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Public participation is a cornerstone of city planning and a pillar of democracy. Everyone should have a voice in how decisions are made, especially in local government.
In San Diego, city-sponsored community planning groups serve as a primary vehicle to facilitate public participation. Members are elected every year in town-hall style elections and the groups provide a space for others to serve their neighborhoods. Their input frequently improves development and transportation projects.
Unfortunately, not all voices have equal access to participate in San Diego’s community planning process. The structure of these groups allows certain voices to become amplified while excluding others.
Today, Circulate San Diego is releasing a report on how to reinvest in neighborhoods by recommitting to community planning. Titled “Democracy in Planning,” our report outlines a variety of reforms drawing from the expertise of my own staff, planners, urbanists and other community leaders.
The community planning process in San Diego creates barriers to participation for new residents, who are often renters, or young people without the advantages of long tenure in their neighborhood. The process also poses challenges for those who work, care for family members or have other obligations. For example, in some community planning groups, residents are only able to vote for board members if they have attended a prior meeting, even though we would never restrict voting in a general election to those who voted two years earlier.
Our recommendations are not designed to pick winners and losers, but instead to champion basic values of democratic participation and to let more people compete in the marketplace of ideas. In some community planning groups, candidates must have attended three prior meetings. These barriers are not consistent with our values for democratic participation, and they are contrary to the purpose of community planning.
Nationwide, cities and counties have adopted a variety of mechanisms to form neighborhood-level planning groups to solicit input on planning and transportation choices. The structures of these local groups are as diverse as the jurisdictions themselves. Many also implement policies to ensure that a representative set of voices can access the community planning process.
San Diego has an opportunity to borrow successful examples from other communities. Washington D.C. actually elects their local planning group members on the general election ballot, allowing significantly more voters a voice in their representation. San Diego County elects their planning group members in the same fashion. Seattle found that their old system of local planning groups were so skewed and non-representative that they recently replaced them with both a renters committee and a community engagement commission.
Our report recommends that the San Diego City Council update Council Policy 600-24, which outlines the roles and structures of our local community planning groups. Our recommendations include minimum thresholds for how elections are structured and how meetings operate. For example, anyone in a community should be eligible to vote, even if they have not attended a prior community planning group meeting.
We also recommend that voting times be standardized and expanded. Currently, some election ballots are open for as little as 30 minutes each year. As a bare minimum, they should be required to stay open for a full two hours, beginning at the time a regular planning group meeting begins.
City staff should also be required to attend these meetings, to lend their expertise and to reinforce the importance we place on the community planning group process.
When planning decisions are closed off to new and diverse voices, there can be real consequences. Renters often have a difficult time participating, and community planning groups tend to oppose new housing construction, which artificially inflates rents. Restricting the housing supply short-changes the needs of younger generations who do not currently occupy seats at the table. Similarly, community planning groups that oppose new bicycle lanes, or new bus lines, make transportation more difficult for those who do not drive.
With more accessible participation, community planning groups will be more likely to embrace policies that benefit wider segments of the population. Champions of the status quo deserve a voice in local planning policies, too, but they should not be allowed to exclude the voices of others.
Common sense changes to the rules that govern community planning groups will open the planning process, improve outcomes and advance our shared goals for democratic participation.
Colin Parent is the executive director of Circulate San Diego, a transportation and housing advocacy group, and a La Mesa City Councilman. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.