Research and discussion for citizens and decision makers

Neighborhood planning

A Seattle case study

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UPDATE (8/06/09, 12:31 pm): link to Stella Chao’s ppt presentation

UPDATE (7/29/09, 10:09 am): Video added below

On Thursday, July 21, City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods (DON) Director Stella Chao spoke to a Houston audience of about 90 people at the United Way Community Resource Center about the work her department is doing to improve neighborhood planning in Seattle by making it an integrated work of both the City and its residents. She explained how the city’s relatively new Neighborhood Planning process came into being, highlighted some of the neighborhood projects that have been realized through citizen action and collaboration with the City, and described DON’s recent work to revise and improve neighborhood plans through continuing community outreach efforts.

In 1994, the City of Seattle began to seriously address the negative impacts that rapid population growth and sprawling land use patterns would eventually have on the region’s natural resources, the beauty of its natural areas, and the quality of life of its existing urban villages and urban centers. In order to come up with a better plan for Seattle’s future growth, the City developed a program based on citizen involvement that encourages residents to become active participants in defining specific needs and issues in their own neighborhoods, and in guiding the process of improving them as their communities grow and change.

Known as the Neighborhood Planning program, this process lasted for five years and resulted in the drafting of 38 neighborhood plans based on public input and vision from residents in each of Seattle’s 38 “neighborhood areas.” The City of Seattle’s Neighborhood Planning Office helped provide planning consultants and resources to assist each neighborhood in developing and writing these plans that have since served as blueprints for how different Seattle neighborhoods should grow.

Chao says that Neighborhood Planning continues to be the cornerstone of Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, a larger tool for guiding policy decisions about growth. In 2003, DON assumed the role of supporting the Neighborhood Planning process, a program that Chao has led since she became the department’s director in January 2007.

DON now oversees a number of departments (Historic Preservation, Neighborhood Planning, Office for Education) and a wide variety of community-building programs such as P-Patch Community Gardens, which provides garden plots, gardening education, and access to fresh, affordable, organic produce to all citizens of Seattle, with an emphasis on low-income and immigrant populations and youth, and a highly successful Neighborhood Matching Fund program to provide financial support to self-help and volunteer-based neighborhood projects.

A unique feature of the Department of Neighborhoods that Chao identifies as key to the success of their various neighborhood-based programs is DON’s ability to work very collaboratively with numerous other city departments and agencies. DON has direct ties to the City Council and to the Mayor – each of which operates from a separate arm of City government – and they also work closely with the City’s Department of Planning & Development and the Seattle Department of Transportation. Both of these departments played a major part in the 1995-2000 Neighborhood Planning process and the realization of many of the neighborhood projects envisioned by it.

Among the successes of Neighborhood Planning, Chao said that it:

• provided an effective platform for community organizing and relationship building
• encouraged inclusive visioning and broad participation across communities
• made effective use of tools and funds provided by the City
• built trust between City staff and community, and between different City departments

But not all of the resulting neighborhood plans that resulted were good or completely effective ones, said Chao, and more work still needed to be done to make the planning process more inclusive and more representative of the needs of a greater cross-section of Seattleites.

In 2008, the Seattle City Council passed legislation authorizing DON and the Department of Planning & Development to work with communities to begin updating and improving neighborhood plans to address new issues and revisit old, unsolved problems. DON also focused on figuring out ways to fundamentally improve the planning process itself.

A series of 2009 community workshop revisions identified two overarching principles for the new planning process and the revised neighborhood plans: the need for a greater community inclusivity, and a new emphasis on improving neighborhood sustainability. Chao described several key tools that Seattle is using to reach these goals:

•Expanding and improving inclusivity through better community outreach and engagement became a primary focus of the new planning process, which now relies on Planning Outreach Liasons who serve as trusted advocates for and organizers within their own communities. Liasons receive training in neighborhood planning and organize community forums and workshops where City planners come to work with them, in their own “backyards.”

•A new Executive Initiative from the Mayor, the “Race and Social Justice Initiative,” is also intended to improve inclusion and representation in neighborhood planning through the eradication of policies and procedures that have had historically negative impacts or disparate effects on chronically underserved communities.

•To improve neighborhood sustainability, residents and planners adopted a new focus on creating transit-oriented communities through better regional planning. Results of this process include a new, citywide Pedestrian Master Plan, a Bicycle Master Plan, and an Urban Forestry Management Plan, all of which will be incorporated into the 38 revised neighborhood plans.

In her presentation and responses to questions, Chao emphasized that the exact strategies and solutions that work in Seattle should not be seen as a cure-all, or even as something that will work effectively in all cities, and that Houston’s unique characteristics and problems likely require equally unique approaches to handling its particular growth and neighborhood issues.

Different approaches aside, Chao says that there is a common denominator to any city or neighborhood planning process that intends to truly serve the needs and wants of its citizens:  Communities must have real power and a real voice. “That,” she says, “is what makes these programs work.”

(Download a pdf [5.8MB] presentation from Seattle’s recent Neighborhood Plan Update Community Workshops)

Stella Chao’s visit and presentations in Houston this week happened through the joint efforts of Council Member Peter Brown, his staff, and Houston Tomorrow, as part of their Distinguished Speaker series.

Event sponsors included The Anchorage Foundation of Texas, Blueprint Houston, and Council Member Peter Brown.

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