Dec 10, 2011 – How does Seattle’s neighborhood planning and community engagement measure up around the world?

It is commonly accepted that the key tenets of successful community development are democratic decision-making by the people whose lives are affected, coupled with the development of community leadership.  Researchers have shown that a bottom up planning approach is more successful in plan implementation than top down urban planning, with the added benefit of strengthening the community and building community leaders in the process.  Simply, when the community builds the plan, they feel they own it and help ensure its successful implementation.

Seattle has a notable history of active community engagement, from building p-patches to allocating neighborhood matching grants to “little city halls” scattered about the city.  Community participation achieved a pinnacle of sorts in the 1990s with the development of dozens of neighborhood plans which engaged almost 20,000 citizens in the process. The Department of Planning and Development (DPD) website boasts:

“The 38 neighborhood plans have helped shape our city. New homes and new jobs are being created in areas best able to handle the growth — Seattle’s urban villages and centers. Each neighborhood is moving forward with its agenda to improve parks, libraries and community centers; to make it safer and more convenient to walk, bike or take the bus; and to keep their neighborhoods safe.

The success hasn’t gone unnoticed. Communities across the nation and overseas are emulating Seattle’s neighborhood planning process”.

Yet there is a belief that while the world is trying to emulate us, Seattle is stepping away from the citizen empowered planning model.  Shrinking budgets, frustration with “Seattle Process”, accusations of NIMBYism, stacking citizen boards and commissions with establishment insiders, and the apparent drift back to centralized planning have left neighborhood activists and many ordinary citizens frustrated and often at odds with city leaders and staff.

Recent neighborhood plan updates to the south end Link Light Rail station area neighborhoods of Othello, Beacon Hill and Mt Baker resulted in SEPA appeals and were mired in complaints of a rigged process.  Oversight of this planning process by the Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee (NPAC) resulted in report that was not signed by a third of the committee and countered by 5 minority reports (committee meetings were contentious and there were resignations).  Currently, the Roosevelt neighborhood, where another Light Rail stop is planned, is under attack for a community based planning effort that is at odds with the vision for the community pressed by Mayor McGinn and outside planning pundits.

The DPD website continues:

“Seattle is projected to add another 100,000 people by 2024. With that in mind, it is time to build on the success and begin updating our neighborhood plans. The updating work began in 2008 and your participation is critical.”

Can Seattle plan for this growth in a manner that will yield stronger communities?  What outcomes can be expected with varying processes?  How do other cities handle the complexity of community development?

Our speaker this month, Jim Diers, led the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods for 14 years starting in 1988, including the glory years of neighborhood planning, only to be removed by Greg Nickels signaling the start of the decline in neighborhood influence.   Jim currently teaches courses in architecture and social work at the University of Washington, and speaks frequently in other cities as a faculty member for the Asset-Based Community Development Institute.  He is the author of Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way.

by Bill Bradburd 12/7/2011

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