Neighborhood Influence in City Planning

Proposed changes to Washington DC’s Metrorail system offer an opportunity to look at the power that neighborhood residents can have when they are able to organize themselves into blocks of constituents.

In Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb just north of the city limits, neighbors are uniting in order to voice their opinions of where stops should on the proposed Purple Line should be placed in order to avoid disrupting the current land uses. As one resident explains in a recent Washington Post article:

I think standing up for our community when we were threatened with being divided by the Purple Line really made us realize how lucky we were to have what we have.

This example stands out in contrast to many communities that are not able to overcome the collective action problem they encounter when local governments suggest changes to infrastructure and city design.  Planning projects are most likely to succeed when residents have an active voice in shaping the landscape of their towns and cities because those who use the infrastructure and transportation networks everyday posses the local knowledge necessary to know how these amenities could best be improved. When city planners ignore the local knowledge of their residents, they are likely to enact changes that physically tear apart communities, as poor placement of the Purple Line would.

One important factor in allowing neighbors to work together in order to achieve the critical mass necessary to influence policy is mixed land uses, where commercial and residential uses are intermingled, and the physical landscape encourages people to interact in business and social relationships.  Silver Spring residents portray how this feature of the neighborhood is currently flourishing:

Daniel Goodwin, owner of Silver Spring Books, said he enjoys the “good exchange of information” with local customers. That conversation often carries over to the area’s local restaurants and coffee shops. A co-owner of Kefa Cafe, Lene Tsegaye, noted that her shop does not feature Internet access because she wants to encourage chatting.

A new Metro line may benefit the people of Silver Spring by offering easier access to the rest of the Washington metropolitan area and by making it easier for people from other parts of the city to fequent Silver Spring businesses. By improving the strength of neighborhood organizations to challenge top-down efforts as seen in this example, city planners may make their own jobs more difficult in the narrow sense, but they will also facilitate the transmission of the necessary information from the bottom up, which will be able to guide planners’ policy appropriately.