Can the General Plan process bring us together as a city?

Three Suggestions to Strengthen Our General Plan Update to Make It the Guide We Need to Create a Great City

A position paper of Santa Rosa Together, November 2020

Santa Rosa Together, a broad and non-partisan group of volunteer community leaders, has been working for the past eight years to get more residents engaged and organized, give everyone a voice and role, and improve the way we work together in Santa Rosa. Based on our work and our conversations with residents across the city, we would like to share three suggestions for improving Santa Rosa’s General Plan Update.

Here are our suggestions:

  1. Add the opportunity for us to create a shared vision for our city that can guide and inspire our work. This shared vision needs to be updated in much the same way as the General Plan itself.
  2. Ensure that ALL of our residents have the opportunity they need to join in this important conversation about the future of our city, especially those who have been left out of our politics. We need to develop and commit to a plan for broadening participation in this work.  
  3. Include into the process components that build Santa Rosa’s overall civic capacity.   Let’s invest in giving everyone a voice and a role.  We need a fully engaged community to address all facets of the work to create a great city.

Creating a shared vision

Our General Plan Update gives us a great opportunity to make a new plan for the work we will do for the next ten years. To maximize this opportunity, let’s design an update process that will allow us to discuss our vision for the city. Let’s take the time to identify the values we share that are the source of our vision. Opening this conversation to our values will give us all a voice in the work to create a shared vision. If we do this, we will have the ability to turn our General Plan update into a guide and an inspiration for the work we will need to do.  We will be able to plan each aspect of our city so that it fits with our values and vision.

Creating this common vision will not be easy. We know that the deep divisions in our nation are reflected in our city and our neighborhood – we are all looking for ways to heal our divisions. The work to create a shared vision based on our shared values might just be the most important part of this General Plan Update process.

Ensuring that all of our residents can be a part of this important conversation

A thriving Santa Rosa will require the ideas and work of all of our residents. We know that in the recent past, large parts of our community had not been fully included in our politics. Our city has now taken some important steps towards a more inclusive city through the annexation and development of Roseland and our new District elections. But the demonstrations around the death of Andy Lopez and the Black Lives Matter movement have made it perfectly clear that many of our residents still do not feel like they are a full and respected part of our city’s politics. Let’s use the opportunity presented by the General Plan Update to make a special effort to include all of our residents in this conversation. Let’s ensure that these conversations are held in all sections of our city and organized so that they are accessible to everyone. If we succeed, our work to update our General Plan could be a major step forward in our efforts to include all our residents in the decisions and work of our city.

Developing a plan for building our civic capacity

For many years, we have all adopted the view that our city government does things for us. We pay taxes and vote every couple of years to elect our council to make decisions for us. We expect our city government to implement these decisions. When necessary, our government hires contractors to help them. In this view, the work to improve our city is seen mostly as a job for experts and not for residents. As a result, most of us are not engaged in the decisions and work of the city. When residents are asked for input, many have felt their input was ignored or not given serious consideration. Santa Rosa’s great potential for engaged residents is mostly untapped. This lack of engagement has gradually undermined the level of trust between residents and our government, further undermining our ability to work together. All of this has led many of us, both in and outside our government, to question this whole understanding of the roles of our government and residents and wonder if we can’t find a better way to work together in our city. And, now, it has led many of us to believe that we need to use our General Plan update to help us address this fundamental problem.

What would it look like to include civic capacity in our General Plan Update? Here are some key questions about building civic capacity that could be used for discussion and planning during the General Plan Update.

  • How could we develop a city government that understands and prioritizes the importance of engaging residents in the decisions and work of the city and partners with them and their organizations to create a vibrant Santa Rosa?
  • How can we develop a culture in our city of respect for all of our residents that values their ideas and their participation in the work of the city, a culture that better reflects our shared (small “d”) democratic values?
  • How can we build the empowered and inclusive neighborhood organizations that will give us the ability to shape our neighborhoods and have a strong voice and role in the city?
  • How could we develop a regular citywide process for engaging residents and their neighborhood and community organizations to help make the decisions on the key issues that will shape our city? How can we develop a process that will allow us to share ideas across the city and find the common ground we need to work together to address these key issues?

What will we accomplish if we add these three suggestions to our General Plan Update?

Our General Plan Updates have traditionally included only the physical aspects of our city, things like our roads, public transportation, housing, public buildings, public safety, emergency preparations, and more. All are important aspects of our city that need thoughtful planning. But this list –and our traditional way of planning– does not include what might be the most important part of our city life: our ability to include and engage all of our residents in the decisions and work our city. Our civic capacity and the civic infrastructure that supports this capacity are the keys to addressing and planning for all the other important aspects of our city. A city that cannot engage its citizens, build the trust, and the institutions and practices needed to find common ground and work together will be very limited in its ability to meet its challenges. We need to use the opportunity of our General Plan Update to engage in a discussion of our government and our civic capacity and plan for a better way of working together.

We are a diverse city that includes people with different faiths and beliefs, different ways of life, and different backgrounds and cultures. We will use this opportunity to get to know each other. We will learn to respect each other and our differences. We will discover our shared values and together we will create a shared vision for our city. With our shared values and vision, we will build a strong and vibrant community drawing on the strengths of all of us. We will rebuild our politics to reflect our values, a politics that engages all of us as equals in the work to create the city we have imagined. With a strong and vibrant community as the soul of our city, we will plan for the transportation, housing, safety, schools, health, and the environment we need to connect, nurture and protect us.

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