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Participatory community planning can save a neighborhood

Who knows a community’s rich history and culture but its residents? And who better to help shape its future?

By Dylan McKnight, Charlotte, NC

In 1935, Reid Park in Charlotte, North Carolina was one of the state’s few opportunities for African Americans to own a home. Established in 1935 by an African American landowner, Ross Reid, it was one of the first exclusively African American neighborhoods in Charlotte. The City of Charlotte annexed Reid Park in 1959, and the number of homes and residents grew significantly thereafter. According to residents, in its first 40 years, the neighborhood had a high quality of life. Unfortunately, by the 1980s, the neighborhood began to decline and crime rose. In an attempt to save Reid Park, residents formed a neighborhood association. It worked for a while, but the neighborhood’s glory days didn’t last long.

Today, Reid Park (only 3.5 miles from Uptown Charlotte) sits along an aging commercial corridor. It’s still a predominantly African American neighborhood, but it’s become more of an international community. Although the neighborhood is rich with public amenities like libraries and parks, few use them because of safety concerns. Unfortunately, all have contributed to the neighborhood’s decline. But the neighborhood has strong cultural roots and social activism, so could something be done?

Neighborhood planning
Following the neighborhood’s success in the early 1990s, the City of Charlotte completed two neighborhood plans for Reid Park that led to some significant infrastructure improvements. A new park was also proposed—but fast-forward to 2010, and the park still wasn’t built. Instead, the acreage reserved for the park was used for illegal trash dumping and other illicit behavior. The neighborhood desperately needed the park, so community leaders reached out to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for help. As a graduate student at UNC at the time, I began working on Reid Park’s new master plan as a master thesis project in 2013.

The neighborhood had been passively engaged in many planning efforts in the past, and my goal was to engage the residents as active participants in the planning and design efforts. When a community is able to take ownership and leadership of a project, the results are more sustainable and valuable, and residents feel more connected to their neighborhood. They are invested in creating something of lasting value. That is the concept behind participatory community planning and design—to truly involve the community in the strategic and management processes of urban planning—and it’s what I love to do here at Stantec.

The park is key
Over six weeks, I worked with a core group of neighborhood leaders to develop a master plan for the park and surrounding areas. The park plan included a basketball court, pavilion, garden gazebo with community garden plots, and an extensive network of walking trails throughout the wooded portion of the property. The community was concerned about walkability and pedestrian safety, so we extended our plan outside the property boundaries and made recommendations for enhancing the sparse sidewalk network and calming traffic.

Originally, the Reid Neighborhood Park ranked very low on the county’s approved capital improvement plan. However, after telling the county about how engaged the public was in the project, the park jumped to the top of the list! Within six to eight months, the county had construction documents complete. The Reid Park community was over the moon—they were actually helping design and implement the very park they had waited two decades to complete.

Action spurs further growth
Once the county approved the park plan and began working on construction documents, I noticed a significant change in the demeanor of neighborhood leaders. Where they were once hesitant and disengaged, they were now full of excitement and proud. When word spread about Reid Park’s community efforts, several area non-profits approached the neighborhood association with opportunities for collaboration on community public art and a temporary cultural facility. Neighborhood leaders also began applying for grants to take on additional projects that built on their park project success.

Neighborhood leaders and residents received more than $30,000 in grants for a variety of projects. Local professionals created monumental sculptures that reflected community history and installed benches covered in mosaic tiles neighborhood children helped design. The city is also working with the neighborhood to implement pedestrian paths between city blocks to enhance bicycle and pedestrian connectivity.

Final thoughts
There’s a renewed interest in participatory community planning in our industry, and Reid Park is a great example of why. People want to be an active part of their communities, often choosing to live in places where this is possible. The popularity of tactical urbanism shows us that activists and citizens are taking matters “into their own hands,” taking on projects from streetscape improvements to community gardens. The work can’t be done by planning and design professionals, and municipalities alone—we must all take responsibility in improving our neighborhoods. We have to be active participants in enhancing our community – and my hat goes off to Reid Park for their bright, optimistic view of their future, and perseverance in accomplishing their community goals. They’ve set the standard for other urban places to follow!

Dylan is an urban designer in our Charlotte, North Carolina office. 

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