Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Framingham Massachusetts creates Citizen Participation Officer position

From the Boston Globe article, "Job position opens in Framingham to connect politicians to locals":
The creation of the position was provided for in the new city charter adopted in 2017. Whoever is selected will be responsible for helping community members influence public decisions.

The Citizen Participation Officer’s specific duties will include working with city departments, boards, and commissions to use communication and outreach to enhance public engagement, process citizen complaints and inquiries, and comply with public notice requirements. The officer will also be charged with analyzing data on citizen engagement, complaints, and inquiries, and to prepare reports on that data.
The headline isn't fully accurate. The job is to connect residents to the government. Government is led by elected officials--"politicians"--but is effectuated mostly by staff, organized through agencies, which deliver programs.

Many cities have this kind of position. In bigger cities there are many people tasked with this responsibility, across the various agencies.

The big problem is that there is no consensus about how to "train" citizens to be better at and independent in participating.

One of my complaints about the system of neighborhood engagement by the Executive Branch and the various Councilmembers is that there isn't a general system of support and training and technical assistance. Things are more loose and in my opinion, designed to foster incumbency and dependence rather than knowledge, skill, capacity and independence.

Some best practice examples of citizen capacity building

Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods is an example of creating a unit of the government that provides technical assistance and financial support to citizen initiatives that is somewhat independent of politics and incumbency protection.

Neighbor Power by Jim DiersThe book Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way is authored by the first director of the program, Jim Diers.

The now no longer extant Neighborhood Revitalization Program in Minneapolis provided technical assistance and training to citizen groups initiating neighborhood improvement projects which were funded through a long term bond program. The city created the funding stream but then realized that the citizen organizations often didn't have the skills to bring projects forward.

The Urban Information Center at the Dallas Public Library provides a focused collection of resources relevant to municipal matters.

Massachusetts has the Citizen Planner Training Collaborative to provide training and assistance to community planning boards which are comprised of citizens, many of whom are not planning professionals.

The National Main Street Center provides what is called the "Four Point" training in the precepts of the Main Street Approach to commercial district revitalization.  The national training is one half-day for each: economic development; urban and store design; marketing; and organization/fundraising.

Calgary has a strong system of neighborhood associations and a city-wide support organization called the Federation of Calgary Communities providing technical assistance, even having urban planners on staff to provide support to the neighborhood groups ("Community association planning committees a hidden gem?," Calgary Herald).

The Asset Based Community Development Institute conducts trainings, publishes a wide variety of workbooks, and provides support to national and international practice networks following the model.

Park People in Toronto publishes guides for people organizing events in parks:

-- Park Friends Group Guidebook
-- Adopt-a-Park-Tree-Manual
-- How-to Host a Campfire in the Park
-- How-to Host a Movie in the Park
-- How-to Host a Picnic in the Park

Community Design Centers. Many cities have "urban" or "community design centers," which may be independent or affiliated with a university ("A New Voice in Town: Urban Design Centers," Urban Land Magazine).  Baltimore's Neighborhood Design Center is independent, while Cleveland's Urban Design Center is a unit of Kent State University.  There is a national association for these groups, the Association for Community Design.

New York City has a wide range of groups, in keeping with their status as the nation's largest city. The Municipal Arts Society does more than historic preservation and is complemented by other groups such as the Center for an Urban Future, the Gotham Foundation, Drum Major Foundation, the Historic Districts Council, and the Regional Plan Association among others. Most of them have conferences, publish reports, do tours, etc. Boroughs often have a full complement of groups as well. Separately the City Council funds the Independent Budget Office to provide information and review of the city's budget by an independent source.  And Transportation Alternatives is a national leader in sustainable mobility initiatives.

In Chicago, the Center for Neighborhood Technology is a national organization very involved locally. The Chicago Reporter is an advocacy reporting organization publishing a monthly periodical. It spawned Catalyst Chicago is their initiative on local schools issues. They used to publish a special newsletter but no longer do.

Pittsburgh's Community Technical Assistance Center provided assistance to low income communities, but it dissolved and its activities have been picked up by an organization called Neighborhood Allies. Pittsburgh's Sprout Fund is a grant fund for small and innovative community projects.

San Francisco has SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association.  In Seattle, Feet First is an exemplary example of a sustainable mobility organization, although Walk Boston, Walk Denver, Starkville in Motion (Mississippi) are others.

In historic preservation, some city organizations are particularly robust and stand out, including the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, Landmark Society of Western New York (Rochester), Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans and the Cleveland Restoration Society.

Working as networks.  My biggest criticism in cities like DC is that there are lots of neighborhood organizations, or Main Street programs, or historic preservation groups, but for the most part they don't work together or leverage the capacity and capability present by operating at the network scale.  That's why the Federation of Calgary Communities model is so interesting.

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