Approaching neighborhoods with a community focus

Boise—city of neighborhoods? Credit: Andrew Crisp. Accessed 4/5/2014.

Boise—city of neighborhoods? Credit: Andrew Crisp. Accessed 4/5/2014.

This Spring, members of our Community and Regional Planning cohort have embedded themselves within three Boise neighborhoods, Morris Hill, West Valley and Collister. Through interviews with residents and major stakeholders, each neighborhood has revealed a rich local history, diverse, fascinating individuals and together have opened a window into better understanding the larger city itself. However, our process, in my mind, has also revealed the blatant underrepresentation of neighborhoods within the local planning process.

Boise can and should more fully embrace a neighborhood planning approach. Both city officials and residents themselves have made strides in recent years, but more can be done to integrate a neighborhood focus into the larger effort to guide growth and change in the city. Instead of planning for neighborhoods, policymakers ought to engage in efforts to empower neighborhoods to plan for themselves.

Neighborhoods, as a concept, are not foreign to local planning efforts, but receive uneven treatment in guiding planning documents. The city’s “comprehensive general plan,” drafted in 1985, makes numerous reference to the concept of neighborhood without adequately defining the concept. Absent in their definitions are the people who live within these places, and how they feel about them. Authors refer to “neighborhood design,” “neighborhood patterns” and “neighborhood services,” offering definitions for more suited for zoning than establishing a working definition for areas with unique identity. Charting neighborhood planning through Boise planning efforts would be a worthwhile pursuit for any researcher seeking to better understand planning history in Idaho. Nevertheless, in the 1985 plan, a seminal document for planning in 2014, neighborhood is understood more as a design principle, relying on the concept of a neighborhood schematic and optimal layout, (for more on the powerful influence of neighborhood and Clarence Perry’s concept of “neighborhood unit” as a design scheme, see Dean Gunderson’s blog, “A ‘Small Community’ within the Community?”).

A Boise version of Claren Perry’s “Neighborhood Unit.” Credit: City of Boise Comprehensive General Plan, 1985. Accessed 4/4/2014.

Do neighborhoods matter? Is neighborhood planning important? Christopher Silver’s look at the history of neighborhood planning suggests a shift from product (Perry, et al.) to process by the 1970s and 1980s. In Boise 2014, indication of this larger shift is less apparent—a renewed focus on neighborhood planning as a part of the local planning process may be an idea whose time has come.

I offer a multi-step process to achieving the goal of a better neighborhood planning process, through the city’s neighborhood associations, outlined below:

First, the City of Boise should aid the establishment of new neighborhood association boundaries based on history, a common identity, and community character. Neighborhoods with cohesion and strong community exist without neighborhood associations. Additionally, neighborhood associations exist spanning areas encompassing numerous disparate communities with fundamentally different goals. Some parts of the city do not fall within the boundary of any neighborhood association, precluding them from participating in this basic building block of municipal democracy. Objective criteria by which to categorize distinct neighborhoods should be established in concert with the will of residents. The North End, Boise’s oldest neighborhood, has an undeniable identity. Residents in other parts of the city can work to establish a sense of character in their own communities.

Second, neighborhood associations should play a key role in city planning efforts. Blueprint Boise, the city’s comprehensive plan authored in 2007, identifies goals, opportunities and change in planning areas bearing little resemblance to neighborhood association boundaries. Instead, comprehensive planning should engage with neighborhoods from the very beginning, soliciting input from residents and neighborhood association contacts and representatives alike. This “bottom up” approach could do well to strengthen the comprehensive planning process.

Third, the city’s Geographic Area Planning initiative should also be retooled to comport with neighborhood association boundaries. This initiative, which embeds practicing planners in the development processes and infrastructure planning efforts at the neighborhood level, would only benefit from an increased focus on working with individual neighborhood associations. No doubt hiring enough planners to fully embed one staff member with the representatives of each neighborhood association would prove a costly proposition for Planning and Development Services, (currently, GAP planning city-wide is divided among fewer than a dozen planners). Weighing the costs and benefits of this program and allocating resources appropriately can and should play a large role in considering this proposal.

Fourth, City Council members should rethink Planning and Zoning, Design Review and Historic Preservation processes through a neighborhood perspective. Allowing broader neighborhood representation during these semi-judicial hearings would help give residents a stronger voice in development review.

Fifth and finally, neighborhood planning in Boise would benefit most from greater community involvement from residents. One cannot ignore the City of Boise’s successful “Good Neighbor Program,” and its Neighborhood Reinvestment Grant offerings, both of which are designed to strengthen the city’s through community outreach, communication and direct funding of planning and capital projects. Reinvestment grants have helped fund important contributions to neighborhood identity, including public art in the Collister neighborhood’s Catalpa Park, safety improvements in the Southeast area and playground equipment in Morris Hill. This effort, too, would benefit from a renewed process built around planning at the neighborhood level.

A neighborhood focus may require rethinking existing boundaries. Credit: Andrew Crisp. Accessed 4/5/2014.

A neighborhood focus may require rethinking existing boundaries. Credit: Andrew Crisp. Accessed 4/5/2014.

There are important issues to consider, as well. Neighborhoods can and should include disenfranchised and minority populations as well, not just those with spare time or political acumen to participate regularly in neighborhood association bureaucracy. Inherent in any association is political capital, and this fact should not be trifled with. Additionally, homeowners should not be the only voice in the process—renters may not own property within neighborhood association boundaries, but contribute to the community regardless. Businesses play another vital role in community. Understanding divisions and disagreements within neighborhoods will require finesse, and here planners may need to fill important roles as mediators and facilitators.

Our work within Boise neighborhoods includes an effort to provide a voice to Boise residents, in their own words, on topics of what makes a community, how history informs today’s choices and how planning can better consider people, not just the built environment. Visit the city’s Sesqui-Shop, 1008 W. Main St., on First Thursday, May 1 for an opportunity to provide your own thoughts on neighborhoods.

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One thought on “Approaching neighborhoods with a community focus

  1. I really liked your ideas in this blog, and I think that these ideas “can and should be” implemented to some level. I am curious though, is creating neighborhood boundaries based on common identities and histories really the answer? I like the idea, and I see that it could build a unity among neighbors. But couldn’t it lead to more factionalization and disunity of the city? By keeping the current neighborhood association boundaries, it could perhaps create a consensus among differing viewpoints at the current neighborhood level.

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