Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Why Pittsburgh Should Consider A Comprehensive City Plan Like Youngstown 2010

Anyone who digs deep enough into this blog's history will know that my personal views lean Libertarian and I'm deeply doubtful of conventional urban planning. This being said, perhaps what might be worse is the hodgepodge of disconnected--non planning I see in Pittsburgh today-in which the city and authorities like the URA seek to "engage the public" or more often reveal their already made plans.

A few weeks ago, I told you about a sudden series of meetings (or at least sudden to me) open to Oakland residents about neighborhood design--meetings that did not involve people from surrounding neighborhoods like The Upper Hill, East Liberty, Squirrel Hill or Shadyside. Not long before, East Liberty did something similar--again without input from surrounding areas. Likewise, those interested could attend meetings about Pittsburgh transit which were also completely detached from zoning, development and other topics.

Now it's Homewood's turn and as is not unusual, the process starts with a press release handed down from top city officials.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Councilman Ricky Burgess today announced a new collaborative designed to bring East Liberty-style growth to the struggling Homewood neighborhood.

Mr. Burgess announced that the city Planning Department will provide $150,000 to the Homewood-Brushton Community Coalition Organization to hire one or more economic development specialists. He said additional funding announcements by the city and Urban Redevelopment Authority will be made in the next week or so.

How exactly, any of these places or plans are supposed to understand issues like service needs, transit planning or parking and traffic without carefully looking at and coordinating on a wider level is never explained. Often, this job is left to a well paid out of town consultant who flies in and dumps off some advice. The end result is a public confused and unaware of the potential and development options that might be available, who rightly feels the process is a waste of their time.

Interestingly, Pittsburgh's nearby although much smaller neighbor, Youngstown has done things very differently by creating a process that got a broad section of the public, to think about the city's past and future.

"In the infant years of the new millennium, the city realized it urgently needed a new vision. Jay Williams was working as the city’s director of community development in 2001 when the planning department sought out the expertise of Youngstown State University (YSU), the leading employer for the city and Williams’s alma mater. YSU had plans in mind for its own growth, but ended up nurturing a rehabilitative partnership with the city. Williams, along with D’Avignon and Anthony Kobak, the current chief city planner, teamed with YSU academics piqued by the research of new urbanists such as Stephen Graham and Ann Markusen. Youngstown came to recognize itself, in the words of Markusen’s theoretical work, not as a “sticky” place —an urban center that continuously draws people (Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York City) — but as “slippery” — one where it’s easy for, say, a YSU student to slip into the city, and then slip out due to lack of jobs or housing.

“Our right-sizing plan came out of talks we were having internally acknowledging that although our population wouldn’t be going back to the hundreds of thousands, but that smaller didn’t mean inferior,” says Mayor Williams. “The question we asked was, because we were once so much larger how can we take the remnants of what made us large and build upon that?”

The planning team began to consider a counterintuitive approach to development: rather than grow the city, it should clean and “green” up the unoccupied real estate. They conceived and presented a basic “right-sizing” formula to the Youngstown public, who fleshed out the plan with their ideas and expectations. Or, depending on whom you ask, the planners consulted the public first and then drew up a blueprint for Youngstown 2010.

No matter its genesis, the eventual plan reflected three years of public surveys and town hall meetings aimed at understanding the city’s needs. “Overwhelmingly, people said they wanted the city shrunken, and they were for cleaning up the blighted situations that were causing different variations of decay, crime and abandonment,” Kidd says. Thousands of citizens were consulted, and hundreds of students and professionals logged the process. The plan went into high gear after Williams was elected mayor in 2005. At 34, he was the youngest mayor Youngstown ever elected, and also the first African American — two identity aspects that resonated with college students and the emerging black majority."

Now again, I'm not an expert on what Youngstown did. Some might say, this long series of meetings was useless and didn't get down to specifics. It did however get a large percentage of people to support several general themes--that the city in the short run would have to shrink and that resources should be focused on key areas like the downtown. In the few years, since, the relative lack of acrimony and trouble likely came from these early meetings, where a broad base of people came to understand and buy into a certain way of looking at the city.

In my opinion a process like this in which people could meet, study, talk and speak with experts about major issues on something beyond just a neighborhood level would pay huge dividends over time.

Youngstown 2010

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