Fresno’s General Plan Update – A Groundswell Model?
Two months have passed since the dramatic Fresno City Council meetings on April 5th and 19th that resulted in forwarding the General Plan Update (GPU) “Alternative A,” a model uniquely different from previous plans. Since then, many inquiries have been made asking how such a turn in public policy was accomplished.
What happened at those meetings? How has the City of Fresno, previously known for its sprawling residential developments, moved forward with a smart growth plan that promotes downtown revitalization, infill and transit-oriented development, and saves prime farmland and open space? How were the people mobilized?
Let’s begin with the April 5th Fresno City Council Meeting, one of the most extraordinary in recent memory, where hundreds of residents attended. Prior to the start, as the back of the council chambers filled past capacity, the balcony had to be opened. More and more people thronged into the hall. Eighty seven people commented in person during the proceedings, taking the meeting to midnight. Every comment except seven favored the smart growth Alternative A. Those that did not support Alternative A, from the home building industry and chamber of commerce, either requested a delay or supported Alternatives D or E.
The breadth of people presenting was stunning—Latino children, Hmong grandmothers, neighborhood activists, mothers with sleeping children on their shoulders, pastors, doctors, public health professionals, air quality advocates, conservation groups, business council reps, League of Women Voters, and on and on. Some comments were given in Spanish and Southeast Asian languages through interpreters. Fresno’s agriculture industry strongly weighed in supporting Alternative A, with leaders like Manuel Cunha (Nisei Farmers League), Pat Ricchiuti (P-R Farms), and Ryan Jacobsen (Fresno County Farm Bureau) speaking unequivocally in favor of conserving farmland by promoting denser development in urban centers.
The diversity of positions in support of Alternative A mirrored the demographics of the speakers. While speaker after speaker approached the podium—an imposing space with the city council members seated in front and above, like a juridical proceeding—not one seemed intimidated by offering public testimony on a difficult public policy in an unfamiliar, imposing setting. More noteworthy, the people had grasped an esoteric planning process and expertise-laden policy document. For them, the issues were not academic or theoretical, they were visceral. These residents experienced the costs of previous poor planning every day—they were seizing an opportunity to improve their lives.
Two weeks later, on April 19th, the City Council returned and substantively upheld Alternative A. Councilmen Brand, Borgeas, Westerlund, Baines and Xiong voted in favor of slightly modified Alternative A (only Quintero and Olivier voted against). The Building Industry Association, who initially had submitted their own Alternative E, acquiesced to the new policy direction being propelled forward by citizen demand.
Faith-based organizations, churches and immigrant advocates played perhaps the most unique role in mobilizing support for the GPU’s Alternative A. Four of these stand out: Fresno Metro Ministry (FMM), Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM), Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities (CBDIO), and Centro la Familia (CLFA). Preceding the city council meetings, FMM’s Environmental Health staff coordinated an effective communication and social media campaign informing and rallying participants at press conferences and meetings. At FIRM, CBDIO and CLFA, multi-ethnic community organizers worked painstakingly for hours with immigrants and refugees to help them articulate their concerns and prepare to publicly testify. At the City Council meetings, the FMM and FIRM organizers maintained a flurry of Facebook updates, text messages, and personal encouragement with speakers and participants.
A final important piece of the puzzle was the work of the City of Fresno and its consultants. City Planning Staff, supported by the Mayor and City Manager, designed and conducted an unprecedented community education and engagement campaign. Relevant research, analysis and mapping were posted on the City’s website, and shared and explained in well over 100 presentations, community workshops, focus groups, and individual and small group meetings among Fresno’s diversity of communities, constituencies, and sectors. Consulting work was supplied to the City by planning consultants Dyett & Bhatia and M.W. Steele Group. In addition, City Planning Staff secured a Rapid Fire Scenario Assessment of the five GPU alternatives from Calthorpe Associates, which proved to be a key tool used by the community and decision makers in understanding the relative long term impacts of the different GPU alternatives evaluated. The City’s website describes its GPU as “a collaborative effort between the City and its residents to create a vision and a blueprint for development through 2035.” In order to insure better implementation of the plan, the City’s development code is also being comprehensively updated so that zoning and subdivision rules correspond and support its planning goals of “revitalization, infill, transit-oriented development, and more sustainable development practices.”
The City of Fresno is now receiving regional, statewide and national attention for its urban planning as this spirit of a groundswell of common people engaged in policies to improve their lives seems to be catching on and moving to other causes. Take for example the recent Fresno Planning Commission decision not to recommend aggregate mining on Jesse Morrow Mountain. Similarly, other institutions are valuing inclusiveness and diverse representation, like the Fresno Council of Governments outreach for its Sustainable Communities Strategies planning related to SB 375 and climate change.
As we seek effective models to replicate throughout the San Joaquin Valley, an important lesson learned from recent events in Fresno is that public outreach and involvement are essential for achieving good planning policy.