Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Case Study

Connecting Students and Neighborhood Master Planning


In order to be integrated into the city Master Plan, Grand Rapids’ neighborhoods have to follow a protocol established within the 2002 document.  Interested neighborhoods are able to develop Area Specific Plans.  In order for the process to be successful, neighborhood leaders must secure the involvement of as many stakeholders as possible.  This demands recruitment and ability to articulate a vision of the neighborhood as a place that captures the imagination of the various stakeholders (including everyone from residents to business owners).  A first step in the process is a visioning meeting where stakeholders gather to discuss the state of their neighborhood and their dreams for making it a better place.  To facilitate this, stakeholders are guided through an assessment exercise called SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis.  In short, the stakeholders are divided into groups where on large pieces of butcher paper they make lists of the strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats regarding their neighborhood.  Next, they participate in an activity called dot-voting.  Each individual is given three dot stickers for each of the four SWOT categories.  In practice, it means that every stakeholder gets three votes to choose how to use.  For instance, a person could use three of his/her votes on one issue, spread the votes evenly across three issues, or use two dots on one issue and one on another.  Through this process, stakeholders both vocalize and learn about their neighborhood.  It is a key step to better understanding the community and what design implements might make it a better place. 

Another step in the process is to again gather stakeholders to jointly work through city-provided workbooks where they gain even more knowledge about their neighborhood.  The workbook offer different rubrics for describing different neighborhoods.  Stakeholders are given the opportunity to work through the process in dialogue with each other so that they come to a consensus within the workbooks.  For instance, the Master Plan makes crucial distinctions between Turn of the Century Neighborhoods, Early 20th Century Neighborhoods, Post War Neighborhoods, and Late 20th Century Neighborhoods.  Properly identifying neighborhoods is significant in that the new Master Plan places a premium on protecting the city’s assets by assuring that any new developments in a neighborhood fit the surrounding built context.  In other words, by processing these workbooks, stakeholders begin to better understand that positive design elements that give their neighborhood its unique character.

Next stakeholders conduct a walk through the neighborhood where they assess the assets of the surrounding and how they might best expand those strengths.  At the same, they might also encounter some highly problematic design flaws that might be addressed during redevelopment planning. 

Following the walk, the neighborhood stakeholders will engage in a charrette – a period of intense design activity.  These sessions will include planners, architects, and stakeholders.  It is here that concrete plans will be drawn for the future development of the neighborhood.  Following the charrette will be a “feedback loop” where stakeholders can comment on the design as it stands.  These can include design meetings and more rounds of charrettes.  When a satisfactory design is secured, an Area Specific Plan is forwarded to the city planning office.  If all goes well, the plan will be approved by the Planning Commission and adopted as part of the Grand Rapids Master Plan.


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