By Dina Refki.

The creative vision of Artist and University at Albany Associate Professor Adam Frelin and Architect Barbara Nelson gave birth to a public art exhibit designed to stimulate dialogue, instigate social activism and induce transformation on issues of urban blight in Capital Region cities. Breathing Lights resuscitated hundreds of abandoned buildings in the cities of Albany, Troy and Schenectady and turned them into living and breathing creatures. Pulsating lights that mimicked the rhythm of human breathing sent a powerful message throughout the months of October and November that the buildings are integral to our urban fabric and critical to preserving our historical heritage. They can no longer be ignored nor neglected.

Spurred by the message of Breathing Lights, local and state policy makers joined policy advocates, Land Banks and academics at a Policy Roundtable, held at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, University at Albany on Monday, November 28, 2016. The event was co-chaired by Interim Dean Karl Rethemeyer and Mayors Kathy Sheehan, Gary McCarthy and Patrick Madden of Albany, Schenectady and Troy. “Rockefeller College cares deeply not only about educating the next generation of socially responsible public service leaders, but also about being civically engaged with the problems our communities face… We are seeking sustainable environmentally conscious solutions that mitigate and prevent future blight, preserve the historical assets and character of our cities, and apply principles of smart growth and redevelopment,” Dr. Rethemeyer pointed out.

The Roundtable was sponsored by the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society, Rockefeller College; Breathing Lights: Winner of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge; New York Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials; and the Historic Albany Foundation. Entitled Combating Urban Blight in the cities of Albany, Schenectady and Troy, the Policy Roundtable examined a set of policy alternatives that can strengthen mitigation and prevention of distressed and abandoned properties. “As this forum demonstrates, we are looking for solutions and opportunities that other people do not see and exploring how we can create that collective force that brings people to our urban areas to look at properties that are challenged and distressed and turn them into community assets,” stated Mayor McCarthy.

Participants called for better information systems to understand the abandoned housing stock; better legal mechanisms to streamline and expedite the vacant building acquisition and management process; better administrative systems to improve access of local governments to funds; and better financial resources to enhance human and financial capacity of local governments and Land Banks and strengthen their ability to address the problem more efficiently and effectively. Participants endorsed several policy targets that they believe will contribute to advancing short term solutions to the problem. They emphasized, however, that long term solutions that address the root causes of the problem are critical. “If we have any hope for a long-term solution, we really need to address the root causes of the problem which started 50 years ago… We need to focus on how we can reverse these root causes; these trends that got us here in the first place” Mayor Madden asserted.

The policy measures will be documented in a Policy Brief that will be published and disseminated widely to stakeholders regionally and nationally. “This policy conversation allowed us to look at concrete ways we can move forward. We identified today some really concrete policy changes which would allow us to move much more swiftly and be more proactive in how we are dealing with abandoned buildings,” Mayor Sheehan stated. “I feel optimistic and hopeful that all 3 cities and their extended Departments are working together, know one another, and we share the same goals,” added Sheehan.

Most Roundtable participants (88%) believed that Breathing Lights and the Policy Roundtable opened a window of opportunity for policy change on addressing urban blight in the Capital Region. The majority (over 90%) indicated that they were hopeful or extremely hopeful that there will be movement on the policy front to address urban blight prevention and mitigation.

Dina is Executive Director and Clinical Assistant Professor at the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society (CWGCS), Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, University at Albany, State University of New York. CWGCS advances a vision of a society where people of all backgrounds participate equally in shaping the future. CWGCS seeks to deepen and broaden political access and economic opportunities for women and their families domestically and globally. CWGCS works with all sectors to strengthen their capacity to implement gender-responsive, inclusive and equitable policies, practices and services. Dina’s research focuses on deepening understanding of barriers that hinder the realization of CWGCS’s vision and creating evidence-based interventions to pave the path toward this vision. CWGCS serves as the evaluator of Breathing Lights.