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Another Voice: Citizen planners are at work improving the city

By Ronald Fraser

City planning in Buffalo has traditionally been a top-down activity dominated by professional planners, architects, real estate developers. Until now, that is.

Robert Shibley, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo, is putting into practice a bottom-up approach based on his belief that all citizens, given access to planning tools, are potential neighborhood change agents. In its second year, the Citizens Planning School, a kind of activist boot camp, is gaining momentum and trained neighborhood planners. 

Newly minted citizen planners are already at work close to home filling the need for small-scale neighborhood projects not found on city planning drawing boards.

Central to this approach is Shibley’s conviction that do-it-yourself planners will bring hope and pride to communities needing a boost.

How does the Citizens Planning School’s nuts-and-bolts short course work? First, lectures outline the region’s underlying planning challenges – especially the high costs of ongoing suburban sprawl and the hollowing out of the central city. Student-initiated project ideas are then selected for possible implementation.

Faculty and staff from UB’s Regional Institute and one-on-one mentoring by master’s degree planning and architecture students from UB assist citizen planners starting out with little more than a vague community improvement idea. That idea is developed into a workable project. Projects are broken into manageable phases, resources are identified and a schedule with milestones is established.

Citizen planner Daria Pratcher is working to bring a fresh food market to the Fillmore-Leroy area. Plans are to establish a market catering to a changing neighborhood, including many residents from Southeast Asia.

The preservation of landmarks and economic development initiatives to boost the tourist appeal of the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor is Gail Wells’ goal. Projects include a monument to African-American military women, renovation of the Jesse Clipper Park and front yard gardens.   

Kathleen Murphy and the women of the Junior League of Buffalo want to unite neighborhood block clubs, community organizations and property owners to multiply the impact of its Future Blooms program. By painting doors and windows and planting flower boxes, volunteers will fight blight by making abandoned buildings look inhabited.  

Buffalo’s budding citizen planning movement rests on the belief that little plans, placed in urban neighborhoods where they touch and brighten peoples’ daily lives, do matter – maybe more than can be measured.

Ronald Fraser, a Citizens Planning School participant, lives in Colden.