The Revitalizing of Rochester

Article excerpt

The city of Rochester, N.Y., is revitalizing from the ground up. Rochester's Neighbors Building Neighborhoods (NBN) initiative, launched in 1994, has brought together 2,000 citizens from all walks of life to plan the future of their neighborhoods and jump-start civic participation.

Ten neighborhood sectors, encompassing the city's 37 neighborhoods, have developed vision statements and detailed action plans that are serving as the building blocks-for a city-wide comprehensive plan. These plans are not sitting on a shelf. Together, citizens, government, business, and the nonprofit community are using the plans to attack stubborn urban problems, sparking a civic renewal in the process.

The Citizen Planning Process

The secret to NBN's success has been the program's divergence from traditional urban planning methods. NBN enables residents, not bureaucrats, to become the "planners for their neighborhoods. With city government cast in a supporting role, citizens are in the limelight, working collaboratively to determine their neighborhoods' priorities and identifying the action strategies and community resources available to them to change the situation on the ground. "What we have tried to do," says Community Development Commissioner Tom Argust, "is to support community organizing on a city-wide scale."

It's working In one sector, neighbors banded together to form 100 block clubs. Rochester corporations like Kodak have partnered with neighborhood committees to implement neighborhood priorities. "Rochester has its own good neighbor policy," says Mayor William A. Johnson, Jr., "one that centers on the responsibility of neighborhoods and neighborhood partners to improve their communities."

NBN hasn't just helped mobilize neighborhoods to tackle tough problems like crime and economic disinvestment, it has changed the way city government does business. In support of local residents' planning efforts, Mayor Johnson is directing his department heads to ensure their budget proposals reflect and support neighborhood priorities and grassroots action plans. "Having them come up with these ideas, the burden of proof is on all of us to try to come up with some action," said Johnson.

Of the 670 action steps neighborhood sector committees designated as priorities for fiscal year 96-97, city government assumed responsibility for implementing 300 of them. During the first six months of the 96-97 fiscal year, the city initiated action on 172 (56%) of those action steps.

NBN began in 1994 with a series of neighborhood visioning meetings. With the help of trained facilitators and the city's planning staff; citizens began by painting a picture of what they wanted their neighborhoods to look like on the threshold of the next century. Later that year--and throughout 1995--citizens moved from the visioning stage to determining the action steps that would carry them to the* vision. Today, with the help of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, participants in NBN are carrying out those action steps.

Neighborhood Planning Produces Results

Thus far, in addition to the drafting of the ten neighborhood sector plans, scores of improvement projects--great and small--have been launched.

Citizens in northeast Rochester identified a supermarket as a key neighborhood need. …