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Grassroots Community Planning Initiative Gives Voice to ...

Grassroots Community Planning Initiative Gives Voice to Portland Black Community

Portland, Oregon is known for its eclectic and progressive population of like-minded individuals, marching to the beat of their own drum. The patchwork of different neighborhoods has created a unique environment attracting people from all across the United States and the world. Portland has welcomed these new-comers with open arms, however in doing so have

Portland African American Leadership Forum (PAALF) meeting in Portland, Oregon. The meetings bring together members of the community to voice their opinions and ideas.

Portland, Oregon is known for its eclectic and progressive population of like-minded individuals, marching to the beat of their own drum. The patchwork of different neighborhoods has created a unique environment attracting people from all across the United States and the world. Portland has welcomed these new-comers with open arms, however in doing so have alienated communities of people who were born and raised in the city. As the new-comers move into desirable areas, lower income individuals and families, unable to afford the rising rent, are forced to find new accommodation. In addition, the displaced communities are disproportionately communities of color. This story is all too familiar in the urban planning community as more and more desirable cities are experiencing gentrification. Portland is no different, and has recently been named as the most gentrified city in the country.  As city governments scramble and shrug trying to answer the growing problem of gentrification, a local group of Portlanders decided to take matters into their own hands. The Portland African American Leadership Forum (PAALF) launched a community planning initiative aimed at countering the gentrification process by empowering the Portland Black community and getting their voice heard with officials at the city's planning office.

Gentrification has been a problem in the Portland area for decades. The issue boiled over In 2014 after the announcement of an $8 million development in NE Portland for a Trader Joe's and retail stores. The Portland Development Commission signed off on the project without obtaining feedback from members of the surrounding neighborhood, who saw this as a final domino in the gentrification of the area which had already displaced many households. PAALF took the lead and organized protests against the development, gaining major media coverage. The backlash was harsh, so harsh that Trader Joe's decided to pull out of the deal. Once PAALF witnessed the effective community response, they turned their sights on the broader issue of gentrification happening across the Portland area. Feeling left out of the development process that has been displacing black households across Northeast Portland and other areas, the idea sparked for a community-driven urban plan that would engage the black community and get them involved in the planning process.  

Thus the PAALF People's Plan was born.

PAALF People's Plan Logo in Portland, Oregon. PAALF People's Plan Logo

The PAALF People's Plan is a grassroots driven community planning initiative which creates a framework to build community-oriented projects for the black community in Portland. It grew out of a need for social-justice as black communities were consistently being pushed out of their historical neighborhoods by higher rent prices and prospective urbanites. The idea was to address two central problems that have increased the gentrification problem and disproportionately displaced African and African-American citizens. City planning in Portland rarely extends beneficial developments to Black communities, and Black community members are often absent at city planning meetings and forums. This is partly due to the traditionally technocratic approach to city planning. This "top-down" planning has city planners design and develop cities in the way they believe works best. This approach often fails to hear the voice of community members, alienating those who may have a different opinion or vision on how their neighborhoods should be developed. This is what makes The PAALF People's Plan unique, it starts at the community and takes on the planning process with a grassroots and "bottom-up" approach.

"Kaleidoscope Conversation at a community meeting in Portland, Oregon. "Kaleidoscope Conversation" at a community meeting

The plan is meant to represent both social and spatial justice. It wants to reach out to Black Portlanders affected by inequitable development in Portland and bring them into the planning process. Community meetings were scheduled where citizens had the opportunity to construct the framework and direction of the plan together as a group. Each meeting has a different theme and focus all having equal importance in the development process. The primary themes are housing, economic development, youth and education, art and culture, environmental justice and sustainability, safety and security and health. Attendance is diverse, a collection of local leaders, artists, planners, designers, and community members all come to speak their mind. They are meant to be inclusive and are organic in nature. One meeting used what's called a "kaleidoscope conversation" where the conversation begins with a question on a topic pertinent to the theme of the night.

Every subsequent response from individuals must be in the form of another question. This allows for an interesting dynamic where no single person will dominate the conversation and requires everyone to listen to each other in order to stay involved. This type of inclusive process is central to the core idea of The PAALF People's Plan, the idea that everyone receives a voice. Using ideas and insights from community members developed during the meetings, PAALF plans to draft a framework for an urban plan. The hope is to address issues that the Black community deems important, with one goal in mind- to advance community-initiated projects that benefit Africans and African-Americans living in Portland.

The grassroots approach used in the PAALF People’s Plan addresses issues in the technocratic planning model. City planning can be a victim of its own bureaucracy, technical regulations and stagnant council meetings making it difficult for citizens and communities to get involved and understand the planning process. In addition, efforts to increase the livability of an area may seem like a good idea on the surface, but underneath the professional graphics and nuanced language of comprehensive urban plans lies a dark reality. With increased livability comes increased housing costs, and the local people who would benefit the most from the development would likely be pushed out by wealthier citizens looking to get in on the new development. The relationship between technocratic planning processes and market forces has birthed the problem of gentrification, a social justice issue that has ramifications far beyond housing. It deepens the divide between white communities and communities of color.

The PAALF People's Plan signifies a possible solution to the growing issue of displacement. The strongest weapon in the democratic process is a collective voice, and by inviting community members to the ground floor of the process and truly adopting their ideas for bettering their own communities, beneficial development could be spread equally among citizens without the threat of displacement. The plan is meant to collide with the development processes and market forces that have stoked the flames of gentrification and displacement. It is a collision that has long been overdue.

Does your city have a similar problem with gentrification? Do you believe it is the job of the city government to address the problem? Or should community members and citizens tackle the issue themselves? Answer in the comments below.

Credits: Images by Kevin Gooley. Data linked in sources.

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Urban Planning Blogger

Kevin is an urbanist and adventurer with a predilection for extreme wanderlust. He recently returned to the United States from the Netherlands. He received a Masters degree in Environmental and Urban Planning and worked as an Urban Sustainability ...