Community and business leaders, youth, seniors, and numerous other categories of citizens in a city, which make up the city’s residential composition are typically not involved in the master planning process of their city. Cities are shaped by the people who live there, but importantly there is the business community that employs residents and provides opportunities for residents to prosper in cities. The story of all shrinking cities is an economic and social story that started with industries dying or residents leaving the city.

For many years most cities refused to believe that they were shrinking. More importantly, citizens were not actively involved in “fixing” what local governments were failing to provide. These citizens probably made the same mistake that elected officials did. First, they were not aware of the problem. Second, they were not educated on the issues. Third, they were not properly engaged on how to save and allow their city to recover.

During the “Youngstown 2010” planning process thousands of residents and leaders of Youngstown, OH were involved in the visioning and execution of a new master plan. “Youngstown 2010 began as a community engagement and civic education process meant to gain public participation but also to educate people about the importance of planning.” However, the process changed during its initial community meetings. In 2002, the process started with several community visioning exercises. During these meetings over 200 community leaders represented the interests of various community stakeholders. The 2002 process identified the following platform for a community-based agenda:

  • Accepting the Youngstown is a smaller city
  • Defining Youngstown’s role in the new regional economy (no more reliance on the steel industry)
  • Improving Youngstown’s image and enhancing quality of life
  • A call to action

With limited resources the City began to create a volunteer group to implement parts of the initial visioning exercise. The following assignments were established for the volunteer group:

In 2004, a series of 11 neighborhood cluster planning meetings were convened, which sought to further involve residents in the master planning process. In all, over 1,300 people showed up to the Youngstown City Council meeting to show their support for the master plan that was crafted with the guiding principles set by the residents and leaders of Youngstown.

This process of extensive citizen engagement is costly, lengthly, and challenging for local planning departments to handle. In the case of Youngstown, a marketing consultant was hired to assist with the outreach and marketing plans. However, it is entirely possible for planning departments to create the same momentum as the Youngstown 2010 plan without such costly consultants.

In my opinion, the most important takeaways of citizen involvement in planning is the following:

  • It is the responsibility of the planning department to educate the citizens on the issues
  • Citizens should not be boggled down in very small parts of the master planning process. They should view the city from a 15,000 foot view point
  • A clear action agenda should come from initial meetings
  • The planning department should implement the action agenda using volunteers and residents
  • Details of the plan should be worked out by the planning department, with consultation from additional working groups. These details should be presented to the neighborhoods.

The planning department and elected officials should act on the “clear action agenda” that the residents have created. These residents are the ones who live, work, and play in their city. They should have a big voice in how their city develops.

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