Neighbor Power II: More lessons from Seattle
Following the 2007 Neighborhood Planning Conference held May 5, this column shared ideas from conference speaker Jim Diers for improving community satisfaction with Austin's neighborhood plan process ("Neighbor Power," May 18). This week follows up with more "best practices" worth emulating from Seattle. Diers is the founding director of the Department of Neighborhoods for the city of Seattle and the author of Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way. Since completing 38 neighborhood plans simultaneously in 1998, Seattle has conducted a successful and well-orchestrated program of implementing those plans. The effort is conducted by a stand-alone Department of Neighborhoods, which orchestrates cross-departmental and community efforts citywide. Because the Emerald City (official nickname) is a decade ahead, its matured neighborhood plan implementation program provides valuable models that could accelerate improvements here in Oztown.
Diers' core message at the conference: To promote a healthy community, a city must empower neighborhoods to solve their own issues and problems. Diers has seen the success, satisfaction, and community improvement that result when a city provides resources for neighborhoods to carry out their plan recommendations directly. He emphasized that cities work best when they empower citizens to take action on their own neighborhood priorities, through their own organizations.
Like the first Neighborhood Planning Conference held last year (see www.neighboraustin.com for details on both events), this year's dialogue pointed out the need and the opportunities to improve Austin's ongoing and problematic neighborhood plan process. Ever since the city rather myopically chose to pursue neighborhood planning without updated comprehensive planning in 1996, Austin has approached planning for its future in localized slivers. Citizens and city staff have invested 10 years in executing neighborhood plans.
Yet our City Council and administration unfathomably have failed to follow up the recommendations generated by the plans with a formal and funded program of neighborhood plan implementation. The result, predictably, is the current high level of citizen frustration and distrust of the process and a neighborhood infrastructure that longtime community activist and conference organizer Tim Mahoney recently called "an uncoordinated network of mayhem."
Fresh Energy in Austin
Greg Guernsey, who became Austin's director of Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department in February 2006, represents fresh leadership more open to neighborhood empowerment. Mahoney says he has found Guernsey to be far more open-minded and sympathetic to neighborhood concerns than the previous director. Cid Galindo, who serves on the Neighborhood Planning Committee of the Planning Commission, also has found Guernsey "very open-minded." Guernsey attended both community-organized conferences (which the city co-sponsored) and says that listening to neighborhood folks talk at the conference workshops about their experiences with the planning process raised his awareness of existing problems. In his office he points to a copy of Diers' book, Neighbor Power, and to several thick Seattle neighborhood plans, which he hopes to review soon.
Currently, Austin's neighborhood planning is in progress for five combined areas: Central West Austin, North Burnet Gateway, Oak Hill, South Lamar, and University Hills/Windsor Park. The city has shifted to planning larger combined areas, partly to meet its deadline of completing all plans by 2010. At this point, nearly 30 areas have adopted neighborhood plans. Another dozen remain designated as future planning areas. (For info on the process and specifics on individual neighborhoods, visit www.ci.austin.tx.us/zoning.) Neighborhood plans, after review by the Planning Commission, are adopted by the City Council as an update and amendment to the city's 1979 comprehensive plan. Only the zoning provisions they include gain the force of law, as ordinance amendments to the city's code.
Guernsey made the point that as a department director he can only execute council policy. Broadening NPZD's mission beyond neighborhood planning, to tackle real neighborhood empowerment and substantive plan implementation, would require fresh council directives, he said plus the staff and budget to get the job done, which he currently lacks. Noted Galindo: "The leadership that's needed, that's lacking, is not at the department level; to me, it's at the city management level and council level. Council needs to recognize that the neighborhood plan process is not as good as it could be. Issues at the systemic level are creating results we did not anticipate and that we do not want."
Within his purview, the genial Guernsey has initiated specific improvements that give neighborhood planning teams cause for hope. When he became director, he discovered that no procedures manual existed (rather astoundingly) that set forth a standard process for neighborhood planning. In fact, different staff used different practices from one neighborhood to the next. The lack of this most basic tool has contributed to frustration, said Guernsey, because both community members and staff have lacked a road map and the assurance of equity. A manual now is being prepared. Guernsey hopes it will go to the Planning Commission for approval in late July; if so, it could be available to the community by the end of the summer.
The director also noted an improved staffing approach to be tested on the Central West Austin Combined Neighborhood Planning process. Of the 22 city staffers who work in neighborhood planning, one will be dedicated (half time) to work with area participants throughout the complete "life cycle" of the plan process. The planner will lead an advance team phase to better alert, educate, and prepare citizens for the process which Guernsey recognizes as a missing piece on recent plans. The same planner will serve as a liaison for the neighborhood contact team during planning. Upon adoption of the plan, the staffer will continue on to monitor and facilitate implementation of the plan's recommendations. This alone represents a significant new city commitment.
Planning Commissioners have been meeting monthly with staff to provide input on the procedures manual and to suggest improvements to the process it will set forth. "The Planning Commission has its own ideas, and their subcommittee will probably offer their own recommendations," noted Guernsey. Commissioner Galindo said the committee is encouraging staff to think outside the box and to look at what other cities are doing: "Seattle is a good example. Structurally they have a lot of advantages tools and resources that we should have, but we don't."
In that spirit: more good ideas from Seattle and Jim Diers:
Seattle: Ideas That Work
Best Practice: Pay for Neighborhoods to Hire Planners
Each neighborhood got substantial funds from the city to hire professional planners, said Diers. Each neighborhood group received about $70,000 to $100,000 to hire its own planners; the budget also covered related outreach and plan development. Neighborhoods trust the process far more, he found, when they select and hire their own planner. Guidance from professional urban planners produces much better outcomes in the community and levels the playing field between neighborhoods and developers.
Best Practice: Neighborhood Service Centers
Responding to the collective voice of the neighborhood plans, Seattle "realigned all city government to be more community focused," said Diers. One concrete expression was "neighborhood service centers," which Diers described as "little city halls." Now all around town, with staff that speak the languages of immigrant communities, the handy centers visibly link city government to Seattle's neighborhoods. Citizens use them to access a wealth of city services and information, from multiple departments. "People love them!" said Diers.
Best Practice: Density Assignments
It helped immensely, Diers said, that neighborhood planning could build on a new Seattle comprehensive plan that set out a clear city policy: "We're going to have growth." Each neighborhood was assigned a growth target to incorporate into its planning process. Diers said no one challenged their density assignment, and in fact two neighborhoods requested higher targets (to become more viable as residential neighborhoods with supermarkets and schools). Rather than fight growth, citizens moved forward to consider "How can we best accommodate growth?" and "How can growth be a positive for our neighborhood."
Diers noted that his department was careful not to ask, "How can we put more people in your neighborhood?" but rather "What could we do to make your neighborhood more livable?"
In this effort, Seattle was tremendously helped in having a mandate from the state of Washington's 1990 Growth Management Act, which requires comprehensive planning (partially for environmental reasons) and which spawned the hard density targets. Unfortunately Austin receives no such support from the Texas Legislature. On the contrary, our Lege actively fights municipal planning to defend "property rights" above all.
Best Practice: More Than Land Use
In Austin, the neighborhood planning process addresses land use, zoning, transportation, and urban design issues. In Seattle, citizens also developed visions for other aspects of urban growth such as human development (social services), arts and culture, economic development, housing needs, environmental issues, and infrastructure. Particularly as Austin neighborhood plans are now our city's only long-range planning process, they would do well to emulate this broader scope. Other "sustainability indicators" that plans might formally address include education and children, social equity of opportunity, public safety, civic engagement, and health care.
Best Practice: Power, Not Task Forces
Diers noted that previously Seattle had provided outlets for citizen participation only through task forces and committees. But task forces lack the power to implement anything. "The city can say it's gathered citizen input, and then the city goes and does whatever it wants," Diers observed wryly. "All the power stays in the hands of city officials." Seattle has evolved toward a different model, where citizens are treated as valuable resources who can actually solve the problems they identify. Said Diers: "How do you start making local government work again? You make cities see real value in citizens and build on that."
Best Practice: Execute and Communicate
Seattle has used strong project management to turn neighborhood "wish lists" into completed projects checked off the list. DON gets the projects done by orchestrating implementation across many city departments. Each key neighborhood plan recommendation becomes a city project that is actively assigned, tracked, budgeted for, scheduled, and (hopefully) completed, all within a master matrix.
Best of all, an interactive feature on the city of Seattle website makes it easy for citizens to track the specific recommendations and projects' status in their neighborhood plans. By clicking on a map, citizens can view all of the projects on their neighborhood plan's matrix. (To try it, visit www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/npi/planning.) Detailed are the actions to be taken, the responsible city department and contact person, a completion target date, and project status. The commitment to accountability communicated is far superior to that on Austin's neighborhood planning webpages.
On the Austin City Connection home page, "neighborhoods" isn't even a topic included on the index bar. There's a "City Plans" link, but that resource excludes a direct link to neighborhood plans (despite a promise by City Manager Toby Futrell that the webpage would make all city planning tools transparent and easily accessible to the public). Instead it opens a "Vision" page where one again searches in vain for any mention of neighborhoods or neighborhood plans next to "Council Priorities," "Values," or even "Comprehensive Planning."
By communicating so little, the city of Austin website says quite a lot.
Seattle Best Practices from the May 18 column:
A City Fund for Neighborhood Projects: Neighborhood groups can initiate their own projects and get 50% matching funding from the city which in turn has leveraged another $50 million in community resources.
A Bond Issue for Neighborhood Plan Implementation: The city of Seattle offered voters a $470 million bond package to fund neighborhood improvements projects the community had specifically detailed and requested in their 38 neighborhood plans. The bonds passed easily.
Track and Execute "Top 5" Projects: Each neighborhood has identified its Top 5 projects; these are collated into a master database used to track plan implementation and to prioritize the projects that get attention and funding from the city and community groups.