The way the Philadelphia City Planning Commission reads it, there are plenty of Philadelphians who want a say in their neighborhood’s future, but don’t know exactly how to ensure their voices are heard, at the right time, by the right people.
That’s why the PCPC is launching the Citizens Planning Institute, a series of workshops designed to demystify the planning and zoning processes and teach participants how their neighborhood organizations can work with each other and city agencies to set goals for development, green space, services and other things that form the character of a neighborhood.
“The whole idea and concept of it is the best news I’ve heard lately,” said Betty Turner, the president of Germantown Community Coalition, who taught management and administration at Antioch College and directed a program at Chestnut Hill College before she retired.
The Planning Commission, Zoning Code Commission, Licenses and Inspections and other agencies each have their own language, said Turner, one of a group of citizen advisors the Citizens Planning Institute organizers consulted with when designing the program. “In order for citizens to participate in the process we have in this city, they have to be able to understand the language.”
Turner is confident that the CPI will help participants – and then the community organizations they belong to – learn how to talk to the city agencies using their own language, get a bettter grasp of how the agencies work together, and determine how to successfully navigate issues they are likely to face in their neighborhoods.
Donna J. Carney, CPI project coordinator, an architect who recently worked for WRT and also has a degree in historic preservation, said that Philadephia planners started talking about offering classes on planning to Philly residents about a year ago. The timing is not a coincidence: The city has been working on a new zoning code, related mapping, and a master plan. All of this requires citizen input.
Carney said that the city needs input from all neighborhoods, but not all neighborhoods have traditionally participated equally, either in city-wide planning efforts or neighborhood level plans or issues. She doesn’t think that reflects a lack of desire. Some neighborhood associations happen to have architects, planners or attorneys who work with the city as members, she said. Others have no one with that professional experience. Some non-professionals take the time to learn how things work, she said, but then when they leave the organization, the group is back at square one.
“We’re building a constituency for good planning,” Carney said. “This is about community empowerment.”
Philadelphia is not the first city to do this, and people working on the CPI here have talked with their counterparts in other cities to get a sense of how it’s done. These cities include Lakewood, Colo., and Sacramento, Calif.
This session is a pilot program with a limited number of seats: Just 30. It is being funded by a $82,500 grant from the William Penn Foundation. The hope is that there will be demand for the program up front, and that afterward, participants will say they found it helpful and meaningful. If those things happen, Carney said, it is likely that the Citizens Planning Institute will be offered again, with more classes and for more people.
On Monday, a website about the program, www.citizensplanninginstitute.org, will go live. People can go there to learn about the sessions and the people teaching them, and also to apply. The application requires an essay about how both the applicant and the applicant’s community would benefit from the program, Carney said.
Institute offerings will include overviews on planning and the role of the planning commission; sessions on zoning and the relationship between zoning and good planning; discussions on how the planning process works in the city, and how community organizations can make planning and zoning work for them. The instructors include city planners, zoning law experts, representatives from community organizations that have participation in planning and zoning matters down to a science, and leaders of organizations that exist to promote economic growth and community revitalization.
Kiki Bolender, a partner at Schade and Bolender Architects LLP and co-creator of an advisory project on citizen involvement for the Zoning Code Commission, will lead a session on zoning. Bolender said topics she plans to cover include why zoning reform is happening in Philadelphia, and how the new code will work better for people in the neighborhoods.
No matter how user-friendly the Zoning Code Commission tried to make the new code, it is a complicated legal document by its very nature, she said.
When a community association doesn’t have an attorney on board to interpret codes, it can be intimidating to get involved, Bolender said, and that’s one thing she hopes to help change. More knowledge “can give them the confidence to go forward,” she said. “I think in fact, having the confidence to deal with (these issues) will make the process less confrontational,” because people will see how they can get involved and change outcomes, rather than just being disappointed over end results.
Development can be especially hard to deal with for neighborhoods that have had little activity for years, then suddenly become the next hot address, Bolender said. And many issues, such as gentrification, are very complex.
Turner, of the Germantown Community Coalition, agreed with Bolender. And she said the direction learning takes at the Citizens Planning Institute sessions will be a two-way street.
She certainly wants to teach the city more about issues in Germantown, for example. She wants to stress the importance of protecting the vast history of her community, while boosting the business sector that has lagged for some time.
And she also wants them to hear about the frustrations from the past that she believes the CPI will help eradicate: “I want them to learn more about Germantown, a bit of its culture, and a bit of the many attempts to do some planning for our community that has somehow not connected,” she said. “I want them to learn a little bit about the frustrations that people have when they feel excluded from a process, and learn ways to make them included.”
Teaching citizens how the system works and how to work with it to achieve neighborhood goals will “earn trust, build respect, decrease frustration, and decrease any kind of turfishness that may be in place,” she said. Knowing how to do “coordinated, participatory planning” will give people the option of getting deeply involved with the future of their community, she said. “The choice is theirs, but at least it is a choice.”
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