I attended a community planning meeting last night in the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Tioga. The several dozen residents in this disinvested area surrounded by Temple University’s health system buildings, congregated in a local church and listened as the planners discussed the latest ideas for improving their community.
Tioga is one of a handful of communities in Philadelphia that has seen lots of planning and little action. Some of the residents have watched and participated in over 50 years of planning. Yet vacant homes and lots dot every block. Trash blows in the streets. There is crime, drugs, and lack of basic services.
The meeting ran nearly an hour late. The residents had lots to say. Some community members expressed distrust of the planners. Others wanted to see a certain issue addressed. Some were afraid that the plan would bring gentrification, rising taxes, and displacement. Others were afraid of the opposite: that nothing at all would come of this plan, just as with decades of prior plans.
The planners attempted to answer the residents’ questions, while moving through their market analysis and urban design ideas. However, many in the crowd seemed unsatisfied. When it came to issues like realizing the concepts in the plan or protecting residents from gentrification, the planners had little to contribute. Their answer was largely that this was the job of City Council. The plan was just a set of concepts, the planners explained to the crowd. Transforming the plan to reality relied on City Council introducing legislation, active community groups taking initiative, and private developers investing.
The planners were answering honestly, but this meeting (and dozens of others like it that I have attended) exhibited an important question. By passing off implementation to policy makers, are planners really satisfying the needs of communities? Does the planner perhaps have a new responsibility in today’s world?
Planners in Philadelphia and nationally have dramatically reshaped their roles over the past forty or so years. Today planning necessarily is a balance of offering expert design ideas, while not standing in the way of the community’s ability to have a voice and shape its own destiny. This democratization of the planning profession was once groundbreaking; now it is commonplace. The new question is: what is the planner’s role once the plan is complete?
Often planners see the plan as the end of the journey. They step away, and leave it up to policy makers to implement the plan. The problem is, too often the policy makers don’t really understand how to go about it. Of course the planners in Tioga cannot really be blamed. We have processes, agencies, roles, funding constraints, and hierarchy that set the boundaries of how far the planners can and should go.
But perhaps this paradigm could change. What if the plan were the beginning of a process, rather than the end? What if part of the planner’s job were to connect the plan concepts with the appropriate policy makers, and to help those policy makers follow through? What if high-level city officials gave the planners a stronger role in the process of spending city money and enacting policies?
Is the planning profession ready for this paradigm shift to planner as facilitator of plan implementation? Are other city officials? Will the city power structure allow it or embrace it? How will communities react? These are the questions I will discuss in the next few posts. Stay tuned.