Philadelphia aims to bring Black and brown advisers into next city master plan

Octavia Howell, formerly of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, records residents' input on the Lower Northwest District Plan. (Matthew Grady/WHYY)

Octavia Howell, formerly of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, records residents' input on the Lower Northwest District Plan. (Matthew Grady/WHYY)

City Hall wants Philadelphians to play a bigger role in shaping neighborhood growth.

Last week, Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration announced residents will decide how to spend $1 million in taxpayer dollars earmarked for capital investments through the city’s first participatory planning process. The residents selected to participate in that effort will form a new city democratic body of sorts called the Re-Imagine Philadelphia Steering Committee.

After three months spent on the participatory planning initiative, the committee will go on for another year with its second and perhaps more enduring legacy: advising the Philadelphia City Planning Commission on its next citywide comprehensive plan.

When the commission did its last report in 2011 under Mayor Michael Nutter, the city hadn’t comprehensively examined its zoning codes and building rules in more than 50 years.

After a decade of construction and development that brought more prosperity to some areas while leaving many more sections of the city impoverished and struggling to recover from generations of neglect, the Kenney administration wants to update the plan. Equity is the goal this time.

The new committee will have 40 members: Half will come from city agencies and the other half will be city residents. Ten of them will be selected from an open-call application and the other 10 from city boards or commissions, including the Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs, the Philadelphia Commission for Women, and the Mayor’s Commission on African and Caribbean Immigrant Affairs. Applications are due by Dec.15.

The process will be led by a consultant with expertise in social justice, anti-racism, and planning.

But for residents, the city is looking particularly for Black and brown residents, who have historically been left out of the conversation about neighborhood development. While there are many leaders of color working to change the dynamic, the city’s planning process still often centers white voices.

“This steering committee is designing to the best that we can on how to best engage with underrepresented populations that have been muted and don’t feel like they’ve had a voice at the table before,” said Eleanor Sharpe,  the executive director of the City Planning Commission.

Sharpe said the report in 2011 focused on being equal. Last time, they held three public meetings in each district to ask for their needs.

“That’s equal, but is it equitable?” Sharpe asked. “Perhaps not because there’s some communities which have multiple issues that are afoot, that many require double the meetings.”

De’Wayne Drummond is president of the Mantua Civic Association. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

De’Wayne Drummond is the president of Mantua Civic Association. The registered community organization has grappled with the legacy of racist planning practices, poverty and, recently, gentrification. Drummond worked with the Philadelphia 2035 project to help bring community members into the conversation on development and growth. He spoke fondly of the experience but recommends that the next time around, the city should recruit more people comfortable working in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.

“They should get people who dealt with grassroot organizations who can meet people where they’re at,” Drummond said.

He said he’s encouraging people in Mantua to apply to be on the committee.

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” he said.

Tracey Gordon now works as the city’s elected register of wills, but when the city created the last comprehensive plan she was primarily working as an activist in Southwest Philadelphia, serving as the captain of her Cobbs Creek block, a position she still holds.

Like Drummond, her role was primarily as a volunteer to get people in her community to speak about their needs. She said she will encourage her neighbors to get involved this time too, but she worries that many people are already tired of these processes.

Gordon said that while the committee is new, many people have participated in similar meetings in the past and left feeling dissatisfied.

“The residents were at the table, but when you don’t see results, you get dismayed,” Gordon said. “They are made to feel that nothing will come from this.”

City officials hope the entire committee is chosen by the end of December so meetings can begin as soon as possible in the new year. Committee members will receive a stipend to participate.

Apply to join the committee here by Dec. 15, 2020.

Follow PlanPhilly

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal