Citizen Participation in the Planning Process
I am a planner working on a neighborhood plan in north central Austin. The area in which I am focusing is the Highland area which is surrounded by U.S. 183, Interstate 35, North Lamar Boulevard, and R.M. 2222 and includes Highland Mall in its southern end. Currently this area contains the aforementioned mall as well as other, smaller scale commercial areas, offices, a few multi-family homes, and many single-family homes. The area is laid out with the single family homes being surrounded by commercial areas and offices which lie along the major, bordering roads and highways. These commercial areas include everything from large complexes like the mall down to single-unit small businesses like those that line Lamar. Many of these businesses are private but there are also a large number of corporate businesses such as the restaurants and hotels located along U.S. 183 and I-35. These business owners along with the home owners and renters that live in the middle of all of this are definitely stake holders but there may be others.
Other stake holders would most easily and effectively be identified in preliminary community meetings where individuals could come and voice their initial concerns. Most likely the residents of the area would wish to better their neighborhood either by improving transportation, beautifying the area, or maybe by preserving that which they currently have. The business owners would wish to maximize their amount of business and might fear that restrictions or costly regulations would be imposed upon them. The most powerful players in this area, Highland Mall and the corporate restaurants on the interstate, would need to be considerate of the neighborhood as a whole so that their agenda does not overpower the needs of the more vulnerable small business owners and residents of the area. Income, ethnicity, density, and housing occupancy and tenure would all also need to be examined and possible re-measured to insure that all groups are able to be represented equally. This information would also be very useful in deciding what amenities the residents of this area would enjoy.
Initially, the typical mailers and surveys would be sent to those that live, work, or own property in the area so that they might be aware of the upcoming planning process. Upon receiving and tabulating the responses of the surveys so that my department might be more aware of the needs and wishes of the neighborhood, the first community meeting would be planned. This meeting would be well publicized in the neighborhood by flyers, mailers included in utility bills and by word of mouth from some residents and business owners that have volunteered to be activators in the process. In addition to these orthodox methods, the planners involved in this project would visit businesses, schools, churches, and any community meetings that might occur to plant the seed that we are here to help and are almost a part of their community. Our first meeting would be held locally in a space large enough to accommodate all that would attend and would feature food from local restaurants as well as displays showing examples of the results of other neighborhood plans and the possible target areas in the Highland neighborhood. At this meeting or one shortly after, a history of the neighborhood would be written by the people, which would highlight the strengths in businesses and the community pride of the area which would encourage people to become involved in the process. Other events like a series of open houses presented by local businesses or community groups would also help people to better know their community so that they will be more informed when working in the planning workshops and focus groups.
The Highland neighborhood is unique to most other neighborhoods because it contains a mall which is already the location of many city sponsored events and receives large amounts of traffic everyday from residents living all over central Austin. Throughout the planning process, the neighborhood will maintain a display which shows our plans and the progress of our meetings. Since many people from the city will see this, as well as residents of the area that did not know about the process, people will take pride in their neighborhood and want to get involved. One of the most important steps to community participation, however, is that the City of Austin asserts itself as a friendly, caring organization so that the neighborhood planning groups can easily gain the trust and cooperation of the areas they are working with.
This lack of trust is a possible problem that my department needs to be aware of. There are many people that might have a fear of being victimized in the actions taken by their local government. Many might not understand the process and others might only know city planning as the force that cleared so many working neighborhoods and built projects in their place or made them into higher class living areas. My department must also be prepared for the people that think we, as neighborhood planners, can do anything that they wish. The people that do get involved in the planning process tend to become very excited when drawing out new plans and often will expect more than anyone could do. There is a need for a clear and precise explanation of what the planning organization can and cannot do to avoid problems further down the road which might harm the plan in the long run such as disgruntled participants or a loss of interest in the project. As an area with a lower median income, it should be anticipated that some of those that wish to participate are people not of higher education. It is, in fact, safe to say that some of them might not ever have graduated from high school, either. Therefore steps must be taken to explain everything clearly and speak in laypersonís terms whenever in group meetings. Acronyms and industry terms should also be kept at a minimum unless they are a part of the core of the project and there is time to explain them to everyone participating.
The reason for these concerns is that the people of the neighborhood are crucial to the plan that will be implemented where they live. The heart of the matter in neighborhood planning is to aid the people living right there in that neighborhood, not the bureaucrats or the people that drive by it and might not like the way it looks. But because we are planners and we do this every day for a living, there are new ideas for ways to revolutionize our cityís appearance and efficiency available to us. The question often arises: what do planners plan? Many of us spend the majority of our careers zoning and rezoning and occasionally some of us are able to work on a comprehensive plan that may or may not be put into effect. Neighborhood planning is one of the special areas where a plan is formed and then carried out, all in a matter of a few years. Neighborhood planners, however, tend to be only facilitators of a planning process which focuses only on the ideas of the participants. What is needed is cohesion in the neighborhood planning process between citizen participation and formulating great, innovative ideas for an area. Caution must be exercised, however, as many plans that were quite revolutionary ended up producing bad results. The Pruitt-Igoe Projects in Saint Louis and the West End in Boston come to mind. In my growing career I wish to be able to become an individual that is able to foster innovative design and planning while retaining the influence of the community in which I am working. Studio and office time is important as is time in the community, walking the streets, visiting the shops, and talking with the residents so that I might better understand and appreciate their needs. I could, for example, begin a project by spending a few days or a week meeting with community leaders, business owners, and long-term residents of an area to discuss what their opinions of their community are. I could present some rough, preliminary ideas which might help me judge how well the community would react to change and if change is needed. Then my planning team would spend a few weeks studying geographical information and sharing design ideas with each other. We could then formulate a picture of what we think would work best for that area and its people which would then be presented at a meeting in the community. We could then work with the ideas and thoughts given by citizens and our initial view on the area to achieve an appropriate plan for the neighborhood. These plans would involve the community but could still yield very innovative results.
As I have said, the most important thing to me when working on a neighborhood plan is the people. My first and foremost goals are to better their lives through design and function while creating an attractive place for all those that see it in passing. There is no greater reason to perform neighborhood planning, and for this citizen participation is a crucial part of the process.