Many recent changes in Minneapolis, Minnesota – from community schools to traffic calming to new streetlights to community policing – are being designed, proposed, and even implemented by city residents, as part of an ambitious program designed to give citizens power in their city’s priority-setting processes. While the program has had its share of growing pains, it has allowed residents to learn about planning and forced the city to take note of priorities and goals residents want city agencies to focus on.
In 1987, the City of Minneapolis embarked on a planning process to design a program to revitalize city neighborhoods, build neighborhood capacity, redesign public services, and increase government collaboration. Out of that design process came the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP), funded with $400 million over 20 years, money generated by special tax increment districts in the city. Launched in 1991, the NRP charges each of the city’s 81 neighborhoods with designing and implementing a participatory planning process to address the needs of the community. NRP and city agency staff provide technical support and information where needed, but community groups and residents are largely on their own in devising overall strategies and concrete plans and then ultimately implementing them with their allocation of the NRP funds.
“It’s a citizen participation initiative that goes the extra mile by following up with resources to implement the plans,” says Gretchen Nicholls, executive director of the Minneapolis Center for Neighborhoods. “The hard work that goes into planning is given heightened meaning when people actually feel like it will come to fruition.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean residents are completely prepared for the responsibility implicit in the process. “One shortcoming has been that there’s no training or technical assistance to really develop resident skills in becoming effective planners,” says Nicholls.
Maura Brown, director and lead organizer for Harrison Neighborhood Association, agrees. “Neighborhoods had a steep learning curve through the planning process,” she says. “Neighborhood groups were at varying stages of readiness, but all of the groups encountered tasks they weren’t prepared for.” Those challenges were opportunities for growth and capacity-building for the groups, but at the same time may have limited some groups’ effectiveness.
As much as the project’s leaders have tried to steer attention away from the $400 million of funding, there’s no denying that the control residents have over these significant resources has made a significant difference in the power they have in the NRP process. “The money may have seemed like an incentive to get involved for some people,” acknowledges Bob Cooper, Manager of the NRP/Citizen Participation Department of the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA), but that’s still not the emphasis of the program. “If we’re successful,” says Cooper, “the money will have been the nicety, but the relationships built will be what changes the underlying structure of the way the city works.”
“Before the NRP, residents fought their way to the table,” says Cooper. “Now they’re built into the process. We’ve invigorated and involved tens of thousands of people, lots of whom had never been involved in their communities before, into a planning process for their neighborhood.”
The program is just now moving into its second phase, and where the first phase consisted mostly of “interesting explorations of neighborhood-scale planning,” says Nicholls, Phase II will find the city working more actively to align with citywide priorities neighborhood strategies . While there’s little disagreement that such integration is necessary, she says, this shift will test the city’s commitment to granting power to neighborhoods in planning decisions. Either the city’s efforts to direct the plans with a heavier hand will limit the autonomy of the neighborhoods in the process, or the city will take its cues from the neighborhoods on overall plans and direction.
There’s ample evidence neighborhood plans have already affected city policy. Early in the process the Whittier neighborhood drafted a plan calling for community schools, Cooper recalls, and city policy makers and the school board used the plan as an example of how neighborhoods didn’t understand policy. Five years later though, the school board changed its policy to reflect much of what Whittier, and then other neighborhoods, had proposed. Neighborhood plans also recognized the value of developing commercial corridors throughout the city long before the city itself took up the issue, and neighborhood NRP strategies’ emphasis on affordable housing goals pushed the city to rethink its own housing strategies.
But whether or not the NRP will have any lasting effect on the way the city does business remains to be seen, says Nicholls. Some agencies are responding better to citizen input, she says, and the NRP has also led some city agencies to interact better with each other. Some city departments are still very resistant though, she adds. “The city government as a whole is still struggling with how resident participation can be effectively integrated into how the city is run.”
While Minneapolis has long been considered at the fore of resident engagement and involvement, Cooper believes the NRP process is “not so radical that it couldn’t be replicated elsewhere,” as long as cities are willing to give a certain degree of power to residents. “It took a lot of political courage and a political leap of faith to give neighborhoods this much autonomy and control over so much resources. Neighborhoods are finding that this is a way for them to slowly change policies that for years were outside their domain.”
“The NRP has definitely increased resident power in planning,” says Brown, “and it has changed the way the city government operates. Agencies are more aware that they need to engage residents early in their processes.”