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Neighborhood Planning Uses of Oral History

Neighborhood Planning Uses of Oral History

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Neighborhood Planning:Uses of Oral History
June Manning Thomas
 Michigan State University
Neighborhood planning for community improvement in America’s distressed centralcities is particularly difficult because the physical environment may have dauntingproblems and the social environment may appear unapproachable. Oral history as atechniquecanhelpaccessinformationfromthose“atthemargins”ofsocietywholivein distressedneighborhoods. This article analyzes the potential benefitsof oral histo-ries for neighborhood planning. It also analyzes interviews conducted with boardmembers of two Detroit community organizations to glean lessons about the impor-tance of residents’ personal experiences within the neighborhoods. The author sug-gests that collecting such historical insights could become a productive part of neighborhood planning.Keywords: oral history; neighborhood planning; neighborhood; African American,Detroit
cholarsarestillexploringtheconnectionsbetweenhistoryandurbanandregionalplanning,aneffortthatthisjournalisaidingingreatpart. We are beginning to learn more about specific historical events andprocesses related to planning, as well as about how this evolution hasaffected cities throughout the world. However, we are just beginning to tapthe potential uses of history as a tool for informing and guiding difficultproblems in contemporary urban planning in a way that moves beyonddescription and toward prescription.One area of concern is how to tap the experiences of neighborhood resi-dentsasasourceofguidanceforcurrentandfutureeffortsinneighborhoodplanning. At this point, we know much about certain aspects of neighbor-hood planning, for example, that effective planning is one of the skills thateffective community-based organizations must have. A few studies havebegun to explore the specific role and nature of the planning function inorganizations’ development and success,
and case studies have providedvariegated knowledge about the history and development of neighborhoodinitiatives.
Still needed is additional information about how researchinvolvingtheresidentsthemselvescanhelptostart,maintain,andenhance
50 AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was originally presented to the Society for American City and RegionalPlanning History. It is supported in part by a research grant from the Aspen Institute.
JOURNAL OF PLANNING HISTORY, Vol. 2 No. 1, February 2004 50-70DOI: 10.1177/1538513203262047© 2004 Sage Publications
neighborhood improvement efforts. Some texts
suggest that the kind of information systems necessary for neighborhood planning include demo-graphics, history of the neighborhood, land use information, housing qual-ity, and so on. Such texts seldom explain how planners and communityleaders can uselocalized historicalinformationaboutthe neighborhood orthe collective memory
of residents to prepare for action.One methodological realm that offers great potential for gaining addi-tional knowledge and strategy is oral history. The value of oral interviewshas been revealed in a number of previous studies on community develop-ment, notably by Herbert Rubin,
but the use of oral history in communitydevelopmenthasbeencommentedonlessoften.Iwilldefinespecificnarra-tive-relatedneedsforneighborhoodplanning,explorethepotentialfororalhistory, offer examples from interviews in two Detroit neighborhoods, andsuggestwaysinwhichprofessionalhistoriansmightfurtheraidthisprocess.
 We will begin with a short exploration of the concept of neighborhoodplanning,whichisbasedontheneighborhoodastheprimaryunitofanaly-sis. As Peterman notes in his book 
Neighborhood Planning and Commu- nity-Based Development
, the concept of neighborhood used by urbaniststodayisnotagreeduponbyall,inpartbecause“theneighborhood”actuallyis a relatively new concept in human history.
 Much of what the planningprofessionacceptsasaneighborhoodreallyreferstoaconceptthatismoreakin to a mid-twentieth-century residential subdivision, as designed formiddle- or upper-class families. Some refer to work such as Gans’s
as proof of the existence of neighborhoods as a social construct,but Peterman reminds us that Gans argues that “ethnic villagers” made uponly one type of at least five kinds of residents in contemporary cities andthatconglomerationsofpeoplevariedwidely.
Inasimilarvein,JaneJacobsnotes that city people are mobile and tend to pick friends and colleaguesfromthroughouttheentirecity,andsoshearguesthattheconceptofneigh-borhoodshouldbeveryfluid.
Petermanreviewsthesevariousperspectivesandconcludesbysuggestingthataneighborhood,orwhatweconsidertobea neighborhood, may differ for different times and different places.
Thismightexplainwhytheconceptofneighborhoodseemsmorecompellingforsomeresidentialareas(insomecities)thanforothers;theterm“neighbor-hood planning,” for example, is more likely to refer to central-city neigh-borhoods than outer-ring suburban neighborhoods.Peterman also pointsoutthat the definition of“neighborhood planning”varies greatly among urban scholars. Jane Jacobs essentially views thesmallestlevelofneighborhoodasthestreetlevelandthereforeimpliesthatthis is the level at which some planning should take place. Bernie Jonesdefines neighborhood planning as a smaller version of citywide planning,
and many of his techniques are those used for municipal planning.
ButBarryCheckoway suggests that neighborhood planning could be either topdown or bottom up.
Bottom-up planning at the neighborhood levelinvolves grassroots organization and may include the creation of formalorganizations such as community development corporations (CDCs). As Peterman notes, limiting neighborhood planning to areas in whichCDCs flourish is too exclusionary. He suggests that the planning that takesplace at the neighborhood level in today’s cities relates closely toadvocacyplanning and equity planning. Both of these are theories of planning thataddress issues ofpower; both imply that planners mustsee planning not asvalue neutral and serving some general public but rather as requiringacknowledgment of different publics, and both advocate planning repre-sentationfordisadvantagedgroups.Fromthebottom-upperspective,neigh-borhood planning therefore aims to plan for the future in a way that helpscreatetheprocessofcapacity-buildingcommunitydevelopmentinaffectedneighborhoods.If we accept this definition of neighborhood planning, then the specialneeds of such neighborhood planning become clearer. Peterman describesthreeofthesespecialneeds.First,neighborhoodplanningmustbeacollab-orative process, involving a number of experts including planners, but alsoinvolvingneighborhoodresidentsandcommunityorganizers.Truecollabo-ration implies that all parties should be equal because it is necessary foreveryone to respect everyone else’s opinion. The second requirement isthat the process of neighborhood planning should be relatively open andtransparent, so that residents can understand everything that is takingplace in terms of techniques and processes, and so that the planning pro-cess is an educational one. Third, he suggests that all neighborhood plan-ning be driven bythe community,withfocusplaced onthe neighborhood’sagenda, not the planner’s agenda. The process of social change should beone of empowerment, as defined in a number of ways, including increas-inglyinvesting communitymembersintheabilitytomakedecisionsaboutthe process and results of planning.
Tothislistofthreerequirementsforneighborhoodplanning, wecanadda few others from additional authors, requirements particularly appropri-atewhenneighborhoodplanning isbeingcarriedoutinurbanareasunder-going a process of social and economic change. In such circumstances,Baumnotes,neighborhoodplanningmayneedtoovercomelikelyfracturesofrace,class,andethnicbackground.Itmayalsobenecessary,hesuggests,for the planning process to overcome residents’ grief over the changes thataretakingplace intheirneighborhood, ifthesearenotforthebetter.
Fur-thermore, implicit in Peterman’s list and noted elsewhere, neighborhoodplanning mayneed toinvolve organizational development, as described bya number of authors including Vidal.
Thus, neighborhood planning as here defined is a complex process, nec-essarily involving an array of purposes and multifaceted requirements. We

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