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Sue Lani Madsen: For innovative urbanism to work, residents must be involved

The first test for the newly consolidated Spokane’s city government will be respecting Proposition 1 while managing homelessness. It’s a good time for the Community Assembly and neighborhood councils to step up and exercise their power in the conversation.

Voters were overwhelmingly in favor of Prop 1 to direct homeless encampments away from children’s safe spaces. The newly elected mayor, council president and council members were all against it. Now, who will have a voice in difficult decisions about enforcement of Prop 1, shelter locations, city sanctioned encampments and similar touchy subjects?

Issues surrounding siting of affordable housing and housing for homeless populations was discussed last week at the first Innovative Urbanism Symposium, hosted by the Spokane chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the University District Development Association. Keynote speaker Sergio Palleroni, director of the Center for Public Interest Design at Portland State University, emphasized the importance of neighborhood input in successfully siting housing.

One Oregon plan used a model called the “pod initiative” to create villages of tiny homes as a form of transitional housing for people seeking to leave homelessness. Pods had to fit into a parking space and be portable. The structures were and still are built without plumbing and don’t have to meet residential building codes. A kitchen/day area and communal bath house are provided in separate structures.

The villages are not a long-term solution to homelessness. They are laid out like Camp Hope but with utility sheds instead of tents and derelict RVs. The intent is to provide stabilization as a step to permanent housing.

They sound cuter when you call them tiny home villages, and they are legitimately homes. For someone who hasn’t been able to close and lock a door in a space that is all theirs, it can be amazing.

They are also unwelcome in many neighborhoods. In Portland, Palleroni said the mayor wanted to start the program without community input. Palleroni and his design team pushed to include the neighborhoods so as not to get off on the wrong foot.

The importance of working meaningfully with neighborhoods on homelessness and housing development was a common theme throughout the day. One of the strengths of the city of Spokane’s government structure is the incorporation of neighborhood councils as “an effective way for citizens to impact government decisions.” That’s according to the handout provided to representatives of almost all of Spokane’s 29 neighborhoods at the first ever Spokane Neighborhood Summit on Nov. 4.

Neighborhood councils in Minnehaha and East Central have decisively impacted recent city government decisions when members strenuously objected to the siting of dog parks. Indian Trails and other councils have recently hosted presentations and discussion on the question of adding industrial fluoride to the city water system. That’s sure to be a hot topic in 2024.

Besides highly localized issues like dog parks, crosswalks and speed zones, neighborhood councils act through the Community Assembly to provide recommendations on actions and policies to the City Council and the mayor.

If they’re listening.

The West Hills Neighborhood Council is still frustrated at being ignored on the siting of the Catalyst project to relocate people from Camp Hope. Money from the Department of Commerce allowed Catholic Charities to outbid private developers who had the potential to kick start retail and housing projects in the neighborhood. It’s a great example of getting off on the wrong foot.

Prop 1 defined where homeless encampments and services will not be tolerated by neighbors and likely resisted by neighborhood councils. Irritation at not being heard and fear of change are powerful drivers.

Jeff “J.D.” Jade, an urban planner and community activist, spoke at the closing innovative urbanism session on his experience in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. He’s been working closely with the neighborhood seeking to balance the fear of gentrification pricing people out with hoped for opportunities to build generational wealth.

Jade introduced the concept of Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation. In 1969, Sherry Arnstein described the continuum of participation in urban planning on a scale from non-participation on the lowest rung of government effort, to tokenism on the middle rungs, to the most time intensive process of resident control at the top of the ladder.

Most public projects have some defined process of informing, consulting and placating that falls into Arnstein’s definition of tokenism. The aspirational higher rungs require more effort on the part of both government officials and residents.

Will the city of Spokane’s new leadership make the effort and reach out to find welcoming neighborhoods within Prop 1 limits? Will neighbors show up at neighborhood council meetings for more than just one and done rants, ready to buckle in to work for their community?

Congratulations to the newly elected Mayor Lisa Brown and Council President Betsy Wilkerson, you have your trifecta at Spokane’s City Hall. How will you exercise it?

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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