How To Citizen

We’ve all been there: an ugly building goes up in a neighborhood we used to love.  A street gets widened, taking away the last available sidewalk down that road.  A proposition on the ballot asking whether we want road repairs to be funded by corporations or a gas tax.  Another strip mall goes up where a wildflower meadow used to be.   An old building downtown is put up for preservation or demolition, and a public referendum held asking which it’s going to be.

We take these changes in our everyday landscape for granted – changes that often feel like they are for the worse – when in actuality, we have a lot more agency over these things than most of us realize.  But even when we genuinely want to take an interest and have a greater say in how our cities and neighborhoods are managed, matters of urban development, preservation, neighborhood management, and transit and transportation seem hard to research and, worse, dauntingly complex to understand.

Good news: there’s good news.

First, things often seem complex because – well, they are!  Urban issues can touch on issues of neighborhood and urban identity, operations vs. construction costs, historic preservation or new building affecting the face of a city for decades to come, environmental abatement and sustainability – truly emotional, political, and fiscal hot buttons.  Additionally, so many interested parties get involved in these conversations – developers, city council, investors, residents, politicians, experts (and/or “experts”) – that are throwing around conflicting data and confusing terms in different media, it can be hard to sort through all the noise to get down to the real facts of the matter.  Allowing a situation to be as complex as it appears to be is the first step in beginning to parse through the problem to an understanding, and eventually different solutions.

Second, how can you find information about all of these things?  How can you start to understand what intrigues, frustrates, or inspires you about where you live without someone else interpreting for you?

Start the way you always do – head to the Internet!
(For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to use Ann Arbor’s website, since that is where I live.  Apply these steps liberally to your own municipality.)

First of all, get to know and love your city’s government website.  Ann Arbor’s lives at  The home page is filled with (mostly) current events and news, a link to a city calendar, and links to social media and popular resources like our farmers markets and canoe liveries.  Ann Arbor invites you to check out “ENJOY”, “BUSINESS”, or “DEMOCRACY” (roughly equivalent to people-, business-, and municipality-oriented resources).

One way to begin to understand more of what’s at stake in your city or neighborhood’s changes is by getting familiar with its guiding documents.  In Ann Arbor, this is the master plan, and it’s housed under the “Planning and Development Services” Department.  A master plan can be a great first tool in understanding the current state of affairs – what the city has determined are opportunities and strengths – as well as what its plan is for growth and evolution.  (In Ann Arbor, the Planning and Development Services Department is also responsible for construction and building permits, site plan and design review, historic preservation permitting and enforcement, rental housing management, zoning, and appeals.  This can be helpful to know when doing further research on understanding specific neighborhoods or issues.)

The Planning Department has made it really easy to get to:!  Like a business plan, a master plan serves as an anchor for really valuable information: a thorough description of the state of a city’s facilities and assets in the service of promoting investment, supporting growth, and nurturing a city’s unique personality.  It’s broken down into just seven primary parts:

  • sustainability
  • land use
  • downtown
  • transportation
  • nonmotorized
  • parks and recreation open space
  • natural features

It’s easy to see, just by looking at the organization, what a city like Ann Arbor prioritizes.  (This could be a tool, not just for being a good citizen of where you live, but also of deciding whether a new city is a good fit for you!)  And it’s heartening to see that most of the documents used to support the city’s master plan are less than 10 years old, with some notable exceptions (I’m looking at you, 1991 Library Block Planning Study).  Also easy to digest is the master plan resolution document; adopted less than 45 days ago, it’s just two pages long, and reaffirms the city’s ideological commitments and directions.

Here is one practical example for how to understand the city master plan.

I live pretty close to an extremely busy road in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw Avenue.  (Ann Arborites and people who commute to the city, I HEARD YOUR COLLECTIVE GROAN.)  This extremely busy road struggles with a number of problems.  It’s lined with strip malls.  It’s basically the only non-highway way to get to neighboring Ypsilanti.  It’s framed by some of the densest neighborhoods in Ann Arbor.  It’s the only highway access some of the densest neighborhoods in Ann Arbor has, yet is at most four lanes wide, and its active bus routes mean that half of those are consistently backed up due to frequent stops.  The sidewalks are generous, but bike transit is perilous.

It’s busy, it’s noisy, it’s dangerous, it’s inconvenient, it’s dirty, it’s irritating, it’s ugly…but what can I do?

Here’s where I can start: with the City Master Plan.  In mine, I’ll check out the Transportation element.  I see that it was written just six years ago, and I am confident that Washtenaw was just as much a pain in the posterior then as it is now, so I feel like this document is probably relevant.  I also see – hope of hopes! – that there is a Washtenaw Avenue Corridor Redevelopment Strategy developed just a few years ago, and it looks like it was written by a combination of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Pittsfield Township representatives.  This gives me hope, because that means that every municipality requiring access to Washtenaw Avenue has staked a claim in solving its problems.

I’ll spare you the bloody details of the specific documents, but here is the practical application of all this reading: I can take advantage of the enormous resources the city has already invested.  There has been extensive research into this problem and some solutions, even including funding mechanisms, have been proposed.  From these reports, I can understand a little bit better what’s gone into turning Washtenaw Avenue into the traffic jam juggernaut it is today, and what elected officials, local businesses, and developers plan to do about it.  (A small point of relief…they’ve done a great job of defining “ugly” in very polite terms, and also in defining what they want to replace it.  Whew!)  And now I know to keep an eye on the news and upcoming ballots about the “Washtenaw Avenue Corridor Redevelopment” to see what’s getting implemented, what new information is being shared, and what public planning meetings pertain to it.

Is getting familiar with our cities’ master plans a magic bullet?  Of course it is not.  Understanding urban, civic, and neighborhood issues is as complex and nuanced as the people living in them; learning about and acting on these issues is necessarily a slow process requiring conversations and understanding over time.  But it’s unquestionably worth more and more of us beginning to build a greater urban literacy as citizens, so that we can participate as citizens – which, at least in America, is both a right AND a responsibility – in constructing the kind of healthy, interesting, forward-thinking communities in which we ourselves want to live.

What’s on your mind in your town?  What’s bothering you, or what’s something your city is doing right?  What does your city’s master plan have to do with it?

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