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Rochester gives its citizens
the power to shape their city

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

2 April 2006: One of the boldest and most successful experiments in citizen empowerment in the United States has been underway in Rochester, New York, for over ten years. Through the Neighbors Building Neighborhoods, or NBN, process, Rochester residents plan for the future of their city and help establish the city’s budget priorities.

Rochester, a nineteenth-century Erie Canal boomtown, is on the southern shore of Lake Ontario in Upstate New York. The city (population 220,000) boasts one of the finest park systems in the US; major museums; numerous historic sites owing to its past as a center of the women’s rights and antislavery movements; and dozens of active neighborhood associations. The Rochester metro area (population 1.1 million) contains a dense concentration of universities and high-tech industries.

Rochester, like many American cities, cannot expand its political boundaries to capture suburban growth. Over the past five decades, the loss of jobs and middle-class residents to the suburbs has stressed city neighborhoods, despite their natural and historic assets. Regional mechanisms to aid the urban core have proven inadequate.

The continual challenge to Rochester is to revitalize the city, which despite its considerable assets, is poor and has limited public resources to work with.

Citizen empowerment as the central strategy
As a primary strategy, the city decided to tap into the energy and knowledge of its citizens. When Bill Johnson was elected mayor in 1994, one of the first initiatives of his administration was Neighbors Building Neighborhoods, or NBN.

With the consent of its neighborhoods, the city was organized into ten geographical sectors for planning purposes. Organizations and citizens in each sector were encouraged to collaborate and envision a future for their neighborhoods, the result being ten action plans with a total of 1,450 action steps. All of the plans were created by the citizens themselves, not professional planners.

People were encouraged to dream when they created their plans, but not with an anything-goes, pie-in-the-sky attitude because they were also responsible for managing the implementation of their plans.

To make sure the plans were grounded in reality, the city administration set an eighteen-month horizon. After eighteen months, each sector plan is revisited, revised, or redone. The city also introduced the notion of partners. Proposals were allowed only if the citizen-planners could identify a partner or partners who would sign a form in support of the project. An idea could go into an action plan only if citizens could identify resources to fund the idea and had a committed partnership to help implement it. This forced the entire NBN process to focus on outcomes, not general goals. Since the inception of Neighbors Building Neighborhoods, an average of 76 per cent of each plan’s activities has been completed.

The City of Rochester does not fund the NBN process for more than incidental expenses. It is not the role of the city to assume sole responsibility for implementing the projects in the plan, but to act as a partner. City staff go to neighborhood meetings not to direct, but rather serve as resources and facilitators. The city doesn’t choose NBN leadership. Essentially, the city focuses on outcomes rather than control of the details of how to get there. All the city wants to know is the bottom line: what residents are trying to get out of the process and whether plans reflect the consensus priorities of the neighborhoods. The city provides citizen planners with all the tools it possibly can.

The NBN sectors are linked by a city-run NeighborLink computer network, providing access to city databases, GIS mapping software, 3-D virtual planning tools, secure e-mail, and a file management system. A team of volunteers, or  community technology leaders, works with the city to maintain and update the network. A Neighbors Building Neighborhoods Institute, administered by the city and a local college, offers citizens free training in leadership, community organizing, and technical planning skills.

Perhaps the most powerful tool that residents have is a voice in the city’s budget. Through NBN, citizens help establish spending priorities for Rochester’s $450+ million annual capital and operating budget.

Outcomes of Neighbors Building Neighborhoods
Neighborhood Empowerment Teams. A sense of the importance of quality of life issues came out of the first NBN plans in 1995 -- trash pickups, building code violations, and the like, which related to police issues like drug houses and petty crime. The result was the creation of Neighborhood Empowerment Teams of police, citizens, and city code inspectors to strictly enforce regulations against nuisances such as graffiti, unmowed lawns, vehicles parked in yards, poorly maintained exteriors, excessive noise, and illegal drug sales -- problems that tend to foster further undesirable activity if not controlled.

Zoning. As people got into the nitty-gritty of planning, they identified a number of common concerns focused on zoning. In response, beginning in 2000, the city re-wrote its zoning code. This involved over 120 public forums over a three-year period.

In the US, almost all zoning ordinances are based on what is called Euclidian zoning. Development in a given area is restricted to single uses, such as residential-only, commercial-only, or industrial-only. This makes it difficult to create the kinds of healthy, mixed-use and mixed-income urban neighborhoods envisioned in the NBN plans. Rochester’s citizen-developed zoning code includes standards for higher density mixed-use development; delineation of urban village areas; pedestrian-oriented development; flexible adaptive reuse; flexible parking provisions; a streamlined permitting process; more objective code enforcement; and incentives for public art and great design.

Neighborhood reinvestment. NBN sectors have been able to leverage private partnerships and funding to accomplish many things the city otherwise might not be able to do. Examples include new playgrounds, street furniture, public art, neighborhood resource centers, neighborhood festivals, street cleanups, neighborhood marketing initiatives, nearly 300 community gardens, neighborhood business incubators, and a land trust, which purchases and rehabilitates run-down properties.

Through the Neighbors Building Neighborhoods process, the city and residents developed comprehensive reinvestment strategies to bring back grocery shopping options to inner-city neighborhoods. The plans were presented to retailers resulting in seven new full-service supermarkets opening in Rochester’s poorest neighborhoods.

The city is also in the midst of a major effort to rebuild its waterfronts and gateway streets. In these and virtually every other project in which the city is involved -- at every step of the way, from beginning to end -- citizens and their partners are at the table in a decision-making capacity.

Multipliers. This level of citizen planning has a ripple effect. Many nonprofits, for example, now allocate their funds based on the NBN plans. In cities like Rochester, if you don’t have enough money to do something yourself, you will be working with several nonprofits. Rochester’s nonprofits are now getting the message that they don’t have to go out and do their own planning. Residents have already determined what they want and will support through the NBN plans. This means that many millions of nonprofit-sector dollars are now spent each year the way residents want it spent. Corporations and foundations also get involved on the neighborhood level because their investments produce measurable results.

University-community partnerships. Universities in the Rochester area enroll nearly 70,000 full-time students. Most local universities are involved in the economic development of city neighborhoods through the NBN process.

Cornell University faculty and students are helping residents identify redevelopment opportunities along the Southwest Corridor of the Genesee River, which flows through Rochester. Largely because of the city’s well-organized neighborhoods, the University of Rochester Medical Center began a Center for Community Health with a goal of making Rochester the healthiest city in the U.S. by the year 2020. The State University of New York at Geneseo created a very successful partnership with residents called the Southside Enterprise Institute that has resulted in the establishment of several neighborhood retail businesses. These examples represent a few of the many university-community partnerships, which grew out of the Neighbors Building Neighborhoods process.

American universities look for opportunities to conduct research, address specific problems, and test their strategies in the real world. Yet, many local governments offer little or no support, and have no comprehensive or neighborhood plans within which to create and evaluate partnerships.
Rochester is one of the few American communities that can provide a university with ready-made access to savvy, trained, outcome-oriented citizens and to a city government that is supportive of partnerships.

The future of NBN
Over the past 10 years, NBN has helped reconnect people in Rochester with their city government. More broadly, NBN demonstrates that local governments can be built in such a way that people feel in control of their lives and free to bond with their neighbors and attack the challenges that affect their environment.

With the retirement of Mayor Bill Johnson on 1 January 2006, the new Rochester administration, with the participation of residents and other stakeholders, is evaluating NBN to determine its future.

World Mayor 2023