Staff Blog: Learning About the City Through the Citizens Planning Institute - Generocity Philly

Jan. 7, 2014 4:24 pm

Staff Blog: Learning About the City Through the Citizens Planning Institute

As a citizen of Philadelphia, it has been a journey to learn how the “engine” of this city works and how I can engage with it. I know that it will be a lifelong study, getting to know the intricacies and how to be best serve in my own way, but I am grateful for […]

As a citizen of Philadelphia, it has been a journey to learn how the “engine” of this city works and how I can engage with it. I know that it will be a lifelong study, getting to know the intricacies and how to be best serve in my own way, but I am grateful for programs that give me a jumpstart on different pieces of the Philadelphia puzzle. If you know where to look, there are a plethora of classes and workshops to attend, and one of my favorite parts of my job at Generocity is to help uncover those opportunities and share them with the community.

This fall, I took part in the Philadelphia Citizens Planning Insitute (CPI), which is a program of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission created as an educational outreach arm to educate citizens about planning a strong city and being an effective part of improving the quality of life in Philadelphia. Initially funded by the William Penn Foundation, the pilot course of CPI was offered in 2010 and has been successfully graduating budding city planners every spring and fall since then.

The experience was an intense, fully integrated crash course in city planning, consisting of three base courses and three electives:

I expected to see several familiar faces in the class, but was pleasantly surprised to see a wide variety of Philadelphians – 31 faces from across the city, from Olney to Roxborough to Parkside to Point Breeze. Each person in attendance had a different level of knowledge of how city planning works but each person came committed to learning more. There were many different perspectives and an array of passions, from hyper-local block concerns to high level dreams of a more green and sustainable city. From the outset, I could tell that this would be a strong example of working with people of every background to accomplish a common goal; a challenging yet rewarding workshop.

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As a complete novice to the idea of city planning, I was pleased that CPI takes a very hands-on approach to each class.

Each session began with a a few presentations from local planners, architects, and officials who were able to give us their specific perspectives on the overwhelming task of planning the city of Philadelphia. At the end of each session, our class broke into small groups to attack specific issues, such as prioritization of a neighborhood plan, weighing options and building requests in different areas of the city, and locating the proper codes to drive your agenda of development within the system. While each of these activities was simplified to fit the format of our limited workshop time, they were very tangible and indicative of the real process of working with people and with the Planning Commission.

In the first of the three 3-hour mandatory workshops, we heard from Paul Vernon of KSK Archictects, Joyce Smith, a CPI alumni and member of the Viola Street Residents Association, as well as Andy Meloney of the Planning Commission. This served as the basis of the CPI class, giving a brief but full overview of the business of city planning and of the major players.  This was followed by an overview of the zoning codes and land use laws, as well as the nuts and bolts of how the complex development process in Philadelphia works.

While there are many more pieces to the “engine” than I could ever have imagined, none of which are easy, learning this process was an extremely useful tool in working with the system and how to advocate for change within it. Representatives from organizations such as the Design Advocacy Group, Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, Schuylkill River Development Corporation and Franklin’s Paine Skatepark Fund volunteered their time to speak on their experiences over the last several years in planning their own city projects, and answered questions from our class so that we could learn from their challenges and successes.

In addition to general city planning information, we also covered vacant land, L&I, and development from the perspective of a nonprofit- issues that continue to be of importance to concerned citizens and the people who are attempting to make change in Philadelphia. The seats in the class are limited, but the director, Donna Carney, has made the resources of the classes mostly available on the CPI website, which is also a helpful place to visit for city planning information.

After going through the class, I have a deep appreciation for the process of learning how to become more involved, and who to talk to if you want to see transformation and improvement. The Citizens Planning Institute was a brief but informative experience that would be a useful tool to any resident of the city.


no textMonica Manklang is the Director of Operations Strategy for Generocity.org. Mo is a graduate of Drexel University with a B.A. in Digital Media, a self-professed nerd, and a die-hard Phillies fan. | Follow her @momanklang

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