What the Neighbors Want: The Neighborhood Revitalization Program's First Decade

By Judith A. Martin and Paula Pentel, Journal of the American Planning Association

Vol. 68, No. 4, Autumn 2002

This article examines the first decade of Minneapolis' Neighborhood Revitalization Program. It seeks to frame the endogenously derived wishes of the city's residents within the power and resources given them by this unique citywide program. We review the completed neighborhood plans and funding allocations, revealing the patterns therein for insight about what is most important to current city residents. Some requests were reasonably predictable: improved housing, more policing, and improved commercial streets. Others were less expected: traffic calming, wetland promotion, and varied neighborhood identity efforts. In their great social and economic diversity, the 66 neighborhood plans hold great insight into the residents' ideas about contemporary city living. In addition, these plans, and residents' expectations, illuminate some contemporary tensions between what is wanted at the local level and what is needed at a larger city level.

Martin is a professor of geography, director of the Urban Studies Program, and an adjunct professor of planning at the University of Minnesota. A member of the Minneapolis City Planning Commission for more than 10 years, she has served as president for nearly 4. Pentel is a PhD candidate in geography and an urban studies instructor at the University of Minnesota. She is the planning official development officer for the Minnesota APA Chapter and chair of the Golden Valley, Minnesota, planning commission.

For decades, scholars have tried to analyze the local concerns of city residents. Sometimes ethnographic adventure has led to an estimation of residents' aspirations and fears, as in Herbert Gans' classic Urban Villagers (1962) or the recent All Souls (MacDonald, 1999). Sometimes extensive survey research has exposed a moment in the world of city residents (Russell Sage Foundation, 2000). Over decades, residents themselves have picketed, petitioned, and held sit-ins to get their voices heard. Today, public officials view citizens vocalizing their opinions at planning commission meetings and related public hearings as the norm. Seldom, however, have city residents been given the opportunity to define their future, with the promise of substantial city financial resources to carry out their choices and decisions. In 1990, Minneapolis undertook such a bold new long-term planning experiment: the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, or NRP.

This Minneapolis program proposed new ways of thinking about and doing citywide planning. It now stands as one of the most unusual models of planning to emerge nationally in recent years. As such, it has been much examined and analyzed from its very beginning (Fainstein, Glickman, et al., 1992,1993; Fainstein, Hirst, et al., 1995; Goetz & Sidney,1994; NRP,1995, 1998,1999; Berger et al.,2000a,2000b).

This report differs from previous NRP studies, which typically have focussed on the policy process and on matters of implementation. Our review comes at the end of the program's Phase One, which encompassed the first 10 years of a projected 20-year overall planning effort. It reports at an important time-all the participating neighborhoods have submitted their plans, and much of the work they have requested is either completed or underway. In reviewing these plans now, we can discern what they convey about "what the neighbors want." It is already clear that NRP's Phase Two will be controlled more by city leaders, and thus less able to reveal local preferences (Mack, 2001). Due to some nervousness on the part of elected city officials, some conflicts with overall city goals, and the demands of city agencies, some NRP options identified here are now foreclosed.

It is well known that citizen participation in many forms has long involved and sometimes empowered local residents across the country. Minneapolis was surely not the first city to embark upon such a planning effort. Such practices have been well documented in San Francisco, Toronto, Portland (Oregon), Chicago, and many other cities across the country, and evidence of successful citizen intervention is common (Abbott, 2001; Katznelson, 1981; Wilson,1995). One study of participatory democracy in 15 cities concluded that every "city seems to have its own political culture that nurtures participation" (Berryetal.,1993, p.285).But Minneapolis' NRP is not the usual citizen intervention effort, nor is it an ordinary citizen participation program. The NRP's unique reliance on neighborhood goal setting and its devolution of substantial planning powers to the city's neighborhoods are unusual, and as such should especially interest planners and policymakers. Unlike many participatory planning efforts, which seek to involve stakeholders and make planners aware of their own actions, the NRP required neighbors to become the planners in an endogenous approach to planning, and it granted resources as well as authority (Forester, 1999; Innes, 1996).

If the NRP was not the usual citizen participation effort, neither was it just another antipoverty program. All participating neighborhoods, rich and poor, were offered resources. Nor was this program simply a quick fix for political unrest. The NRP plans emerged from years of residents' involvement. For example, while the most stable Minneapolis neighborhoods needed 2.8 years to get through the process of forming a plan, the more transient neighborhoods required 3.6 years to do the same (Berger et al.,2000b). Every plan required a significant and sustained commitment of residents' time. The ideas and ideals harbored within these plans thus speak volumes about the aspirations that Minneapolis citizens have for their neighborhoods and communities.

Reviewing the past 10 years' experience from the vantage point of the end of NRP Phase One, it is clear that this program brewed together all the elements of American city politics, but in novel ways. This mix included the wisdom of neighbors about their local circumstances; the ability to learn from new tasks and to make alliances across boundaries; the dominance of homeowners; competition among city agencies; and finally, the deep-rooted forces opposing the devolution of power from the center to the neighborhoods. Recently, NRP's board chair described Phase One's success as resulting from neighbors collaborating. "What we've seen is the decision-making brought down to the citizen as to how they want their environment to look, and that gives them buy-in" (Mack, 2001, p. B1). Our review reveals other insights: These NRP plans contain few foolish aspirations, and their implementation has been fraught with only a modicum of local corruption and incompetence.


Our analysis derives from multiple sources, but primarily from reading and comparing the neighborhood plans. By the end of Phase One, all of the 81 designated neighborhoods had participated in the NRP process. Of the 81,15 formed coalitions with other neighborhoods, so that in the end 66 plans were submitted and approved (see Figure 1). This article reports the results of a careful review of those plans, as well as work done within the Minneapolis Planning Department, the Center for Neighborhoods, and the NRP central office. All involved in the NRP are privy to the completed plans. Additional insight has been gained through observation of the process and through interaction throughout the city with program participants.


The NRP had its origins in the Minneapolis development climate of the 1970s and 1980s. This was a time when the resources of city planning, which had been directed to neighborhoods following the influx of 1960s' federal funding, were shrinking and being refocused. By the 1980s, local projects were scrambling for meager funding from community development block grants or from the Model Cities program (Martin & Goddard, 1989). Nonprofit developers and local community development corporations emerged in some neighborhoods to begin filling the void in neighborhood planning and redevelopment (Gittell,1980; Goetz,1993). But by the late 1980s, there was a persistent sense that the downtown commanded the bulk of the City's financial resources and planning efforts (Implementation Advisory Comrnittee, 1989). Questioning the equity of local economic development patterns was not unique to Minneapolis (Krumholtz, 1999). The NRP thus began as an effort to assuage neighborhood wariness about this pattern of downtown development garnering the bulk of City subsidies. Additionally, decreasing home ownership rates disturbed City officials, and council members wanted to keep blight in their own wards at bay. In June of 1990, after 2 years of planning, the City Council approved the structure of the NRP. The program was described as the "most ambitious program since Model Cities in the-1960's" (Smith, 1990, p. A1). The NRP subsequently fulfilled its decentralizing goal by becoming a major force in neighborhood-by-neighborhood residential and commercial planning for the City.

The program had a major ambition: to have 20 years of designated funds-an expected $400 million-available to neighborhoods to address local problems and concerns. Each year the program would allot $20 million, although not all of this has been expended every year. At the end of Phase One, over $175 million has been allocated to neighborhood plans (NRP, 2000). In a deft political maneuver, NRP financing would derive from the very downtown, and other commercial successes, that neighborhood activists had so long criticized. Refinancing the city's tax increment districts as a "common project" created the money stream for NRP. Additional innovations involved anticipating that city operating departments would eventually bring their activities and budgeting into some complementary relationship with the NRP undertakings. It was never expected that funds would be evenly divided among all neighborhoods; funding would be allocated based on projects proposed.


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