm really optimistic that, that we will make it through this. And I'm also very proud to play a small part in the city's recovery and planning efforts to be more resilient after this — after we get out of the emergency mode and really more into the recovery mode.

[00:02:02.970] AD: Great. Well, yeah, it's definitely great to hear that things are getting better there. And yeah, as you mentioned, the planning department and your division especially has been playing important role in the city's response to COVID-19 in terms of managing and providing data to help drive decision making. So we'll be talking about that today, but I wanted to start just with some background. So tell us about the Capital Planning Division. What do you guys do? Where does it sit within the Department of City Planning? How do you relate to other city agencies?

[00:02:37.920] BT: Yeah, so, for a little context, New York City's capital budget has been projected to be more than a hundred billion dollars over the next 10 years, and it's spread over more than 20 agencies. So the Department of City Planning is actually not one of the capital agencies. And so City Planning's Capital Planning Division has a fairly unique role in helping to coordinate consistent planning approaches across those capital planning agencies. And so we generally think of three goals for our division, which is to ensure capital planning across different capital agencies is considering the relevant neighborhood context and that that feels coordinated for those that live there. Two, that we're directly supporting the more extensive planning efforts of some of the capital agencies, especially when those efforts are crossing into multiple agencies. And that often happens in projects like the Department of Environmental Protection [DEP], which handles our water, infrastructure, and sewers, and the Department of Transportation [DOT], which handles our streets. And then we provide data tools that help to better inform agencies decisions. And a lot of that is important in ensuring that we have common assumptions. And one of the things that we bring to the table is understanding the likelihood of where and how fast housing will be built. And so making it a level playing field for the assumptions that agencies are making across the city is really important to us. I think an example of capital planning's work with other agencies is through the Capital Planning Forum. And this is a quarterly forum with the city's six largest capital agencies, which represent almost 70 percent of our capital budget. And it places these agencies together so that we can discuss topics like how to plan for neighborhoods that are growing the fastest to help ensure the investments are being made properly. And it's a great place for us to make sure that we have shared goals for our city's biennial Ten-Year Capital Strategy, which is how we really plan out 10 years, how we educate the public on what our guiding principles are and our investment priorities.

[00:04:52.560] AD: Wow, that's great. We know one of the, the strengths of planners is that coordination role, kind of bringing different groups together. That's amazing that you're able to do that in a city as large as New York among so many agencies. So what is the history of this? How did, how did the division come to be? Was there a specific policy or a person that drove the creation of the division and kind of established your role?

[00:05:22.270] BT: Yeah, so — capital planning had been a function of city planning decades ago. But following the city's fiscal crisis in the 1970s, capital-spending decisions were consolidated to the Office of Management and Budget [OMB], which from a fiscal perspective made sense, and we recovered from that '70s near bankruptcy, but it removed planning from those decisions — or, or maybe like the broad planning lens that a city planning agency could bring. We're, you know, the city and our variety of capital planning agencies has excellent planners that are focused on their agencies, but nonetheless, it removed the central agency that handles planning. So when the current administration began in 2014, Carl Weisbrod was appointed as the chairman of the Planning Commission and the director of the Department of City Planning. And Carl re-established the Capital Planning Division within City Planning based on the premise that planning agencies have not only an important role in land use and zoning decisions, but also how and where cities allocate investments. And so, for instance, a capital agency like the fire department, schools, or sanitation may be very focused on the state of good repair for existing assets and operational needs for the existing population. What city planning can help inform is this longer-term focus for agencies with the data that it has about where population growth is likely and then the mix of residential, commercial, and manufacturing uses that would be expected. And so it kind of rounds out the capital planning process and balances the fiscal responsibility that a city must have with the planning priorities that it should have.

[00:07:15.360] AD: That is, that's great. That's something that APA does speak to is encouraging planners to get involved with capital planning. I know in a lot of cities, the planners are by charter those that are charged to oversee the process, to do exactly what you just said — make sure that there is that long-term, coordinated approach to public investment and the built environment.

[00:07:40.590] BT: Yeah, so another important part of re-establishing the Capital Planning Division within City Planning was this real focus by the administration to have neighborhood planning that, while it looked at what neighborhoods could increase in population, that that would be married with infrastructure investment. And so our division, Capital Planning, works with the borough planners, and it helps to identify areas of the city where it's possible to have more population, because the city has been growing for quite some time and housing is a real concern. And not just market-rate housing but affordable housing. And so when we look at those neighborhoods and we do the studies, part of that process is thinking about what infrastructure needs are there at the moment, and then with the new population, how will that change those infrastructure needs? And so a key part of this neighborhood-planning strategy was to actually set aside funds upfront. It was a, I think, a really great way to show communities we have money sitting here, the city won't touch it. It's just waiting to be spent on the neighborhoods, they're going to go through these plans. And so that, that alone, I think, was a big step for the city in its communication of projects to the neighborhoods. These are really big projects. So typically a few hundred blocks that allow for thousands of new market-rate and affordable units and have infrastructure budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And so the community-engagement piece is extensive, and it really is about understanding their needs and how they feel about their communities and what they want to see and what they believe the future of the community should be. And there's really extensive outreach with the other city agencies that have capital projects to understand what they're doing in the area and what they want to do in the area and what they could do in the area. And so it's been a great process that is — knowing that you have funding is incredibly helpful, and it really helps take that out of the equation and have communities and our agency partners work together. And so in one of our largest rezonings, in the neighborhood of East New York, one of our planners was doing site visits and trying to understand the neighborhood better, had, you know, been listening to the community for years about their needs, and came upon a building that was city owned. It was a police department intake site. It was not very heavily used, but it had a big gym and tons of classrooms. And she thought, well, the underutilization of this site matched with the — this desperate need by the community for a place for programming for kids and teenagers — like, there's got to be something that we can do about this. And since we're doing a rezoning in this area, we're coming up with a neighborhood study and a plan, how do we integrate that? And so the Capital Planning Division worked with the borough planners, NYPD, and conceived a totally new use for that building as a youth center. And it took, you know, a few years, and it was a 10 million fit-out. A lot of perseverance across agencies and work with the community. It opened last year, and local residents have really loved the space. And I think it's just such a success story of how cities — agencies work together, how we work with communities, how we listen to needs and then how we had identify solutions and actually implement solutions.

[00:11:27.790] AD: Wow, that is a great story. And I like how you started with the data piece in terms of looking through the city and using your numbers and that information to see where to focus these efforts and then be able to bring the planning lens, bring the community engagement, bring the different agencies together and the inventories that you're keeping, again, with that data piece — yeah, to result in really, really great outcomes for the community and their quality of life.

[00:11:55.550] BT: Yeah, it's been really exciting. And, and just seeing, you know, the, the effects on communities is — you know, that's why you become a planner. You, you want to have that connection. You want to be involved in those decisions and you want to see the outcomes. And we all know that can take so long for outcomes to actually be generated. But in, in, I think, our world, this was three years, and so that can be pretty fast for some of our projects. So it has really been a great success story and something that we're really proud of and trying to replicate across our other projects.

[00:12:29.400] AD: So describe how your division works with data. That seems like a big piece of what you all do. What types of data do you work with? What systems have you set up to manage and coordinate that?

[00:12:42.450] BT: Yes, data is extremely important to the division, and it was really kind of one of the founding components when the Capital Planning Division was re-established. And so our role — and, and this really is beyond just our division, but our agency has really worked to gather clean and share data so that it's more usable for the public and for our sister agencies. And whenever possible, I think something that city planning brings to that is we map those datasets, and that really increases the usability and approachability of the data and makes it available and more usable for different types of formats. And so the department has created tools, including our zoning and land use map, which provides a visual way to research the zoning regulations, which can be a cumbersome document to go through. The Population FactFinder, which provides detailed information about population and housing profiles, and that uses the Decennial Census and American Community Survey. We have a Metro Region Explorer, which starts to bring together this vast network that looks way — well beyond the five boroughs but looks to all of the contributors to our employment in the area, population, housing. And then we have really nice maps that deal with waterfront access and where people can, can go to have that access, privately-owned public spaces so that people know that they have access to these different open spaces that they may not expect are open to the public. But specifically to the Planning Division, we've developed a Facilities Explorer, which maps the facilities that are owned and operated, funded, licensed, certified, all of that, by the city, state, and federal agencies. And so this is one map where people and agencies can go and look at facility types like hospitals or daycares, parks, libraries, police stations, ferry landings, government offices, really just a vast amount of information. And I think one of the most amazing parts of the Facilities Explorer, other than its usefulness with the data, is that it is a combination of over 50 public datasets that were already publicly available. And what this did is it took all of that data, moved it into one database so that it could be — everything could be verified, but also that it would be — could be set up to be mapped, which a lot of those datasets didn't allow for before this process. And that just vastly increased the ability of others to use the dataset. And I think it was, it's a real example of maybe the next step in transparency of — one part of that is providing people with information. But the next step and maybe the more important step is making sure they can use the information and that they don't need a team of experts to go through and make the information usable for them. And so I think it's been a real emphasis for not only our division but our entire agency to get these products out there so that the, that our sister agencies and public are able to use information in ways that would otherwise be really, really challenging.

[00:16:06.120] AD: Yeah, I've been online to the Capital Planning's Division's website and seen some of the tools that you're describing, like the Facilities [Explorer]. And it is amazing how much information is there in map, spatial form and just so easy to access. I'm curious, were you able to do all of this in house? Do you have data engineers on your staff? Did you connect with the city's IT department or — what's going on behind the scenes to enable such easy-to-use tools?

[00:16:38.250] BT: We have really built up a data-engineering section within our own agency, and we do work a lot with our department of IT. But in house, we actually have a lot of expertise so that we can be very nimble and also prioritize projects based off of the needs as they arise. And so in addition to our data engineers, we've also started up a Planning Labs division. And that group has really worked to think through, what is the information that we have, what is the outcome we want to achieve, and how do we visually produce that information so that it's useful for a wide variety of use cases? Not just the public, not just agencies, not just the Department of City Planning, or City Hall, but all of them. And I think as a team, that is kind of how these data projects have really been made so robust, is because there is a wide variety of people throughout the agency, and then across the city, and then the public that were, you know, asking these questions of, how would you use this, and we're integrating that into producing the product.

[00:17:49.510] AD: So all of this, all of the pieces that you had already in place sounds like they were very important in how the city was able to respond to COVID-19. Can you speak a little bit to that, how — how the city has been able to use your division and those resources, what you've been able to contribute to the, the response?

[00:18:11.820] BT: So I think planning in crisis mode is very difficult, because you just don't have the benefit of full information and you don't have a lot of time to get that full information. And so it's really uncomfortable, but I think as planners, you know, we just cannot shy away from that role. And so in the early days of the response to COVID[-19], Capital Planning was asked to use its datasets and its knowledge of city facilities to identify possible locations to stand up search hospitals. And our guidance was being requested without the benefit of all of the parameters that would be ideal for a surge hospital location. And so what the team did, which included planners from the Capital Planning Division, other divisions within City Planning, and entire other agencies, we worked to identify sites based off the available information and submitted that list to our Office of Emergency Management [OEM], but we did that with a group of questions that we posed as, these would be great to know so that we could make a better list. And the way that everything was processed, the backup data that we were using to support the creation of this surge hospital list was maintained, and so that as answers came into those questions, we were able to pretty easily and pretty quickly refine that list and send it back to OEM. And so I think being organized and responsive and asking the right questions in a time of crisis is a skillset that planners can really bring to the table by way of our training. And then in that case, I think we really ended up producing a much better product, just showing that we wanted to have iteration but being clear about what iteration could look like and helping others to think through what questions would be helpful, knowing that they were also dealing with many, many other challenges and so couldn't dedicate all of their time to this one idea.

[00:20:07.380] AD: Yeah, so that sounds like a really amazing use of the data you already had ready to go. Was there other data that, that the city found useful in the immediate COVID-19 response or other roles that the division or the department played?

[00:20:23.800] BT: Yeah, City Planning has really been called on to help look at a lot of different issues, and the range is, is really kind of astounding. It's things like food supply, how urban design can help the public understand social distancing, the effects of COVID-19 on the mass transit network, the possible economic impacts, how to continue engaging with communities in a remote, remote environment. So there's a, there really is all of these different questions, and City Planning has been able to play a part in answering them or engaging with other agencies in how to best answer them. And so I think a lot of our research — we're really proud to have tools that have already been set up and that we're not starting from, from nothing, so it's been very helpful to have datasets already there. And now it's, as questions come in, it's really — we're able to think about, OK, with all the information we have, how do we answer those questions and what more information can we provide? And also, not waiting to be asked questions. Knowing what we have as — what insights we already knew prior to COVID-19 and then how to those would translate into [an] existing COVID-19 problem and then a post-COVID-19 solution. I think we're really trying to at this point go use our planning lens and think through, what are the next steps, much further out than when we're outside of the emergency response and this emergency posture. But what are we planning for in the future to make sure that we are addressing future needs of communities that have really been heavily affected by this situation, you know, an economy that is is going to be affected for years. How do we minimize those impacts on people and our economy? And we're doing that work now to think long-term so that as we're — as the city's able to move into addressing those issues, there's already people thinking about those issues and starting to generate solutions.

[00:22:30.480] AD: Yeah, and I know we're still in the early days of recovery. Still a lot to work out. But are there any specific solutions that, that you all have identified kind of using this longer-term planning lens that you'll be focusing on that, that you can share at this point?

[00:22:47.640] BT: So our core work has really been supporting agencies as they make decisions about the best areas for future investments and how that's going to change as we understand more about the neighborhoods that have been affected, how they've been affected, and start to generate solutions on, you know, what types of ways can we help those communities? Is it medical facilities, open space, transit? We really need to delve into what are the best suited ways to address those issues. And so that's some of the work that we're doing with agencies now. You know, and in lean financial times, it's going to be more important than ever for our agencies to work together in a coordinated approach. And I think the data is going to be so important in how we make those decisions and making sure that those decisions are equitable for communities. And so there's this really important piece of understanding what communities went through and possible solutions, but then doing that in a way that's equitable — I think you've got to marry the — all of that together with data if you're going to have, you know, good scenarios from which to make decisions. And so one of the ways that we're supporting the decision-making process is that we're working with agencies to create some consistency across agencies' unique datasets. And we all know that the more agencies work on their own data, the more it gets siloed in their world. And so what we like to do is look at those datasets. They're often so full of robust information. But you can't just move one dataset into another dataset from a different agency and have them work together. And so what we'll be working with — we have in the past and then we'll be doing this, I think, through the COVID[-19] lens — working with agencies to see what data already exist, filling in gaps as we can, and then making sure that our data is speaking to each other so that we can make ... decisions as agencies with City Hall and still do that in a financially responsible way. We're also working a lot with City Planning's borough planners because they have such a deep knowledge of neighborhoods, because they work with them day in, day out. They go to the community board meetings. They know the civic groups. And I think having that knowledge really pairs well with the knowledge that our sister agencies bring as the subject-matter experts in their fields. And so it's a big effort, but I think done properly and coordinated, which is a role that Capital Planning really prides itself on, on being able to fill, I think we're really going to be able to do this effectively and, most important, really thoughtfully.

[00:25:35.720] AD: Well, Bob, this has been so interesting and inspiring to hear about the work that you and your fellow planners are doing in New York City. And I know that New York City is kind of a special case. It's such a big city. There's so many resources you have to work with. But the general principles that you're talking about and the roles that planners are playing, the responsibilities they have, are really applicable across the profession, across the country. So I'm wondering if you could, I guess, summarize or share kind of your thoughts to planners in communities of all sizes? How can they — if they're not already — how can they step into taking on this role of data management/agency coordination? Who should they be talking to? What datasets can they be coordinating? What sort of insights do you have to share?

[00:26:29.310] BT: I think a couple of approaches have been successful for us in building a capital planning division. One is listening to agencies about their missions and their concerns, needs, and their limitations to really understand and show that you're not the expert on someone else's agency but that you want to learn and you want to understand how you can be supportive of their work. And this has really helped us to focus on how we can support and address those issues that they identify. And when we've done it with a variety of agencies, the great part of that is that it allows us to coordinate efforts across different agencies that produce solutions that are only possible across multiple agencies. And that's something that's really hard, I think, for individual capital agencies: to think about their issues and how teaming up with a different agency could benefit them both. And so I think, like, a very basic example is communities generally appreciate a minimum amount of construction, but they really want the infrastructure to always be working. And so one thing that we were hearing a lot from communities is, why was this street resurfaced? And then like a year later, it's being dug up for a sewer and then being resurfaced again. And so we — the city, through our Department of Design and Construction, had implemented — has recently implemented this process where it looks across different projects to identify those issues. So that's being solved in a different agency. But what's not being solved for and where we've come into this is projects that are not necessarily in the existing pipeline but that are years out. And so if our Department of Environmental Protection and our Department of Transportation are planning ten years out for projects, if one of them is planning sewers in year eight and the other is planning streets in year ten, can we just put those both on year eight and make sure that we're planning in a way that minimizes the effect on communities, benefits our budget by spending less, and really doesn't have a negative impact on any of the work that the agencies are doing. Second, as I talked about earlier, this administration dedicated a significant amount of funding toward coordinated neighborhood planning. And that really showed a commitment to communities, and it allowed the agencies to develop a very collaborative effort that wasn't so focused on money and that allowed those agencies to talk to communities very openly about the existing and future infrastructure needs. And I think in lean fiscal times, that might be harder in the near term, that cities would be able to set aside this funding. But the flip side of that is setting aside this funding could be a real solution when you're thinking about and you've identified the neighborhoods that are most affected. And so I think that there is something powerful about the city saying, yes, we have a general fund, but we're setting this piece aside for this community. We promise you we're gonna work with you to identify the ways that we can spend it here that are most effective and interagency. And I think for those cities that don't have capital planning as part of city planning, I would go back to Carl Weisbrod's vision for why he re-established it at our Department of City Planning. And that was just this idea that good planning and fiscal responsibility go hand-in-hand and that planning agencies can provide data and insights to sister agencies and improve decision making and coordination that is just absolutely not possible if city planning is not part of the conversation. And so it really, from a planning perspective, makes complete sense, but I also truly believe from a financial-responsibility perspective, it also makes a lot of sense, because we can find savings when we work together. We can share properties if we're not fully utilizing our sites. We can coordinate our work — kind of that, that DEP and DOT example. So there's a lot of benefit, and good planning and financial responsibility truly do go hand-in-hand, and I think that Carl's vision for bringing this to City Planning has really produced a lot of results and a positive environment between our agency and other capital agencies in really helping to forward their work and highlight areas where improvements can be made.

[00:31:16.470] AD: Right, and the, the financial piece is always important, but it will become so much more important in the next few months and years as we recover from the current situation. So that's a really important point to make about the importance of planning and bringing that long-term lens, coordinating the work of different agencies, and then just having the data needed to drive the decision making in a way that makes sense and ultimately saves cities money. And then also ultimately makes the city a better place for, for residents and everyone who lives there, so. Before we wrap up, are there any final thoughts that you want to share?

[00:31:57.320] BT: I think the one thing that I — that has been really important for the planners within City Planning in New York City is this real connection to communities and being an empathetic listener. And we've really seen that just be so effective in how we go out and we talk about our neighborhood plans when we go out and talk to neighborhoods. We had a neighborhood, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, that was rezoned in 2005 and 2009. And last year, our agency, you know, the School Construction Authority, Housing Preservation Development, Department of Transportation, Parks Department, Department of Environmental Protection — just, you know, a wide variety of agencies came together, prepared a presentation that was a joint presentation about how the population had changed, the demographics, city infrastructure projects, housing, went to the community, and provided that overview. And it was an opportunity for the community to hear what was really happening, to understand projects that they may not know about, but to also ask questions to a lot of agencies at one time. And I think it was such an amazing model of, of showing that agencies don't work independently, and so they don't need to go out to communities independently and just speak for their particular subject matter. But we were able to really speak as an entire city, and it went a long way in building the trust with the community and be able to answer their questions real time rather than a lot of questions maybe coming about transportation when they're not in the room and so no one can answer. And that can feel, you know, really challenging for a community when their questions aren't being answered in a timely way. And so I think that, that piece of engaging and, and being transparent, it just is so important day to day, but it's even more important because you have to build that for so long and you need those relationships. And they are really, really important in situations like this that you already have those relationships established.

[00:34:12.700] AD: Well, Bob, again, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. It's been fascinating to hear your story, the work of the division, and to hear the value that planning really brings to to your community.

[00:34:28.960] BT: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be able to talk about this and share it with others.


Other Ways to Listen

Find us on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud — or wherever you get your podcasts.