More than 300 people attended the city’s Forum on the Future on Nov. 27, an event allowing community members to have input into creating the city’s first comprehensive plan. The event, a part of the Framework planning initiative, gave residents the chance to learn what the Framework’s steering committee and consulting firm have already discussed and to provide their input into the future of the city. Framework will give the city a comprehensive plan, which will be used to update the city’s zoning codes and allow for more development.
Jamie Greene, principal for planning NEXT, the firm contracted by the city to help with Framework, said community involvement is key for a successful comprehensive plan. He said his team of experts will work with the city for three years to devise a plan, but Tuscaloosa residents will live with the plan long after his team leaves.
“My team of experts comes in to help the city, but the residents bring wisdom and insight we cannot get from data,” Greene said. “Being able to give input helps residents own and feel attached to their community.”
Greene wants Framework to “update, integrate, and reconcile” Tuscaloosa, and believes said best way to do that is through community involvement. Greene said his team at planning NEXT thinks the best comprehensive plans are those “infused by the values of the community.”
One way the city has kept community members involved is through the use of a steering committee. This committee, which consists of 30 Tuscaloosa residents from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests, has met periodically since June to help guide planning NEXT.
Susie Smith, a retired educator, is a member of the steering committee, who serves on the housing subcommittee and works to help the city attempt to find a balance between commercial development and residential life. Smith said she loves that Framework is centered around community involvement, and even wishes events like Forum on the Future could happen more frequently.
“Tuscaloosa residents are going to have to live with what Framework does to Tuscaloosa,” Smith said. “What people think about this city’s future is important…the comprehensive plan and new zoning codes should reflect that.”
To keep Tuscaloosa residents invested in the Framework initiative, Forum on the Future consisted of three activities that allowed attendees to learn both what the steering committee has already discussed and to give input and insight into how the steering committee should go forward.
The first activity quizzed residents on how well they knew their city, asking questions about land usage and demographics. The second allowed attendees to evaluate Framework’s current direction. Participants were asked to give their opinions on nine themes in Tuscaloosa’s development, rating each theme on importance and the city’s current work in that area. The themes included management of growth, strong neighborhoods, a strong local economy, a more complete transportation network, and an engaged and collaborative community.
Rev. Tyler Walker, a Forum on the Future attendee, said an engaged and collaborative community is important as Tuscaloosa continues to grow and develop. He serves as a pastor at College Hill Baptist Church and volunteers at Tuscaloosa One Place, so he said he interacts a lot with Tuscaloosa residents who need that sense of community. Walker also said he hopes Framework focuses on giving everyone in Tuscaloosa the same educational and community opportunities, no matter what part of the city a resident calls home.
“A strong community is the foundation of a city,” Walker said. “I really care about Tuscaloosa, and I am hoping Framework will allow city officials and residents to have hands-on experiences in all areas of our city, including the more impoverished ones.”
Walker said he liked that the city was being open about Framework’s progress and that the city was looking for community involvement. This community involvement was best shown in Forum on the Future’s final and longest activity: What Do You Think?
Each table at the event was given a large poster that asked, “What do you think is essential to consider in shaping a plan for Tuscaloosa?” Armed with a marker and a table volunteer dedicated to taking responses, participants had approximately 45 minutes to listen to each other and gather ideas on what they wanted to see in their city’s future.
City employees and steering committee members were positioned at each table, while planning NEXT staff and Mayor Walt Maddox walked around to hear some of what Tuscaloosa residents had to say about the city’s next steps.
Katherine Holloway, another Forum attendee, said she was happy to see this involvement and communication between the city and its residents. As a civil engineer for Tuscaloosa County, Holloway works closely with the city on many joint projects. She said her line of work and experiences shows her how vital collaboration is in making planning and zoning decisions.
She said the decisions made based on this comprehensive plan will have a profound impact on everything from the ease of development to environmental conversation, so she believes a “different set of eyes” is essential in the Framework process. Holloway said community involvement allows everyone to be invested in the process and ensures that what happens to Tuscaloosa is what people want.
Gary Limmroth, a steering committee member and the owner of ZAP Photography, also said community input was important to him and everyone involved with Framework. He said it allows a wide variety of residents to form a cross-section of the community and give their input into the growth and development of their city. Limmroth, a member of the lakes subcommittee, said Forum on the Future truly allowed for community involvement because it consisted of interactive activities, instead of lectures on city planning.
He added that he was impressed by the event’s turnout, but he hoped people continue to get involved in the Framework initiative.
“All too often, residents sit back and let things happen,” Limmroth said. “With Framework, Tuscaloosa citizens can make things happen.”
For more information, and to provide input into Tuscaloosa’ comprehensive plan, visit framework.tuscaloosa.com.