Last month I posted about a set of Community Planning Guidelines that the Philadelphia City Planning Commission was considering. Yesterday at its monthly hearing, the Planning Commission officially approved those guidelines. This is an important step forward for the City.
Many neighborhoods have been creating community plans, at great time and expense, but there was no real link between these plans and City policy. On the flip side, the Planning Commission had no way of ensuring that these community plans were inclusive and open, or that they were consistent from neighborhood to neighborhood.
These new guidelines would require community plans to meet a set of criteria in order to gain "acceptance" by the Planning Commission. These criteria include involving the Planning Commission in the planning process, having open community meetings, being consistent with the City's official plans, reaching out to stakeholders, and having competitive bidding for plans paid for with public dollars.
On the Planning Commission's part, it will issue an acceptance letter and post accepted plans on its website, creating a catalog of current accepted plans for each part of the city. These plans will generally serve as the basis for future public planning efforts, and for policy recommendations related to zoning, land disposition, and capital funding. In this way, community plans will be directly related to City policy decisions.
One former long-time Planning Commission staff member testified yesterday, cautioning that these guidelines could give the green light to outsourcing community planning. However, in some ways these guidelines are more a response to the multitude of independent community plans that have already surfaced of late. There are certainly challenges and potential pitfalls to community-run planning processes. However, when done well they produce plans that have the kind of buy-in that is difficult to achieve through a City-run planning process.
Philadelphia is lucky to have such a passionate citizenry, willing and wanting to be involved in the planning of the city's neighborhoods. And now these guidelines create a link between these community planning efforts, the public process, and the policy instruments for making the plans reality. For a city long-known for disconnected and piecemeal efforts when it came to planning and development, this is a breath of fresh air.
It is important that the Planning Commission now take these accepted community plans seriously. If neighborhood groups get an acceptance letter from the Commission, but then see the plans have little impact into city policy decisions, they will become skeptical. Likewise the Planning Commission should take a hard line on the issue of acceptance. It should become known that groups without accepted plans are not going to get traction with the Planning Commission when they want to push for rezoning, land disposition, capital projects, or other policy topics. Gaining acceptance needs to mean something in order to gain participation and buy-in from neighborhood-based organizations.
Finally, it is critical that the Planning Commission work with other City departments and agencies to ensure that they too take this acceptance process seriously. If communities learn that the Office of Housing and Community Development or the Redevelopment Authority are not giving any value to accepted community plans, then that will be a major blow to the program's legitimacy. The Planning Commission's Executive Director is also the City's Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. These guidelines will only have impact if they become universal City policy, and that kind of mandate has to come from the top.