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Neighborhood Plans Build Excitement, Purpose

multi-story buildings and parked cars lining a somewhat narrow street in a neighborhood

Writing neighborhood plans helps a community in many situations, such as when:

• You have significant problems and issues that are not being resolved.

• There are competing visions for the future, or competing groups that want to mold the neighborhood and control its direction.

• You are having trouble agreeing on the physical, social, or economic future of the neighborhood, or on a large development proposal.

• The neighborhood's future looks uncertain because of one or more of the following characteristics: low income, high crime rate, too little variety in ages of residents, age of the housing stock, housing obsolescence (due to tiny closets, no garage, houses too small, and such), high vacancy rate of residences or commercial buildings, conflict between the long-time residents and in-movers, or significant unresolved blighting influences such as a noisy freeway, ugly factory, or gang activity.

If you need dialogue about a trend you see, or even a slow drift that seems to be headed neither upward or downward, doing a plan can create new ideas and action agendas if you seize the opportunity.

Who's Going to Plan?

In truth, neighborhood plans usually are prepared only where there is a strong neighborhood organization already, or where the municipal government has recognized or arbitrarily created a neighborhood boundary for administrative purposes.

In fact, if you haven't done so already, figuring out exactly where your borders lie should be the first task in creating your plan.

You need to try to involve the citizens and others who might have a stake in the community but don't live there, such as businesspersons or heads of influential organizations housed in your neighborhood. Doing so is critical to obtaining "buy-in" from those groups.

If you're in a democracy, don't have someone sit in a cubicle and do scholarly neighborhood planning. See what people are willing to support. Read our community engagement page if you have trouble visualizing how to get people involved.

You can certainly do some or all of the work yourselves, but the best of neighborhood plans probably will require the help of a professional, maybe a city employee, city planning consultant, university student team, or extension agent.

If you want to do a plan, approach your city government first and see what resources they can offer. Don't make this request half-baked; there may be a great deal of competition for the efforts of a few professional planners.

Typical Topics in Neighborhood Plans

Don't let anyone tell you that neighborhood plans have to cover topics X, Y, and Z to be viable. While I think you and the planners should make a very broad scan of conditions and issues, there's no reason that neighborhood plans have to address every conceivable subject.

But the plan must focus on the most important one or ones, or it could end up being useless. In fact, you could write a single-issue neighborhood plan if you want to concentrate on one problem or opportunity.

Neighborhoods should not ignore elephants in the living room.

Since we promised to talk about typical topics, here is a good list that can serve as a starting point:

  • Brief history, noting recent trends especially
  • Neighborhood demographics (population characteristics), including a discussion of any needs that these demographics highlight, such as economic inequities among groups, needs of instruction in the predominant language of the wider community, a high or low population of households with children, a large number of senior citizens, and so forth
  • Brief description of typical architectural styles of housing, number of housing units, housing condition, affordability of housing, rents and property values
  • Any housing problems or challenges
  • Commercial establishments types, numbers, and number of employees, and a discussion of any downtown redevelopment or commercial district revitalization that is needed
  • Any gaps in essential shopping and services, and a discussion of potential ways to address those gaps
  • Where neighborhood residents are employed, their journey to work, income levels, employment centers other than the retail and service businesses identified under commercial establishments above, a discussion of any mismatch between worker skills and jobs available, or a mismatch between your neighborhood's location and the location of jobs for which your residents are qualified
  • Any significant vacant or abandoned buildings, eyesores, or brownfields, together with a discussion of redevelopment potential of each identified site
  • Traffic volumes and issues, traffic calming needs, needs for improvements in street connectivity
  • Needs for capital improvements, which might include street widening or narrowing, sidewalk installation or maintenance, bicycle facilities, street lighting, investment in public recreation centers or libraries in your neighborhood, utility upgrades, flood prevention facilities, and other improvements needed from the public sector
  • An appreciation of neighborhood assets
  • Discussion of neighborhood organizations, community development corporations, community improvement districts or other special taxing districts, and non-profits, including places of worship
  • Map-based depiction of desirable future land uses, infill housing, traffic improvements, bike lane and sidewalk installations, and sites for visual amenities such as public art or gateway features
  • Last and perhaps most importantly, a specific plan of action for how the plan will be implemented, how much funding will be needed, what laws need to be enacted, and what action specific public and private organizations need to take

For further ideas, you could see our recommended book, Community Planning: An Introduction to the Comprehensive Plan. Although specifically dealing with a comprehensive plan, also known as master plan, it gives you an idea of the topics you should consider.

But remember that a short, breezy, and very focused plan could be very impactful. A crisp one-page plan would knock their socks off, if it's ambitious yet attainable, and clear about who should take what step first, second, and third. So I'm not a fan of long-winded plans.

A plan outline could be as simple as this:

1. We have vacant storefronts. We counted eight, and here's a map of where they are.

2. We have a good nucleus of cute little boutiques. We checked, and we have the income to support that.

3. We don't want or have room for big box stores in our neighborhood.

4. Therefore we need to fill the eight vacant storefronts with cute little boutiques and eateries.

5. The people who should accomplish this are the XYZ group.

6. They have agreed to implement our plan, and they will do so within two years by establishing an "I will if you will" task force, described further on our retail attraction page.

If you've never faced the fact that the storefronts are vacant, preventing other stores from being as prosperous as they could be, and need to be filled, you have made significant progress even though you won't win any awards.

The Planning Process in a Nutshell

As veterans of this process, of course we have a lot to say--so much that we're making a separate page about the community planning process.

Here let's just list the steps for you, in case you're in a hurry and can't get into that other page right now:

1. Gather information.

2. Analyze the data you collected.

3. Set goals.

4. Look at the alternatives and choose among them.

5. Write down the plan.

6. Plot implementation strategies.

Of course what we aren't saying is that often when you are at step 4 or 5, it becomes apparent that you need more information (back to step 1) or that the community support for your goals (step 3) has fallen apart. So it isn't neat and tidy, but this is a general outline of the progress you can expect.

Isn't your community worth a revitalization strategy or a thoughtful look at what it will take to keep your community beautiful?

For a more detailed but concise look at the subject, check out this neighborhood planning site.

Finding Community Strengths:

  1. Community Development
  2.  ›
  3. Community Organizations
  4.  ›
  5. Neighborhood Plans

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