On January 23, 2011, Neighbors for Responsible Growth sponsored a public Meeting of Chapel Hill Neighborhoods at the former Chapel Hill Museum building. Nearly 60 residents from 40 area neighborhoods attended. The purpose of the meeting was to explore options for building upon inter-neighborhood cooperation and participation in Town governance, especially as it relates to growth in Chapel Hill.
Meeting of Chapel Hill Neighborhoods
Following a brief introduction from each participant, we heard from residents Diana Steele, Estelle Mabry, Mike Collins, Del Snow, Jeanne Brown, and Glen Parks about their personal experiences dealing with development issues in Chapel Hill.
Dr. Bill Rohe of the UNC Center for Urban and Regional Studies then spoke about the importance of neighborhood organization and engagement, and models for promoting it. While comprehensive planning is emphasized by most municipal planning departments, Dr. Rohe pointed out that it tends to focus on new growth and ignores the physical diversity of towns/neighborhoods, often discouraging meaningful citizen participation. It also tends to emphasize physical development at the expense of social and political factors.
One of the most immediate options for improving community organization is to work on communication and coordination among existing citizens’ groups. Building the capacity to work together can result in the identification of common interests, more effective advocacy, access to advisory and educational resources, and broader coverage of local issues.
Bill said in addition to a neighborhood network model, more formal neighborhood planning programs coordinated with Town government have been effective in some cities. Common elements of formal neighborhood planning programs often include:
- A formal role for neighborhoods in the Town’s development review processes. Notification then is early and predictable, not happenstance.
- Neighborhood-level plans are encouraged.
- Self-help activities are supported in neighborhoods.
Bill described research on formal programs for involving neighborhoods and encouraging self-help activities which has demonstrated that they result in higher rates of citizen participation, increased neighborhood influence on local government decisions, improved communication, and less conflict. These programs tend to encourage planning at the neighborhood level that comprehensive planning and advisory boards are not well suited for; neighborhood issues and plans that come out of these activities can be incorporated in a Comprehensive Plan.
There is no standard model for neighborhood planning programs, although there are a number of models in place in other municipalities nationwide. Such a program in Chapel Hill would reflect our own local interests and values.
Planning for such a program would need to include careful consideration of program goals, sanctioning authority, citizen/Town roles, definition of neighborhoods, and other important issues. Among the challenges that these programs often face is how to ensure that under-represented populations are included (e.g., minorities, renters); avoiding the risk of being too parochial (the interests of larger community are important); and the need to take the high road to be effective (keep advocacy civil and professional, be willing to compromise).
During the discussion led by Dr. Rohe and Fred Stang that followed, participants at the meeting raised other important issues, including:
- The role of citizen education
- The limitations on the ability of one person to represent a neighborhood of citizens with diverse interests
- The importance of organizing across diverse populations and issues
- The use of listservs and other technology-based tools for facilitating communication among neighborhoods
There was general agreement in the comments expressed that the Town and its citizens would benefit from more active participation by neighborhoods in local growth and development decisions.