Community-based Planning: Moving Beyond the Rhetoric

By Jocelyne Chait

The growth in community-based planning across the United States over the past decade reflects increasing recognition of the value of citizen participation in rebuilding neighborhoods and promoting sustainable community development.

New York City, one of the largest and most diverse cities in the country, has a highly centralized planning bureaucracy that does not support community-based planning. The city’s 59 community planning boards, established in 1963, and provisions in the New York City Charter (Section 197-a) for the development of local plans, provide an ideal framework for community-based planning.

Yet the city has not moved forward in committing to an effective community planning process. Despite the fact that “197-a plans” must go through exhaustive public review and scrutiny prior to their adoption by the City Council, they are not legally binding. At best, they serve as references for decision making in a particular area. Furthermore, since Section 197-a was written into the Charter in 1977 the city has not allocated any funds for the development or implementation of community-sponsored local plans. Inadequate funding for 197-a planning contributes to inefficiencies and delays, strains the energy and resources of community residents, and ultimately leads to burnout and disillusionment. Only a handful of plans have made it through the city’s approvals process.

Why Community Planning?

Despite widespread government support for the rhetoric of community-based planning, the reality in New York is vastly different. Community participation is often relegated to responding to development proposals and initiatives at public hearings. Participation at this late stage is reactive and confrontational and is often based on personal agendas and narrow self-interest. Most community-based planning that occurs happens outside the realm of government. It is heavily dependent on foundation support, pro-bono technical assistance, and the time, energy and – in many cases – the financial resources of community volunteers. Lack of political will and government support can sideline even the most thorough and well-made community plans. This places an enormous burden on local citizens to actively promote their plan and to remain vigilant in monitoring public and private development activity. It also has serious implications in terms of funding, since funders will be reluctant to sponsor plans that they feel may not be implemented.

For Effective Community Planning

What has to happen for community-based planning to be both meaningful and effective?

There must be a high level of political will, and financial and technical support from government. It is not enough to profess a commitment to community-based planning. There must be follow-through in terms of dedicated funding, access to information and ongoing technical assistance.

Adequate funding must be allocated to ensure effective community outreach and participation, access to information, and a timely and efficient planning process.

The planning process must include a high level of community ownership, with citizens playing a meaningful role in implementation and budgeting decisions. A central tenet of community-based planning is building and strengthening communities and developing local leadership. The sense of empowerment and community identity generated through active involvement and self-determination will help to sustain community development efforts and strengthen civil society in general.

Adequate time must be allocated to conduct outreach, enhance understanding, establish a meaningful dialogue among stakeholders, and build consensus on issues, goals and recommendations.

Community-based planning must occur within a broader citywide or regional context. What may start off as self-interest in many communities should become much broader as local issues are related to citywide or regional plans and policies and as people discover that other communities face similar problems.

There must be a commitment to implementation of approved and adopted community plans on the part of local government, with a high level of coordination among city agencies and through a transparent and interactive budget process.

Finally, we have to be better prepared to participate. We live in a society that promotes competition and self-interest; local government is largely characterized by “top-down” or centralized decision-making. Community residents don’t have the knowledge of planning terminology and process. And planners often lack the essential skills needed to facilitate an effective community planning effort, including listening, organizing, teaching, mediation and negotiation skills. Community-based planning is centered on dialogue, collaboration and consensus building. Participation in such a process requires training and a major adjustment on many levels.

Experiences in Other Cities

Some cities in the U.S. have gone beyond simply responding to neighborhood plans and initiatives, and have institutionalized community-based planning in their local laws and practices. Seattle, Minneapolis and Baltimore have clearly taken the lead in ensuring a high level of community participation in planning and development. Seattle’s Neighborhood Planning Office was created by a resolution of the City Council, following adoption of the city’s Comprehensive Plan in 1994. Its primary purpose was to provide technical assistance and planning funds to eligible neighborhoods as they undertook a two-phase comprehensive planning process. Baltimore’s Neighborhood Planning Program, a key recommendation of PlanBaltimore, the city’s new comprehensive master plan, was launched in March 2000 with $300,000 from the city’s capital budget in start-up funds. Minneapolis’ Neighborhood Revitalization Program was established in 1990 by the Minnesota Legislature and the City Council with a funding level of $20 million per year for 20 years generated from Tax Increment Financing.

Other examples of community-based or neighborhood planning include:

· Asset-based comprehensive community initiatives, largely sponsored by private foundations, such as the Ford Foundation’s Neighborhood and Family Initiative, launched in 1990, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Rebuilding Communities Initiative, launched in 1993;

· Federally funded university/community partnerships such as the East St. Louis Action Research Project, a collaboration between the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Winstanley/Industry Park Neighborhood Organization in East St. Louis; and

· Community-driven planning efforts such as the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston.

While these initiatives differ greatly in scope and origin, they share a commitment to collaborative problem solving and grassroots decisionmaking. Their success is largely dependent on the strength of local leadership and advocacy. However, it is also dependent on the degree of responsiveness of local government, particularly with regard to land use development, which is closely tied to the municipal budget process and regulatory framework.

While these cities serve as models for government-sponsored community-based planning and development, there are many instances in local government where community-based planning goes no further than the rhetoric. This is no wonder. Democratic planning and decisionmaking not only requires a great deal more time and effort than centralized, “top down” planning and development. It also poses a direct threat to established power structures.

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