The case for neighbourhood ‘city halls’

Explore neighbourhood empowerment!

This was the theme of a recent Sunday afternoon workshop organized by the Kerrisdale Community Centre Society (KCCS).

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The workshop invitation referenced the 2012 Vancouver Foundation study that revealed while many residents are collaborating and working hard to create a vibrant and healthy community, far too many others have retreated from civic life.   

It also pointed out that Vancouver does not have an overall plan guiding growth and development. Projects are increasingly approved in an ad-hoc manner, with minimal neighbourhood consultation and little or no regard to community vision plans developed through extensive citizen involvement.

The workshop’s keynote speaker was Jim Diers, a former Seattle city planner.  Also on the program were UBC professor David Ley and Larry Benge, co-chair of the Vancouver Coalition of Neighbourhoods.

I was particularly impressed with what Diers had to say.

He began with a discussion of Robert Putnam’s ground breaking book Bowling Alone, which reveals how many North Americans have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbours, and democratic structures. He told the audience democracy is in crisis, with fewer and fewer people voting, adding we think of ourselves as taxpayers, rather than citizens.

However, residents are starting to wake up and take action, and he used a Seattle grass boulevard as an illustration.

Street boulevards are owned by government, but must be maintained by individuals. One day a woman tore up her boulevard and planted it with vegetables and flowers. Soon her neighbours followed.

While the municipal government initially tried to stop them, it failed and the replanting became contagious. Diers referred to this as an example of the untapped “power of community.”

He noted that “power of community” can also lead to neighbourhood crime prevention, promoting improved health and caring for one another.

He spoke of the importance of knowing our neighbours since, in the event of a disaster such as an earthquake, we will likely be totally dependent on them.

He then described how a number of years ago, Seattle residents were concerned they had little voice in the future planning of their neighbourhoods. The city was run by 32 different downtown departments that tended to work in silos.  To bring government closer to the people a Department of Neighbourhoods was created, and he was hired as its first director.

The challenge was how to make democracy work again. One solution was to create 13 storefront “city halls” that brought not just municipal departments, but also county, state and federal departments into the neighbourhoods.

The people who worked in these “city halls” were like overt double agents in that they worked for both government and local citizens.

A number of initiatives were proposed. The funding came from the city administration along with matching neighbourhood funds, which included cash and in-kind support.

It was a controversial program since many of the community-initiated projects were not necessarily the administration’s top priorities.

In 1998, a new mayor was elected in Seattle. Paul Schell was a former developer and Dean of Architecture. Diers noted that both he and the new mayor hated planning since plans were too often owned by the planner and not reflective of community values.

So the neighbourhoods started to hire their own community planners and prepare their own plans within an overall planning framework.

Thirty thousand people prepared 38 plans over a two-year period. They identified ways to accommodate growth that were acceptable to each neighbourhood.

Once the plans were completed, a major challenge was where to find money to implement them — $196 million was raised for 27 new and enlarged libraries by issuing bonds. A similar approach was subsequently used to fund new community centres and parks.

People voted to pay additional taxes because they had been involved in the decision making process.

Diers went on to describe numerous other North American and international examples of “power of community.”

Everyone, including me, left uplifted. There was a feeling that maybe Vancouver residents should not just sit back and sign the occasional petition. Instead we should insist on shaping the kind of neighbourhoods we want.

Creating local “city halls” around the city with local planning offices could be a most effective way to get started.

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