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.

Friday, September 03, 2010

The uncreative city #2: neighborhood capacity building and leveraging the power of proximity and networking

One of the things that was good about the original Main Street program in DC--which like most neighborhood revitalization programs in the city over the past 40 years is slowly dying (some programs have disbanded and the city unit responsible for oversight and technical assistance keeps getting reorganized and shrunk)--is that there was a strong commitment to providing technical assistance training, contracted from the National Main Street Center. There were many trainings on "the four point approach" (design, organization, economic development, promotion and programming) and discounts on the national training. I probably went to the 4 point training at least 3, maybe 4 times, and each time I developed new understandings and ideas.

But for the most part, the programs functioned in a vacuum and didn't interact. The potential power of the network to build understanding and knowledge and effectiveness across the city was lost.

But this problem is not unique to the Main Street program. Even though there are a couple of citywide community revitalization organizations, specifically the DC Preservation League, the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, and the DC Federation of Civic Associations, in my opinion, the leadership of the respective groups is somewhat parochial, because their concerns "for the city" are generally shaped by the actions they have undertaken in their neighborhoods.

And then there is the whole issue of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, local grassroots advisory organizations led by commissioners who are elected to represent specific geographic areas, assisted--depending on the Commission--by non-elected involved citizens and organized through a committee structure. These groups end up being pretty parochial and ineffective and most people in response say "get rid of them" without thinking through what the problems really are, and the need for better structures, systems, and support infrastrucutre.

Some of my writings about ANCs and civic engagement include:

- Another failure to lead: DC's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions
- System transformation or people vs. systems and structures
- Contempt of the citizenry
- Stultified vs. flat organizations, democracy vs. autocracy
- ANCs and civic engagement
- "Incentivizing" ANC Commissioners
- An aha! moment about why DC Government is "problematic"
- The Agony of Defeat
- YIMBYs from Brooklyn to DC -- Thinking about Community Participation in Shaping Development"
- ANCs build up political muscle, and yet....

Individual ANCs are mostly unto themselves and don't reach out across their borders or across the city to build and extend their knowledge and effectiveness.

I haven't really looked (and I guess this might be a "hole" in the urban planning/urban studies/public administration research literature) to see if there is a good volume that explains, discusses and compares various forms of local citizen involvement in the management of cities.

1. Cities like London, Paris, and Montreal are both cities and boroughs/arondissements, with city-wide government and more local government, managed by officials elected at the more local level. Boris Johnson, the "Mayor" of London really only has control over a small part of London, plus the transportation system, which crosses the borders and unites the "city."

2. New York City has Community Boards, which like ANCs are advisory, Seattle has 13 neighborhood districts, Atlanta has Neighborhood Planning Units which function like DC's ANCs, and Los Angeles has citizen-elected councils now too, as a response to the unsuccessful secession movement that derived from residents in the San Fernando Valley.

Seattle has councils for each district, and a coordinating council made up of representatives from each district. Each neighborhood district has an office and a full time coordinator--unlike how in DC, where the "Mayor's" neighborhood service coordinators are based in city hall, not in the wards in which they purportedly serve.

What separates these entities from DC's ANCs is staff and offices and a budget for administration. And at least in Los Angeles, there is a developing infrastructure that provides training to the groups. Yes, DC's ANCs have a little money for part-time staff, most don't have decent offices, and generally they are marginal operations and you aren't getting community organizers, planners, and community development professionals to take these positions--although granted there is a struggle with grassroots involvement and government and technical assistance and expertise.

4. Minneapolis has the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, which provides money and training to neighborhood area districts to create and implement neighborhood plans and improvements.

5. DC does have the Washingtoniana collection at the Main Library, but we don't have what we might call a "good government" collection in the same library system, modeled say after the Dallas Public Library's Urban Information Center.

I started getting involved in local civic affairs in a substantive way in 1999 or 2000. I am not sure when I started testifying before city council, maybe in 2001 but definitely I remember testifying in 2002 with regard to community development corporations and facade programs (in fact I lent my materials from a best practices program in Cleveland to a city council staffer and never got them back...).

One of the things that I appreciated then is the ability to meet other people from other parts of the city who were also testifying. (Another method for crossing neighborhood borders is writing in themail, the twice weekly e-letter that provides watchdogging with regard to good government issues.)

Even so, I have learned that in the city, which has, granted, lots of smart people, most people who are involved in neighborhood activities think:

- that "urban" planning is common sense
- they know everything already
- their community's circumstances are unique and can't be compared to most any other place on earth
- that their perspective is not parochial but somehow is universally and globally applicable to most issues and situations.

I admit that I am not a typical person, one who is driven to read and harvest voluminous amounts of information on urban issues, and then work to apply it at the local level.

But it makes for a difficult environment if you want your neighborhood and your local commercial district and your city to be great, and instead it sputters along, despite incredible social, human, organizational, spatial, and financial resources--resources that most cities in the United States do not have.

Recently, I came across some (more) other examples from other communities that I thought were interesting and which provide food for thought on how we could do so much better in DC if we wanted to.

1. The City of Chattanooga, Tennessee has the Neighborhood Partners Program which:

provide[s] funding support for neighborhood projects that substantially, positively, and measurably impact the community. Funds are annually appropriated to the Department of Neighborhood Services and Community Development for NPP. The Department partners with applicant neighborhood associations and community-based organizations to implement and complete projects and programming proposed as a priority need in the City’s nine council districts.

note the point about impact and having a process for making fair decisions and budget allocations.

2. NYC's Planning Corps is an experiment, connecting planners and their skills with projects from non-profits.

(For years, I have wanted to put on the Project for Public Spaces How to Turn a Place Around workshop in DC every year as a way to train city employees, neighborhood residents, and civic organizations in this method for doing project and neighborhood planning. They also do workshops on , Streets as Places and How to Create Successful Markets)

3. This isn't a city-fixing thing per se, but there is a service learning course at U Massachusetts Amherst on "Grassroots Community Development" that looks to be very interesting, and focused on generating meta understandings, and exposing students to both classroom learning and fieldwork. There look to be some good readings on the syllabus.

By the way, the professor is looking for field learning sites for their Spring "Break" service trip next March, if you have a neighborhood/community issue that could benefit from the addition of 15-20 focused college students.

4. This Harvard class syllabus on community organizing also looks like a good resource.

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