Panelists discuss urban planning challenges. Photo by the author.

How can DC keep its character in the face of rapid development? What urban planning processes and policies should we adopt to protect this growth as well as our city’s character? How can citizens make their voices heard but not drown out others in the meantime? Last night, a group of DC citizens tried to answer these questions.

At last night’s Citizen Planner Forum, held at the District Architecture Center, speakers and attendees grappled with issues ranging from transit density, renter and homeowner affordability, neighborhood engagement, the power of developers, and DC’s racial and economic dynamics.

Harriet Tregoning, Director of the DC Office of Planning, told the crowd that these issues have a new urgency in the face of DC’s accelerated growth. She said that the pace of growth has picked up over the last decade, particularly the last 4 years, with an average of 1,100 people moving into the city every month. These additions bring pressure to change and adapt, and how we react to that pressure will shape our city for decades.

Carolyn Sponza, chair of the American Institute of Architects’ advocacy committee, also addressed this issue. In 4 recent focus groups, AIA and the Office of Planning found that residents wanted to be more engaged in urban planning and policies, but weren’t sure how. Participants didn’t know how development happened, or they didn’t know the best way to get involved with their local agency or ANC.

The focus groups also found a hunger for stronger connections between neighborhoods because “sometimes best practices don’t quite make it across ward boundaries” as well as a desire to improve DC’s public spaces by making them more inviting and usable.

The event’s panel echoed these concerns. The panelists, including residents from Friendship Heights, downtown, Hillcrest, and Anacostia, discussed how useful the ANC system is (or isn’t) when it comes to promoting citizen engagement, and whether citizens who live very close to a proposed development have too much say over the project’s outcome compared to those who live farther away but who also have an interest in the development.

A key theme of the night was citizen engagement, specifically how to engage the “silent majority” of citizens thought to be in favor of development but who don’t get involved. As panelist Veronica Davis, a Hillcrest resident and founder of Black Women Bike, put it, “When people like something, they don’t say anything.”

Sometimes objections have nothing to do with the development itself, but fears of the development’s impact on the neighborhood. Panelist Charles Wilson, an Anacostia resident, spoke about his experiences with neighbors who were worried that new development would lead to increasing home values which would drive them out of the area.

As with any DC discussion of urban planning these days, the phrase “dog parks and bike lanes” came up. Davis said that this phrase, as well as the phrase “long-time resident,” were part of a code for race that allowed residents to “talk over one another.” Members of the audience expressed their agreement; another panelist, Sue Hemberger of Friendship Heights, adding that local politicians frequently stoke this division to score easy points.

While no conclusions were reached at this event, it demonstrated that there’s a vibrant community interested in these issues. The next step is making sure everyone is given the opportunity to be heard. One way to do that could be through web tools the forum showcased. Popularise allows people to comment and vote on how to develop a building or space, while its counterpart Fundrise enables people to directly invest in a local property.

DC’s unprecedented growth presents challenges, but also enormous opportunities. The question is: what are we going to do with them? How can DC grow without losing its character?