Greater Greater Washington readers are reading DC’s Comprehensive Plan, a document that lays out how we build our city, and discussing it as we go. Each week, we’ll post a summary of the chapter we most recently read, along with some highlights of what our book club participants think about how the plan could change in the upcoming amendment process.

In 2005, DC’s Comprehensive Plan was 20 years old and woefully out of date. The District undertook a major effort to rewrite the plan for DC’s needs. This new plan opens with an encouraging vision: a growing, inclusive city. Has the plan actually helped DC grow inclusively?

Our book club discussed these questions as it read the first chapter, the Introduction.

DC Comprehensive Plan - Chapter 1

A big vision: planning to grow for all people

The opening statement of the Comprehensive Plan reads:

Growing inclusively means that individuals and families are not confined to particular economic and geographic boundaries but are able to make important choices—choices about where they live, how and where they earn a living, how they get around the city, and where their children go to school.

Growing inclusively also means that every resident can make these choices—regardless of whether they have lived here for generations or moved here last week, and regardless of their race, income, or age.

The emphasis on growing inclusively is important. This Comprehensive Plan was developed in the early 2000s, when DC’s population had declined for 50 years and that trend was just ending. Since that time, DC’s population has grown quickly, with more growth predicted for the coming decades. The language in this Introduction highlights the need to allow for this growth.

But will the city translate this vision into practice and actually grow in a way that welcomes people of all incomes?

The Comp Plan is a piece of a larger puzzle

The Comprehensive Plan is not the same as a prescriptive law. Its purpose is to guide the city’s agencies and policies when making planning decisions. But it is not the only plan to do so.

The federal government (through the National Capital Planning Commission) creates its own “Federal Elements” about government land and property. DC also has many topical plans, like Sustainable DC, Move DC (for transportation), and Play DC (for parks). Finally, the Office of Planning is charged with periodically developing Small Area Plans, which address individual neighborhoods in more detail.

All of these other plans become part of the Comp Plan, and its more general policy statements are supposed to guide those plans. Theoretically then, growing inclusively should become a guiding principle for every planning decision that gets made in the city.

A plan within a plan… within a plan…

This 2006 plan was a big change from past plans

This version of the Comprehensive Plan was adopted in December of 2006. It was created because the previous version created in the 1980s was out of touch with the realities of the city.

Among some of the important changes was an entirely new way to organize the city. Previously, the Comprehensive Plan described the city based on ward boundaries, but because these boundaries shift over time due to population changes and politics, this plan delineates its own sections of the city, called Area Elements, to keep things consistent.

Area Elements Map of DC Comprehensive Plan

Another change was the high level of community input and engagement that took place to create the plan. Book club member Jane Dembner was a part of the consulting team for the Comp Pan, and shared that “this process was unprecedented in DC at that time” and was more strategic about engaging diverse stakeholders than ever before.

Will this plan fulfill its promise?

Many book club members were enthusiastic about the plan’s bold vision. Peter Casey said, “too often, organizations and governments move forward without a vision of what they want to move towards. It heartens me to see the city so intentional in its development and choosing inclusion as its guiding principle.”

But, he continued, “talking about inclusion is one thing, actually achieving it is another… In my mind, inclusion, more than anything else is the major challenge facing the District today.”

David Alpert, too, reflected particularly about how this vision statement uses the language of “choices” and asked whether today we have the choices the plan calls for:

“In some ways, choices have really expanded in 10 years - people have more transportation mode choices, and there are more better schools including charter school choices, etc. … But other choices have not expanded or have [even] contracted, like where to live. While many neighborhoods have gotten safer, more of the city is also out of reach of many people than was 10 years ago, and I don’t think we are doing enough to ensure people still have those choices.”

Yuki Kato wondered about “how this concept [of inclusivity] gets executed in the remainder of the [Comp] Plan… It is possible that in some of the elements inclusivity is more easily conceptualized and executed.”

Cheryl Cort, who was part of the task force that created the plan, noted it includes good concepts about “building an inclusive city, but now seems to lack urgency to address rising demand to live in the city, since the city grew much faster, and sustained its growth.”

In summary, readers who shared their thoughts support the vision of growing an inclusive city, but wonder how it will be implemented. The problems we are facing today are generally magnified and more acutely felt than they were in 2006, especially in terms of housing. This amendment process is the opportunity to update the Comp Plan and make sure it reflects our city’s current and future needs.

Can you be a part of the book club?

This week and next we are reading Chapter 2: Framework, and will report our thoughts soon. After that we move on to Chapter 3: Land Use.

Want to join us? We are 85+ and counting! Fill out the form below.

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David Whitehead was the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington from 2016 to 2019.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David worked to broaden and deepen Greater Greater Washington’s efforts to make the region more livable and inclusive through education, advocacy and organizing. He lives in Edgewood.