It’s been an unprecedented poll of public opinion.
That’s how Kalamazoo city officials are characterizing the ‘Imagine Kalamazoo 2025
’ process so far – a multi-stage plan to gather ideas from residents in every neighborhood about what they would like the city to look like by the middle of the next decade.
"This has been an unprecedented process," says Mayor Bobby Hopewell. "I have never seen this level of community input into the future of our city. We’re getting structurally relevant information. We’re getting thought-provoking ideas. I love it."
The five-stage process began more than a year ago. Now Stage Three – the Visioning Process – is all but wrapped up. Almost 3,000 people have participated so far, says City Planner Rebekah Kik. Residents have been attending meetings, submitting ideas online
, and communicating their opinions with city planning staff in other ways.
The old paradigm of hiring an outside consultant to perform community surveys and deliver an extensive – and expensive – report that’s discussed at perhaps three or four community meetings just doesn’t cut it anymore, Kik says. A homegrown process yields better, deeper, more personal data, even if it’s a sort of baptismal run.
"We are kind of building the plane as we fly," she says. "But it’s working. We are on a journey, and I need the community to direct this process. So far, it’s been a big experiment, the results of which are going to be amazing."
Why go about updating the city's master plan with so much attention to what residents have to say? The city explains it this way: "The responsibilities of the city are wide-reaching: utilities, transportation, land use, housing, policy, regulation, and more. The 'dots' don't always connect, as each group works to meet its own obligations with its own resources and goals. A strategic vision -- common priorities, resources, goals, and stories -- provides the framework to connect those dots, to align and evaluate our policies and actions, and to make the most of our resources."
Community feedback has been gathered not only in neighborhood meetings but also other places where people are guaranteed to be: Art Hops, Music Hops, Lunchtime Live, the Women’s Expo, KDPS Block Parties, the Mothers of Hope Ultimate Family Reunion, National Night Out. There also has been canvassing in neighborhoods.
About 50 people attended a recent Visioning Process meeting at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, in the Eastside neighborhood, where they were able to express in-person to city officials their desires for the future of Kalamazoo.
An open house is tentatively scheduled for April 11-12 at a yet-to-be determined site to discuss the findings from all 22 neighborhoods in the city before kicking-off efforts to formalize a vision and then implement it, the last two stages in the overall process. The state mandates that cities come up with a master plan and update it periodically.
"This is what democracy is all about," says Eastside resident Ben Brown, who attended the event. "I feel like I’m being heard."
One of the main goals of Imagine Kalamazoo 2025 is to celebrate the diversity of the city, and the ideas and opinions of those who have participated so far have illustrated the multi-faceted needs of different sections of the city, Kik says.
For example, residents of the Northside neighborhood were most interested in issues of economic development, while folks living in the Oakwood neighborhood – a more economically affluent area – were keen on issues related to environmental sustainability, she says. Milwood neighborhood residents, on the other hand, were interested in traffic issues.
"The ideas we have received have been as diverse as the city we all share," Kik says. "But our goal is to think about what makes a complete neighborhood, regardless of where people live."
Common ideas heard so far have touched on a host of issues, from street lighting to bike lanes to community gardens, she says. Even specific issues, like the lack of a laundromat or a bank, have been brought up. The key, Kik adds, is to take every idea seriously.
"We are not looking at recommending a cookie-cutter approach," she says. "Every voice matters."
An example of some of the feedback from citizens is found on the Imagine Kalamazoo 2025 website.
Transportation emerged as an area for the city to address: "Imagine Kalamazoo input has told us again and again that sidewalks, lighting, bus routes, and walkability are the most requested changes to our city," says a piece titled Transportation: Equity and Opportunity in the stories portion of the website. "These requests are not made primarily because someone desires to 'leave their car at home'. It is because there is no car at home. Transportation choice can open doors for everyone. We have a solid road grid, but it isn’t moving everyone around. Nor does it support people making changes if they wanted to. We have enough barriers with the stories mentioned above; infrastructure should not be an additional problem."
The top three concerns voiced in the Visioning Process were issues around streets, lighting and public services in general, she says.
"People who have attended the meetings have been excited about having staff right in front of them," Kik says. "They have had the opportunity to talk about anything -- and they have. Some have been angry at times, but I am inspired because they are now more comfortable as a result of this process. We are developing relationships, and now I have people to help me."
Kik adds, "People will be helping to champion projects and programs in their neighborhood based on what they’ve asked for. Many of the projects we see coming forward are grassroots in nature. People want more control of their neighborhood and improvements."
She envisions the city planning department as a resource for information and navigating the processes that will be undertaken to get improvements done. She hopes that the work that has gone into Imagine Kalamazoo 2025 will lead to a streamlining of city processes so that "the city can step out of the way and just let greatness happen."
Hopewell sees the Imagine Kalamazoo 2025 process thus far as a trial run of what could be a semi-regular process, he says.
"This isn’t just the start of talking about what can be, it’s the start of a process of talking about what must be," he says. "We are in the middle of a process that’s trying to determine what has to happen in our city, and given the quality of the ideas we’ve heard from residents so far, I say let’s do this every five years. It’s totally worth it."
Chris Killian has been a writer and journalist in the Kalamazoo area for over 10 years. His work has been published in multiple local publications, including the Kalamazoo Gazette and WMUK. You can find more about Killian, his work, and projects he’s working on by visiting chriskillian.net.