The City of Trenton has unveiled an impressive website aimed at getting the input of residents into the latest update of the municipal Masterplan. Why would a broke city spend money on a fancy website about a mundane municipal matter- and why would anybody care? The answer is simple- because the municipal Masterplan, more than any other political document, will shape the lives of local residents.
How can Trenton grow its tax base? Where should new parks go, and what transportation amenities should be provided? All these questions will find an answer in the municipal master plan. The Trenton Department of Housing and Economic Development have gone way, way beyond the minimum in providing the new website, which was successfully launched last week. Available in both English and Spanish language, it offers multiple ways for residents to offer input. It asks big questions, about what Trenton could be. And with its ‘Trenton Love Letters’ section, it invites residents to share what they think makes the city great. Consider, this example:
“I love the Trenton Scrabble Club, the Trenton Knit-and-Stitchers, and the Capital City Open Mic. I love the winter fruit in whipped wine cream at Settimo Cielo, the brown stew chicken at Hummingbird Restaurant, and the foot-and-a half long sub on fresh bread at the Downtown Deli. I love the Fifes and Drums at the Old Barracks, the plays at Passage Theater, and the stars at the Planetarium.”
The open, inclusive masterplan revision process is a forward-thinking piece of community engagement. In 2014, it is recognized that community engagement means much more than just having open meetings. Most people have no idea that there even is a Masterplan, and how much it affects their daily lives. Drawing up a Masterplan though a series of meetings at Council chambers places the entire process in the hands of those who have the time and inclination to attend lots of municipal meetings. In every town, there are a handful of people who show up to pretty much every meeting. But are they representative? In practice, working people, people with young children, the disabled and infirm- all these groups are less likely to have input, because it is harder for them to attend meetings in council chambers.
To reach under-represented groups, governmental agencies must reach out and make available an easy and approachable means for people to have their say. A website has problems as well, because certain groups lack access to computer equipment. But it provides an additional way to reach residents, particularly young people. Young people are the most affected by long-term municipal masterplans, but their needs are rarely considered (or else are a low priority) in large part because they don’t show up to municipal meetings. As one planner put it:
“I can’t count the number of times I’ve scanned a room full of people who are voicing their concerns about a long-term community plan and have seen nothing but people like me — those of us with a lot of grey hair…”
The absence of young people at municipal meetings could be attributed to several causes. Part of it could be the fecklessness of youth. Part of it may be misguided trust that municipal officials will give adequate consideration to all sections of society. And part of it is just a lack of time or cynicism arising from the increased burden of student debt, underemployment and housing pressure being felt by today’s young people. Either way, a Masterplan that does not include all voices from a community has no democratic legitimacy. Considering these issues, Trenton ought to be applauded for at least trying to do something extraordinary with its new website for community input into their Masterplan. Realistically, they’ve still got their work cut out in getting much feedback, but if any city needs community input into its future, then Trenton has got to be that city.
Have you ever seen your local Masterplan? (hint: here’s a link to the Princeton, NJ Masterplan). Do you feel like your views were taken into consideration in drafting your Masterplan? Let us know- leave a comment below.