How will my neighborhood change over the next 20 years? What will it look like then? What should it look like?
These are some of the questions my neighbors and I have been tackling lately, as we work on a brand new neighborhood plan. A rewrite is long overdue: The existing plan is over twenty years old, and when it was first written, the neighborhood had different geographical boundaries, different demographics, and different problems. The city itself took a different approach back then to integrating neighborhoods into the larger urban fabric of the area … which is to say, it didn’t do much of anything.
Over the last eight or nine years, that’s all changed. My neighborhood has transformed itself primarily by attracting a more diverse group of residents, many of whom have brought to the neighborhood full-time, professional-level incomes that have been invested into the properties and businesses around here. It’s definitely a better place to live than it used to be, full of interesting people with different backgrounds, but in order to overcome the problems we’ve got now and move forward, we need a plan.
We’ve been working with a well-regarded planning firm for the last several months. They’ve been helping us articulate and prioritize our needs and wants by getting us to really look at our neighborhood and how we live in it. Tuesday night, several dozen of us participated in what is known as a “visioning” exercise.
The way it worked was this: There were four tables in the room. Everyone sat at or near one of them. Each table had a large map and dozens of small circular colored stickers. The idea was for us to gather around and apply these stickers to various places on the map, to indicate either problem spots or areas where the neighborhood plan should reflect the changing needs and priorities of the people who live here.
At my table, we quickly ran headlong into one of the neighborhood’s more persistent problems, one that is rooted in the history of the neighborhood itself. In St. Petersburg, the neighborhoods all have specific borders, mostly (and sometimes arbitrarily) defined by the city. My neighborhood was actually created by combining three small, adjacent neighborhoods. One of them was separated from the other two by a major road, and has been kind of isolated from the rest of us ever since. Those on the west side don’t participate nearly as much in neighborhood events or in the neighborhood association itself. We’ve tried to get them more involved in the civic life of the ‘hood for a while now, with mixed results.
Several of us thought we should use the neighborhood plan to try to address that problem. Some of our suggestions focused on ways we might better tie residents there to the rest of the ‘hood: turning one of the east-west streets into a bicycle- and pedestrian-centric boulevard, for example, or by encouraging the use of a large park as one of our community focal points, a place on the west side that can be used for special events.
The visioning process gave us the opportunity to talk about a wide range of ideas for the future direction of the neighborhood, in a context where a conversation like that might actually have an impact. The professional planners we are working with may or may not have come up with those ideas themselves. But as a planner brought in to help a neighborhood chart its future, you can’t just come up with a plan on your own and present it to your clients. It won’t work, because the people who live there won’t be satisfied with it. You have to include them, make it a participatory process. Not because the ideas the residents will come up with will automatically be brilliant, but because their participation makes them invested in the outcome. They see how the process works, they come to understand that their priorities are not necessarily shared by others, and they may be more willing to live with an end result that doesn’t necessarily give them everything they want.
Which is important, because urban living is a compromise. Nobody ever gets everything they want.