Betty Turner, a 73-year-old Northwest Philadelphian, has years of experience struggling through the thickets of the city’s bureaucracy in order to better her hometown. She’s presided over two community development corporations, co-founded a Germantown citizens group, served as a Democratic committee person, and opened a low-income medical clinic in East Falls.
So if she’s hopeful about a city initiative, it might mean our government is doing something right.
On Monday, she was one of 30 graduates of the first-ever Citizens Planning Institute, a pilot program crafted by the Philadelphia Planning Commission to involve denizens in its two monster projects: reforming the city’s zoning code and forging a new comprehensive plan. Six other students, including block captains, neighborhood association members, CDC leaders and other civic-minded folks, were from the Northwest area.
“I’ve never seen the city be as open,” says Turner. “It’s one thing to have an advisory committee of some community members here and there. It’s something else entirely to have meetings where the whole community is at least heard and respected, on a regular basis.”
The Institute held three classes in November, schooling its students on the history of city planning, the duties of the Planning Commission, land use, zoning, and public and private development.
Project coordinator Donna Carney says that funding for another set of “core” classes is on its way, as is money for new upper-level courses on topics like historic preservation, marketing and urban design. If all goes as planned — bad pun intended — students who complete enough of these courses will receive certification deeming them official “citizen planners” of Philadelphia.
Turner, who is currently sidestepping retirement to serve as co-founder of the civic group Germantown Community Connection, was most impressed by the Institute’s lessons on how to forge a plan for her particular neighborhood.
“We’ve had many scattered plans for Germantown, but they’ve all been targeted to special interests or groups,” she says. “This information will help us in finally developing a plan that’s comprehensive.”
Turner hopes to have the basic elements of Germantown’s new plan in place by next spring.