5 community engagement lessons from the completed Philadelphia2035 plan - Generocity Philly

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Oct. 15, 2018 7:21 am

5 community engagement lessons from the completed Philadelphia2035 plan

Philadelphia City Planning Commission's director of community planning, Laura Spina, on how the comprehensive plan for the city’s development was formed over eight years and more than 100 public meetings.

Mayor Jim Kenney speaks during the Oct. 9 celebration of Philadelphia2035's plan completion.

(Photo via twitter.com/PHLplandevelop)

Last week, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) celebrated the release of the completed Philadelphia2035, a comprehensive plan for the city’s development and growth.

Its first phase, approved in 2011, focused on citywide planning goals. For the second phase, PCPC created separate plans for 18 different planning districts that detail recommendations for economic development, land management, transportation, historic preservation and more.

An integral part of the planning process — which began in 2010 — was consistent community engagement. PCPC held more than 100 meetings with the public and community stakeholders to gauge what Philadelphia citizens wanted for their city. This included 13 public meetings while developing the citywide plan and three public meetings held in each district (54 total), said Laura Spina, PCPC’s director of community planning.

Here are five takeaways about community engagement from the process:

1. It shouldn’t be rushed.

One of Philadelphia2035’s defining aspects is how long it took to be developed, showing that planning and community engagement aren’t quick and easy practices. (Keep in mind that the scope of the citywide plan included about 142 square miles and 1.56 million residents.)

Spina said PCPC originally planned to finish the district plans by the end of Mayor Michael Nutter’s last term in 2016. The additional attention and time led to a better finished product, she said.

2. Good community engagement is community engagement that evolves.

PCPC not only adjusted some deadlines, but also the structure of meetings in the 18 districts. The first PCPC meeting in each district was the same: Spina said the commission had attendees map out the strengths, weaknesses, areas of opportunity and barriers to achieving those potential benefits in their neighborhood. This gave PCPC a guide for what areas and issues to focus on, she said.

The structure of the two subsequent meetings in each district varied depending on the needs of the area and what PCPC felt citizens would respond best to. The commission came up with all of these community engagement exercises used at the meetings.

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“Sometimes they didn’t work as well as we thought,” Spina said. “We went back to the office and thought about how we could do to better engage citizens in the future.”

After the meetings, PCPC wrote a document of all of the district’s recommendations. It was presented to the citizens again so they could comment on changes they wanted.

Philadelphia2035’s 18 planning districts. (Image courtesy of Laura Spina)

3. The more face time you give constituents, the better they will respond.

The scope and thoroughness of Philadelphia2035 made it an intensive process. Add in the fact that PCPC hired no third-party consultants for assistance, and it may be one of the most laborious undertakings the commission has faced.

Spina said city employees did all of the legwork, including outreach, research, writing and graphics. It tested the commission’s limits, but built up the staff’s skill set, she said. Plus, having city representatives face to face with the public fostered appreciation between the two entities.

“Philadelphians are extremely civic-minded,” Spina said. “That is across the board, no matter what area of the city they’re from. They really appreciated having an agency of the city come to them about what they needed and what they wanted.”

“Here at PCPC, we view all of Philadelphia as our client,” as opposed to a private planning firm, she added.

4. It’s important to educate citizens about the issues you’re asking them for feedback on.

The everyday Philadelphian isn’t well-versed in the language of city planning and zoning. PCPC had a plan to amend this disconnect from the beginning of Philadelphia2035 with the Citizens Planning Institute (CPI).

CPI holds a seven-week course every fall and spring on topics like the basics of planning, land use and zoning. Any Philadelphia resident is encouraged to take the course, and implement what they learn via a civic project in their neighborhood. Upon the completion of this fall’s class, there will be 500 total graduates of CPI, Spina said.

5. There is always more work to be done.

As stated, the people leading community engagement efforts should adjust their outreach methods depending on the feedback they gather. This feedback can also point to related issues and projects that weren’t expected from the start.

Spina said PCPC has leveraged $23 million in additional funds to support such endeavors, like follow-up studies and construction projects. The commission is always interested in potential grants, she added.

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