What makes Harrisburg an attractive place to live, work and play for professionals in their 20s and 30s? What is lacking that would make the city even better 10 or 20 years from now? Those are questions that the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, or TCRPC, is asking young professionals in the region.
On April 25, approximately 35 Harrisburg-area young professionals gathered at Appalachian Brewing Company on Cameron Street to discuss with TCRPC staff and others officials what they would like Harrisburg to look like in the future. The brewery co-sponsored TCRPC’s “#HBG in 10 Years” event with TheBurg, the Dauphin County Library System and Harrisburg Young Professionals.
“We’re always looking for opportunities to engage, but we very rarely get a younger demographic in the meetings that we have. Today we want to learn how we can effectively engage with young professionals, and discuss how they can engage with local municipalities and other organizations over the next 20-year planning horizon,” said Steve Deck, executive director of TCRPC. The event not only aimed to establish a connection with millennials, but also their up-and-coming successors Generation Z.
As a key force in shaping the future of Harrisburg, HYP’s involvement in the forum made sense. “We are sponsoring this event because we are taking a new angle on city development. We welcome new thoughts and ideas on planning. We want Harrisburg to become an even better place to live, work and play,” said Olivia Edwards, an HYP leadership board member.
A similar shift in how community engagement is approached piqued the interest of officials at the Dauphin County Library System. “At the library we are trying to be more outward-facing. We are taking time to ask the community what issues they have that we might be able to help with. We won’t necessarily solve all the community’s problems, but we can help facilitate them,” Christina Lauver, marketing and public relations manager for the library system, said..
That need for new ideas and a broader perspective on issues that affect city workers and residents was echoed by Casey Baxendale, a planner for TCRPC, which is based in Harrisburg and serves Cumberland, Dauphin and Perry counties. She said that TCRPC is working hard to drive up participation and engagement from under-represented and minority populations, leveraging translation tools and strategic partnerships to make the commission’s work more accessible.
Shifting gears for safety and connectedness
The forum was structured around three main topics: transportation, housing development and enhancement of green spaces and related businesses. But one discussion point that stirred up the most opinions from attendees was bicycle and pedestrian safety.
When TCRPC regional planner Andrew Bomberger asked attendees why they do not bike or walk around Harrisburg as much as they might want to, one audience member, Mya Varno, who works as a communications consultant, voiced concerns about safety shortcomings for cyclists on roadways. Varno acknowledged paths along the Susquehanna River are some of the only places where cyclists may feel safe.“Plus, we are so segmented as a city, making us very car focused. Prioritizing bike lanes could help small businesses in the city,” Varno added.
Another attendee echoed Varno’s remarks. “The intersections downtown are inconsistent. You have to learn which have countdowns, which don’t, which give more time for pedestrians, and then try not to get hit by someone in a car turning,” Emily Webb, an urban planner and cartographer with international engineering firm Michael Baker.
Andrew Bomberger, regional planner for TCRPC, shared some highlights related to this “non-traditional transportation,” including a regional bicycle connection study and a bicycle/pedestrian task force that meets quarterly.
When looking out 10 years, the consensus among forum attendees was for more protected bike lanes that will make cyclists feel safer, as well as a bus route that goes directly from downtown to an area grocery store like Giant and runs more frequently than just during rush hour. Harrisburg is seen as something of a food desert, with few robust grocery options within the city limits.
In addition to transportation safety issues, housing was another topic that sparked passionate conversation.
Jerry Duke, Dauphin County planning coordinator at TCRPC, discussed the variety of housing that is and isn’t available in the city and what that means for residents. TCRPC is looking for funding to do a study with Tri County Community Action examining blight and the abundance of vacant homes in Dauphin County. The goal of the study would be to rehabilitate them for affordable housing, according to Duke.
What constitutes “affordable housing” was a sore subject for some, as well as the perception that everyone wants to live in a single family home. “Not true,” said many of the attendees.
“I think the region has great potential and it’s really important to me that we’re investing in that potential across different regions and all economic classes to foster community growth,” said Varno.
As for next steps, TCRPC plans to incorporate takeaways from the #HBG in 10 Years event into its work on the city and county levels, Larry Portzline, communications coordinator for the organization. An overview of the discussion will be available on TCRPC’s website, Portzline said.
“The best way for young professionals to get involved is to follow TCRPC’s social media, keep an eye on our website and subscribe to our newsletter. We often ask for input and encourage folks to come out to their local planning commission meetings so they can keep track of what’s going on and make their wishes known,” Portzline said.
“And we’re already talking about doing a similar event, possibly in the fall, to continue the conversation about what younger people want the greater Harrisburg area to look like in 10 years.”