YOU KNOW what they say about opinions and bellybuttons: Everybody’s got one, but they don’t necessarily need to be thrown around in public.
But when it comes to updating the Comprehensive Plan, the Metropolitan Planning Commission really wants yours. (Your opinion, that is. Your navel, notsomuch.)
The MPC oversees the Comprehensive Plan, a massive document that encompasses a multitude of issues and strategies affecting life in Savannah and Chatham County. It was adopted in 2006 by the Chatham County Commission and the City of Savannah as part of the Tricentennial Plan that also includes the new unified zoning ordinance (aka the “NewZo”) and requires periodic refreshment to ensure its relevance.
In addition to informing individual codes and policies, the Comprehensive Plan addresses long term issues like tourism, workforce development, storm water management and affordable housing.
“It serves as a ‘vision document’ for the county commissioners and the city council,” explains Jackie Johnson, the MPC’s director of Comprehensive and Natural Resources Planning.
“It’s a guiding tool for the goals and strategies they use in their everyday decisions to see if they’re following what the community wants.”
Jackson has led a series of public meetings over the last year to gather citizen input for the latest update, which happens every five years. But after a forum hosted by Emergent Savannah last month, she and her team decided to take a different tactic. Instead of the requisite presentation, the MPC has teamed up with Emergent Savannah for two casual open house sessions this Thursday, July 14.
“We always do our meetings in the same way, and I wanted to do something that wasn’t the norm,” says Jackson of the collaboration that bridges the governmental and grassroots sectors.
Emergent Savannah is the non-partisan community activist group that aims to educate and involve more residents in civic life, drawing 80 to 100 people to its monthly Monday Means Community forums at the Sentient Bean. In June, it hosted “Politics of Place,” featuring urban planners, zoning attorneys and MPC Executive Director Tom Thomson, who touched upon the Comprehensive Plan during the discussion.
“There was such an amazing turnout,” recalls Jackson. “I saw an opportunity to reach people we hadn’t talked to before. I’m really impressed with the way the Emergent Savannah folks are working to move things forward, and I thought if we partnered with them, they could help us get the word out.”
Emergent Savannah lead organizer Coco Papy was happy to oblige, since the initial conversation barely broached the subject.
“At the Politics of Place event we learned a little about the history of the Comprehensive Plan,” says Papy.
“But like most topics we tend to examine, it’s massive, and we weren’t able to really delve into what it is and why people need to be involved in the process. We’re excited to have the chance to follow up.”
The Emergent Savannah crew will help facilitate the informal two-hour morning and evening sessions that will follow the format of the group’s World Café events where attendees interact with experts in small groups. Anyone—non-Chatham residents and visitors included—can drop in to learn more or offer insights at stations focusing on public transportation, sea level rise, affordable housing and the redevelopment of the economic corridors of MLK Blvd., Waters Ave. and Wheaton Street.
MPC representatives will answer questions and explain particular zoning nuances, but mostly they’re there to listen and record what citizens have to say.
“We’re asking the hard questions, not just about whether we need more affordable housing, but where people think it should go,” says Jackson. “When it comes to corridor development, we want to know what the people in those neighborhoods want.”
Anyone unable to make Thursday’s sessions is encouraged to a short survey on the MPC website (www.thempc.org).
Both Papy and Jackson hope that the relationships that Emergent Savannah has cultivated in the community will increase and diversify participation in the information gathering process.
“What we see is vital and necessary is making sure that there are a bunch of people at the table—and not the same old people. We want to hear the voices that aren’t being heard,” says Papy, whose recent TEDx talk covered the importance claiming one’s place at the proverbial table—that place in society “where things get done.”
“It’s about demystifying the bureaucratic process and making it accessible.”
The partnership between the MPC and Emergent Savannah is a significant step in creating more access—and perhaps a harbinger of a time when all citizens feel comfortable availing their informed opinions for the public good.
In the meantime, Jackson and her staff will collate the feedback from the open house and the online survey for more workshops and a definitive recommendation in the coming months. The Comprehensive Plan update will be voted on by City Council and the Chatham County Commission later this summer.
“Our elected officials will refer back to it, and it serves as an indicator for their decisions,” emphasizes Jackson.
“This is a real chance to affect the future.”