Thursday, August 16, 2012

DIY City Planning: OP and AIA DC Launch Citizen Focus Groups

Ever been to a planning meeting?  Fuzzy on development zoning and permitting, but still have ideas about D.C. development or what exactly makes a great neighborhood?  The D.C. Office of Planning (OP) - the municipal authority charged with shaping the District's urban landscape - still cares about what residents like you have to say.  That's the message the office is sending with a new series of focus groups.

The District Architecture Center, Image courtesy AIA

In collaboration with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) DC Advocacy Committee, the OP, under the direction of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning, has launched a series of focus groups to get a picture of resident thoughts on place-making and everything from transportation to use of public space. Two focus groups, of two hours each, have already met and two are coming up.

The focus groups signal a real effort in the planning department to look beyond planning meetings and foster citizen agency.

The deadline to join the groups was August 8th, and OP officials say there was an overwhelming interest to join: the office received hundreds of applications and selected participants who had been both more engaged and less engaged in official city planning processes.

"We have these very official – and some might say officious – ways of doing business and engaging people," Tregoning said. She noted that development and planning initiatives go through a complex approval process some residents might find distancing.  But, she said, many are already working informally - both outside city hall and with the city - to improve their neighborhoods. Tregoning points to a recent project under the city's Temporary Urbanism Initiative in which, with grant funding from ArtPlace, citizens painted a plaza with cafe tables and imagined structures to show what the plaza would be like if it were a place for people and not cars. 

"People have a lot of energy around this but there is not necessarily a place for it to go, and how can we harness it for the betterment of the city and for the neighborhood?" Tregoning asked.

The idea for the forums emerged from joint meetings between OP officials and the new D.C. advocacy committee of the AIA.  Carolyn Sponza is the enthusiastic head of the committee and has been a key force behind spearheading the effort.  She said the two groups realized there was a real "synergy" between AIA D.C.'s advocacy committee's goal to engage broad community issues larger than architecture, and the OP's "Citizen Planner Initiative." 

An architect at Gensler and AIA volunteer, Sponza said that residents have raised a diverse range of issues so far.  She said two main themes have been urban mobility and connectivity. "There were a lot of things about making connections, like the 'I can't get there from here syndrome,'" Sponza told DCMud.  She said people were also interested in growing connections, both between neighborhoods and between citizen organizations and non-profit planning and architecture services.

Tregoning said the forums are meant to explore ways to reach people and engage people more informally and more frequently on different kinds of issues. "There is just a ton of interest in what makes good neighborhoods and good places and a lot of people in the city have this deep curiosity in good cities," Tregoning added. "We were interested in ways to try to satisfy that curiosity and at the same time try a better constituency for better planned neighborhoods and better citizen engagement."

Tregoning pointed to many possible outcomes that could emerge from the focus groups:
  • A "Development 101" module about how development happens in the city and how residents can have influence in the process.
  • Further engagement of citizens around traffic and development and aspects of "the built environment that lead to more trips by car or fewer trips by car."
  • Efforts in particular neighborhoods to clean up trash, get more retail, or build facilities from public trash cans to parking.
  • DIY projects
  • New ways people can participate in planning.  Most avenues for citizen input in planning are geared toward in-person meetings.  Possible new avenues might use technology to include people to engage remotely.
  • Walking tours in areas that citizens nominate geared toward fostering dialogue surrounding the question: "what makes a great place?" 
One of the explicit objectives, Tregoning said, "is to have citizens not be the passive recipients of the city's planning but figuring out ways that they can be more involved – not just as commenters in the planning project – but in thinking about what they can do to make their neighborhoods better."

The AIA DC advocacy committee will present an overview of the meetings on October 4th at the new District Architecture Center at 421 7th Street NW, in DC's Penn Quarter neighborhood, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m.  The street-level space, also home to the Washington Architecture Foundation, was designed by Washington firm Hickok Cole Architects.  The center hosts events and exhibits aimed at engaging the public and professionals in architecture.


Braulio said...

It's American Institute of Architects, not "Architectural Institute of America." Otherwise, nice post.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a very respectable effort.

The next challenge for Tregoning and the AIA is to prevent this from ossifying into a little fiefdom ruled by people who have the time to participate in a group that has no actual powers but requires attendance at endless meetings with open-ended objectives. I.e. to become another version of the ANC's, community associations, preservation leagues, and the rest. All of these groups have good people involved, but ultimately cannot really represent because they are run by people who either have a lot of free time, or don't mind devoting practically all their free time to the group, traits that the average Washingtonian just doesn't share!

Anonymous said...

"... with grant funding from ArtPlace, citizens painted a plaza with cafe tables and imagined structures to show what the plaza would be like if it weren't a place for people and not cars..."

How very cute. There must be plenty of "citizens" in this town who don't mind being treated like pre-schoolers while burning through someone else's tax money. Architects of DC, it is hard to envy you.

Anonymous said...

Which citizens will participate and how is the determination made?

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