Academic journal article Cityscape

Civic Infrastructure and Sustainable Regional Planning: Insights from the Sustainable Communities Initiative Regional Planning Grantees

Academic journal article Cityscape

Civic Infrastructure and Sustainable Regional Planning: Insights from the Sustainable Communities Initiative Regional Planning Grantees

Article excerpt


Across the United States, regional communities contend with a host of social and ecological challenges, resulting from a regional planning paradigm that privileged suburban, automobile-oriented development and established spatially segregated regions with significant opportunity disparities. The emergence of the Smart Growth movement has called for a paradigm focused on transitoriented regional development and reinvestment in urban centers where infrastructure investments are more cost efficient. As regional planners move forward on this path, how might they design civic engagement processes in ways that build community capacity to collaboratively establish equitable, sustainable communities of opportunity?

This article explores this overarching question through a literature review of civic engagement in regional planning and a two-part case study of civic engagement practices used by 74 regional communities that received grants from the federal Sustainable Communities Initiative Regional Planning Grant (SCI-RPG) program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). SCI was a product of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, an interdepartmental federal effort by HUD, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to coordinate regional investments in transportation, housing, and environmental protection. The two-part study includes-

1. A broad assessment of the civic engagement strategies of all 74 HUD SCI-RPG recipients.

2. A deep case study of Buffalo-Niagara, New York, an SCI grantee that has been nationally recognized for its civic engagement approach.

The study reveals opportunities and challenges in developing civic engagement strategies that strengthen civic infrastructure and build capacity for regional development of equitable, sustainable communities of opportunity.

Overview: Civic Engagement and Regional Planning

Since the foundation of regional planning at the turn of the 20th century, under the leadership of Sir Patrick Geddes, civic engagement has been recognized for its potential to "release the creative responses of individuals toward solving modern urban problems" (Meller, 2005: 1). However, by the 1970s, the legitimacy of urban and regional planning was called into question, both for its failure to solve complex social and ecological problems and for its failure to uphold democratic ideals for participation in planning processes (Arnstein, 1969; Davidoff, 1965; Jacobs, 1961; Rittel and Webber, 1973). In response to the exclusion of people of color and low-income communities in public decisionmaking in the urban renewal era, movements for advocacy planning and communitybased development emphasized that meaningful citizen participation and empowerment of marginalized communities is essential to legitimate planning practice (Arnstein, 1969; Checkoway, 1994; Davidoff, 2007; Jacobs, 1961). Top-down planning processes were called into question, and a participatory, communicative paradigm emerged in the planning field, asserting that good process is a precondition for good outcomes (Forester, 1999; Healey, 1992; Innes and Booher, 2010). Moreover, meaningful citizen involvement has been shown to strengthen the quality of plans and increase the likelihood of their implementation (Beierle and Konisky 2001; Burby 2003). Although contemporary planners have debated the merits of top-down versus bottom-up planning processes, during the course of time, planners developed innovative approaches to public process design that integrate "expert" and "local" knowledge in diverse communities to build their capacity to address complex challenges (Innes and Booher, 2010). As sustainability scientist Donella Meadows emphasized, building the capacity for self-organization is one of the most powerful ways to intervene in the complex system of, for example, a region (Meadows, 1997). Since the turn of the 21st century, planners have been increasingly recognizing cities and regions as complex adaptive systems where strong civic networks and engagement processes are essential to planning for sustainability and resilience (Innes and Booher, 2010; Innes, Booher, and Di Vittorio, 2011; Innes and Rongerude, 2013). …

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