Representation in Planning Process

Representation in the Planning Process

Increase representation to ensure neighborhood control over change and growth.

Project Advisory Committee Meeting, Charlottesville. Photo by Cary Oliva.

What's the issue?

Local residents are the experts of their own communities. Their voices must be integral to creating sustainably equitable places. Historically, low-income and minority groups have been left out of the planning process completely. In 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act tried to correct this failure by establishing Community Action Agencies and mandating "maximum feasible participation" of the poor. But planners soon learned to include marginalized residents, but only to "educate" them - not to give them any real power. Either way, the danger is that development serves the interest of those in power rather than the most vulnerable. This danger is still pressing today. Rather than involving communities early on, city governments and developers often call community meetings in order to collect feedback on already-developed projects, when it's too late. In Denver's Globeville Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, for example, multi-billion dollar infrastructure improvements are being pushed through with little warning to residents and minimal efforts to include them in the design work.

How can participatory planning help?

Participatory planning policies should (1) ensure that residents have easy access to information and (2) give low-income communities representation on planning committees, transportation boards, and boards of architectural review.

Easy access to information means distributing information about plans and projects in a timely manner and in the appropriate language(s). Access should not depend on proof of citizenship and community feedback should be sought via multiple platforms (not just online). Providing food and child care at meetings can help to encourage community attendance. When the City forms public-private partnerships to execute projects, it must ensure that private partners are contractually obligated to provide information to citizens, the way the city does under FOIA. Access to information is crucial to residents' ability to make reasoned decisions and advocate for their interests.

Ultimately, cities must make communities partners, not adversaries, in preparing an area for growth. This requires including residents in planning for change from the earliest stage. Portland's Neighborhood Participation Plan, released in 2011, is a good example of a citywide effort to increase access to information and give low-income communities representation in the planning process. The Beacon Hill Council of Seattle is another inspiration for successful community leadership in neighborhood planning.

When and where does this policy work best?

This policy would be most beneficial in communities that do not have a history of a strong advocacy and in cities that focus on public-private partnerships, which are less transparent & accountable to citizens. Residents who are disenfranchised by undocumented status or low educational attainment stand to benefit most from proactive inclusion in the planning process.

Works best for neighborhoods in early stage gentrification

Most needed when neighborhoods have...

What are some possible problems and how can we address them?

Community participation in planning requires a great deal of effort on the city's part and can also slow down the process of development. This is problematic when community participation becomes a roadblock to creating true public goods like affordable housing or transit. In San Francisco, homeowners have opposed the construction of affordable housing with special vehemence. Their motivations could be racism or the fear that subsidized housing will bring down their own property values. Either way, they disguise their protests as community advocacy. To avoid this obstructionism, cities should target participatory planning to vulnerable residents and balance it with streamlined approval processes for affordable housing.