Summit County (Utah) Community Planning Lab as an example of civic engagement and best practice technical assistance
An article, "Community Planning Lab projects offer solutions to Summit County’s problems," in the Park Record discusses Summit County's relatively new Community Planning Lab initiative. From the article:
The Community Planning Lab was launched in the spring of 2023 as a way to inspire county residents, community leaders, business owners and other stakeholders who are interested in learning about how local policy decisions are made to become involved in shaping the future of the community. The course requires at least three and a half hours of work each week. Alumni of the program have gone on to serve in positions on the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission and the Eastern Summit County Planning Commission as well as run for elected office.
I have a bunch of entries on providing technical assistance to community groups and citizens involved in local civic affairs, with the aim of getting them to "do a better job" in representing themselves and their ideas.
Citizen engaged planning practice. (These are just some examples.) What distinguished the Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program program is that it was citizen-led.
Neighborhood groups had to come together to come up with and implement a program of community improvements. The city developed a capacity building and training infrastructure to support it.
In DC, a great example is community-initiated urban design improvement planning by the Bloomingdale Civic Association in their Bloomingdale Village Center Project, which stepped in amidst the failure of the DC Office of Planning and Department of Transportation to pursue transformational planning approaches despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on community planning.
In Calgary, where neighborhood recreation centers are run by community organizations, the Federation of Calgary Communities provides technical support and an extensive schedule of training classes for community groups, including having urban planners on staff to assist neighborhoods dealing with difficult problems and new development ("Community association planning committees a hidden gem?," Calgary Herald).
The Seattle Department of Neighborhoods sponsors a variety of programs where citizens undertake community projects with financial and training support from the city. Unlike DC's "constituency service" programs by Councilmembers and the Mayor's Office, these initiatives are designed to support DIY self-help efforts driven independently of elected officials. While out of date in terms of current programs, the book Neighbor Power describes the first couple decades of the program.
Models for technical assistance and capacity development
- Decades ago, there was an organization called the Nonprofit Support Center, which provided training in a number of cities, including DC.
- Dallas Public Library has an Urban Information Center with special information and publications on urban issues.
- The Massachusetts Citizen Planner Training Collaborative is a statewide training program for members of planning and zoning boards, but this concept can be extended to civic engagement more generally
- The 1970-1980s Citizen Involvement Training Project at the University of Massachusetts Amherst produced training materials and workshops
- The Asset Based Community Development Institute, now at DePaul, produces a wide variety of community organizing workbooks and other materials
- The Project for Public Spaces produced a workbook, now in a second edition, called How to Turn A Place Around, which they also offered as a workshop. It's a great model for urban design focused workshops for neighborhoods that can also be used as civic engagement training.
- Community Design Centers were a 1960s and 1970s initiative to provide urban design assistance to neighborhoods. Funded by HUD, and typically based at universities, many communities still are served by such programs, as well as urban design studio programs for architecture and planning schools.
- The Chicago Bungalow Association is a great example of a historic preservation initiative focused on stabilizing neighborhoods through historic preservation.
- Park Pride, the city- and county-wide park support organization in Atlanta, sponsors an annual conference for park professionals and advocates (they need to do more to get park advocates to participate), which is a great way to communicate best practices and build the knowledge-base of the park community. They also have a small grant program for friends of parks groups.
- Participatory Budgeting initiatives. Don't happen very often, but in places where money is set aside for each council district to fund community programs, not unlike Salt Lake City's citizen initiated CIP program, see "Salt Lake City Capital Improvement Program process allows for citizen initiated projects," but programs too, a few Councilmembers are distributing the funds by creating citizen committees that make the decisions
- Park People in Toronto produces a number of workbooks on engaging citizens through park activities. Park People also sponsors a national conference. Unfortunately, PP has reorganized their website and the old workbooks are impossible to find:
The Summit County Community Planning Lab is another model program to add to this list.
DC. To me, a classic failure to do this kind of work to result in significant improvements in civic participation are DC's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, which get little in the way of help.
There are 46 bodies, set up to cover part of a Ward. Commissioners are elected to represent Single Member Districts. The bodies get a bit of money for administration and community grants, and weigh in/are consulted on matters before DC government bodies.
For awhile GWU did a program like the Community Planning Lab, mostly for ANC commissioners, but I didn't think it reached very far.
DC and non-citizens. DC recently passed legislation to allow non-citizens to participate in local elections, including running for office. I think that's reasonable. Residents who are not citizens still have a stake in local matters. The Washington City Paper has an article, "Abel to Run," about Abel Amene, who intends to run for an ANC seat in Ward 4.
Los Angeles: it can be difficult to integrate non-English speakers and non-citizens into local oversight bodies. LA created a system of Neighborhood Councils in response to an effort by residents in the San Fernando Valley to secede. NCs are like DC's ANCs and NYC's Community Boards, although NYC's CB members are appointed, not elected.
Like DC's Office of the ANC, the unit tasked with supporting NCs, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, doesn't seem to be doing very well ("Neighborhood Councils Are Supposed To Be The People’s Voice In LA Government, But Members Say The System Is Broken," LAist).
There's an interesting article, "Mired in overdose crisis, MacArthur Park struggles to revive Neighborhood Council," in the Los Angeles Daily News, about the difficulty one NC has functioning in the MacArthur Park neighborhood. From the article:
The MacArthur Park Neighborhood Council stopped meeting earlier this year after only one person ran for one of its 17 empty seats. An attempt to revive the body at an Oct. 25 meeting yielded eight members in total, still not enough for a quorum, which requires nine.
The neighborhood council members say there are several barriers standing between residents and the council, including language challenges, government mistrust, a communal sense of helplessness, safety concerns walking to meetings and a lack of time to devote to meetings. At the same time, the neighborhood council members know that the low-income, majority Latino community located near Downtown Los Angeles direly needs city resources and support.
The area has many issues due to rampant drug dealing and resulting disorder. In fact, they could benefit from an initiative I suggested for Salt Lake's Ballpark neighborhood, an on the ground police and social work initiative to better address drug use, the unhoused, and disorder.
At the same time, it's obvious the NC poses interesting issues about the need to communicate in both English and Spanish at meetings, and ways to engage people who might not be citizens. From the article:
Machado, who has been on the neighborhood council for around six years, says she has found it tough to recruit members to the panel for several reasons. “Maybe it’s because they don’t feel like they’re getting services from the city, maybe the rents are too high and they have to work (during neighborhood council meetings) and maybe they think there’s nothing that we have done to address homelessness directly,” she said.
Some residents also feel unsafe walking to meetings, which take place after dark, she added. Gabriel Owens-Flores, a new neighborhood councilmember, said that residents’ economic status often limits their political participation.
... Many undocumented community members are also fearful of doing anything that puts them in contact with government authorities, Owens-Flores added.
More than 56% of the MacArthur Park’s residents are foreign born, according to census data, and the community provides a lifeline to many immigrant families. It is home to a gorgeous park, and provides essential affordable housing, food, clothing and services in a city that can be oppressively expensive.
At the same time, residents have positive ideas on what is needed, but need more help than is typically provided to a neighborhood or a neighborhood council. From the article:
Residents who attended the Oct. 25 neighborhood council meeting had lots of ideas about what the city could do to help.
Machado wants to distribute binders with Spanish language resources for people facing evictions. Bryant is calling for community trainings on how to use Narcan spray to reverse opioid overdoses. Alex Schoenner, another councilmember, envisions hiring park ambassadors to offer resources to people experiencing homelessness and keep an eye out for safety issues.
But the council can’t take any action until it attracts enough members to make a quorum. Its inaction also translates into a financial loss for the community. At the end of the 2022 to 2023 fiscal year, the MacArthur Park Neighborhood Council had to give more than $16,000 in unspent funds back to the city.
Jose Galdamez, the city representative for the MacArthur Park Neighborhood Council, said the city is trying new outreach strategies to recruit members. They include sending mailers to residents; tabling at community events; and distributing fliers at schools, businesses and places of worship.
Interesting issues. There are solutions. But typically cities aren't providing the level of technical assistance and support necessary for citizen-initiated responses to be successful.