Chicken or Egg? Neighborhood Planning

Rainey & Davis Streets, Austin

Rainey & Davis Streets, Austin

Which comes first? The chicken or the egg? Plans or Shared Neighborhood Vision?

Over the past few weeks I have been reading papers written by various urban planners on the steps necessary – some would say, “essential” – to create sustainable, dynamic revitalization in our urban neighborhoods. As I read. it soon became obvious that once all the rhetoric is removed everything is boiled down to two different and opposing schools of thought. There is the belief that (1) the plan is the essential component of urban planning, which stands in contrast to the belief that (2) before the plan there must be a “shared neighborhood vision” for what can be.

The first approach implies that while the neighborhood must eventually be brought into the process, the neighborhood does not really know what is best and therefore it is up to the planners to present plans and then find a way for the neighborhood to buy into them. Now, before you challenge me on this, saying that is not so, let me share a bit of a conversation I had recently with a politician chairing a city development committee. In response to my claiming that shared vision was essential to neighborhood revitalization, this politician responded with, “But those living in these neighborhoods are not savvy enough to know what they need.” A few days later, an architect involved in creating urban plans stated, “We know best how to put together what the neighborhood needs.” When asked how he knew what the neighborhood “needs,” he replied, “We’re trained to know.” Pushing it a bit further, I asked, “When does the neighborhood become involved in the process?” His answer, I think, was most enlightening, “Preferably after the plan is completed, when we present the plan for neighborhood input. We might do a bit of neighborhood input as the plan progresses, but it is always in regard to the plan on the table.” “In other words,” I replied, “the only vision the neighborhood can rightfully have for the future is that which is predicated on your plan?” After a bit of hemming and hawing, he responded, “Well, I don’t want to say that there aren’t other possible scenarios, but we believe the one we present is the best place to begin.” Note, “to begin;” we begin with the plan prior to creating a shared neighborhood vision.

In the first approach, the future of the neighborhood is in the hands of the planners and developers, not the neighborhood.

The second approach, that of creating a shared neighborhood vision prior to the development of any plan, places the future of the neighborhood in the hands of the residents, where it belongs. To paraphrase Woodrow Wilson’s, “The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people:” The ear of the planner must ring with the voices of the people. Without shared vision, there can be no sustainability. Without shared vision plans will only bog down, and if they see the light of day, sustainability will forever be an issue.

Christopher B. Leinberger, New Urbanist and founding partner of Arcadia Land Company states in a report prepared for the Brookings Institute, “A good starting point is to engage in a ‘visioning’ process. While denigrated by some for being ‘soft and fuzzy,’ a visioning process not only determines if there is community
support but it also uncovers the emotional, economic, and fiscal reasons for turning around the downtown [ed. or any other neighborhood] (‘12 Steps to Revitalizing a Downtown,’ p. 8).” Such a process creates a sense neighborhood ownership of whatever future plans are developed. “Neighborhood-owned plans” have a better chance of sustainability than do ones imposed upon the neighborhood. Leinberger goes on to note that the process should be professionally managed, which means that funding needs to be allocated to pay for it.

A shared vision for the future begins with acknowledging the present, and the stories that have led to the present. Stories, rather than history; history is dry fact; stories share the emotions, the gains and the losses that have brought about the present. It is in the story, not a dry history, that we find the kernels of the future, the beginning of shared vision. To create a shared neighborhood vision is to create an ever-continuing, lively tale in place of what was once thought of as the ending of an old, nostalgic story.

The idea is to build a new-center-of-strength based on grass root networks and relationships built on a shared story, a shared vision, that will help a neighborhood move itself forward, rather than the more traditional method where a Community Development Corporation (CDC) or some other power-based organization tries to drag a neighborhood out of stagnation.

Richard C. Hardwood, president and founder of the Washington, DC based Harwood Institute for Public Innovation notes that innovative revitalization doesn’t come about through coordination and the public embellishment of “great changes.” Rather, according to Harwood, it comes about when neighborhoods see themselves as the creators of what he calls, “the new story.”

As both Harwood and Leinberger note, such an approach is hard for many community leaders to embrace. Community leaders traditionally see themselves as overseers and coordinators with the mandate to look to the experts for the answers. It is noteworthy that in a recent study regarding how Community Development Corporations and City Council view the task of CDC’s, each placed planning above community involvement as the primary task. In the reports “community involvement” is defined as “creating shared vision, direct involvement in the planning process, and direct CDC involvement with residents.” In fairness to the CDC’s, most CDC staff saw this as a weakness, but, nevertheless, a necessary one given that the mandated primary task of a CDC (as they saw it) is plan development, not bringing about shared vision and community involvement. Ironically, in another study, neither City Council, nor City Hall, saw the lack of community involvement, especially that of creating shared neighborhood vision, as a negative, while CDC’s saw their task, although not mandated by City Hall/City Council, as being first an advocate and authentic voice for the neighborhood. Still, because of mandated structure they felt unable to do so. As one CDC staff person confided, “Such conflict, whether between mandated tasks and what we believe should be done, or when not done, the conflict that arises between neighborhoods and CDC, creates a high-level of burnout among CDC staffers. When you are the one being shouted at, it is hard not to take it personally.” It is no wonder, therefore, this comment by a neighborhood stakeholder” “They (the CDC) have no understanding of the neighborhood; what we need and want.”

That said, at times the need to create a shared vision can be just as hard for community residents to grasp. The community looks to, and expects, their leaders to produce magic bullets to solve the neighborhood problems; this after all is why they were elected to office. Admittedly, sometimes the lack of demanding involvement is simply because of laziness, but more often than not, it is because residents feel increasingly disenfranchised and never having a chance to determine their own solutions, have stopped trying and are mistrustful of any attempt to involve them. Other times when they have become involved, it was only to be asked to rubber stamp a plan already in place; not to create a shared neighborhood vision from which a plan could flow, but to give the appearance that the neighborhood was on board. Where this all becomes a vicious circle is when neighborhood residents are asked to rubber stamp a plan and they refuse, the refusal becomes “proof” that the neighborhood doesn’t know what best for them, and is used to validate the first approach (which raised the issue in the first place).

In response to a plan that met less than enthusiastic acceptance, an architect/planner who asked to remain nameless, as he has to work with CDC’s, commented, “I wonder given all of our ideas of what is right and wrong for a neighborhood, all of our training regarding accepted urban planning practices, if we could even create a successful plan based on shared neighborhood vision without constantly trying to correct the vision?” I sure hope this is not the case.

According to Harwood the best thing that neighborhood leaders and politicians can do, before they do anything else, is to acknowledge the realities of the community, to listen to the stories found in that reality, and to allow the neighborhood to write the future. “Small stories, everyday people’s struggles make good things happen.”

The cities that are successfully revitalizing their neighborhoods are those cities that have CDC’s that are responsive to their neighborhood’s organic, grassroots, shared vision for the future.

Frank A. Mills
Round Rock, Texas
Reprinted with revisions from Urban Paradoxes, Nov. 22, 2004
© 2004, 2016


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