More Than A Transit Corridor
As inner suburban areas in Northern Virginia redevelop their aging strip shopping centers located along major transit routes, local jurisdictions diligently reach out to solicit public engagement and feedback. Community stakeholders are encouraged to participate in an inclusive planning process that will result in benefits for all who live there. Countless community meetings are convened over a multi-year time-frame to ensure that all have a chance to shape the vision for the revitalized community. The adopted plan often includes more intense, mixed-use development, open space, multi-modal transit options, and green building principles.
However, all too often certain groups are left out of this community planning, not intentionally, but as the result of an outreach process that fails to include non-traditional strategies that reach low-income residents and immigrant households living in older affordable housing communities in these areas. Redevelopment will have a significant impact on their lives and could cause displacement, but many are unaware of what is being proposed or what has been approved.
On April 30, a group of nonprofit organizations working in southern Fairfax County sponsored a community listening session for residents in the greater Hybla Valley/Gum Springs neighborhoods along the Richmond Highway corridor. Our goal was to listen to the comments and concerns of community residents who remained largely uninformed about the impacts of the approved EMBARK Richmond Highway plan on their neighborhoods. We began with a meal, and then proceeded to facilitated stations that posed a series of questions:
What is the best part about living in your community? What assets offer the greatest opportunities? What are the biggest challenges for you and your family in the community? Are you excited or concerned about the impact of new investment along the Route 1 Corridor?
What we learned is that this area is more than a transit corridor. Within the neighborhoods of older homes and apartments, there are tight-knit communities. Their children attend school and play together; they patronize local businesses; and they worship together.
One of the greatest strengths of these communities is their social connections and networks, reflected in how neighbors look out for one another and care for each other. As new development progresses, they are concerned about housing affordability and provision for those who are homeless or elderly and on fixed incomes. They asked about more play areas for their children, wider sidewalks, and safer pedestrian crossings along Richmond Highway. They are excited about the new amenities that redevelopment will bring, but they are worried about the future of local businesses and houses of worship – will the road widening take some of these familiar community landmarks?
Conversations at the listening stations helped people clarify their thoughts about their communities. Sharing a meal and meeting new people was energizing, and discussion fostered a sense of urgency which is crucial to protecting the communities. Asking questions, rather than just presentations from the front of the room can help create space for dialogue. And finally, people want to feel valued, and they want to know their opinions are heard and see tangible ways of how their concerns are being addressed.
We hope our experience offers a new approach to engaging under-served residents by lifting their voices and building their capacity to become full participants in planning for the future of their communities. And we will continue to be there to listen and to learn.