Resident Engagement Facilitates Neighborhood Revitalization in Small Cities

Municipal Leadership for Children and Families in Small and Mid-Sized Cities
May 31, 2013

By Michael Karpman

This is the second article in a series highlighting municipal leadership for children and families in communities with 75,000 people or less, drawing on examples from a new NLC report that is available at www.nlc.org/smallcities

Disadvantaged neighborhoods pose a host of challenges to cities of all sizes throughout the country: blighted and deteriorating properties; threats to public safety; schools with a large proportion of high-need students; limited access to recreational opportunities.  To strengthen local neighborhoods, municipal leaders must simultaneously focus on improving the physical conditions of the community and empowering its residents.

Establishing a clear and credible process for community engagement is essential to the success of neighborhood revitalization efforts, according to NLC's new report, "Municipal Leadership for Children and Families in Small and Mid-Sized Cities."  The report highlights a number of smaller cities in which local governments are working in close collaboration with neighborhood organizations and residents to improve their community's quality of life.

Building Neighborhood Capacity

One of the report's two case studies features Manchester, Conn., an increasingly diverse first-tier suburb of Hartford that has found innovative ways to strengthen connections among residents, neighborhoods, and town government.  With extensive resident input, the town developed a comprehensive Children, Youth and Family Master Plan that outlines goals and strategies for improving child and family well-being.  It then restructured town agencies to create a new Office of Neighborhoods and Families (ONF) that facilitates implementation of the plan and leads ongoing efforts to build neighborhood capacity.

For instance, ONF and other town agencies have used federal, state and local funds to repurpose a vacant firehouse into a one-stop, neighborhood-based resource center.  The East Side Public Safety Youth Center houses the new Manchester Neighborhood Academy, which offers community-based education courses in local government, leadership, neighborhood organizing, and financial education.  The center also provides space for block watch meetings, afterschool programs, and meetings of the new East Side Livable Neighborhood Group.

On the other side of the country, the City of Walla Walla, Wash., has partnered with a grassroots community organizing initiative of the Blue Mountain Action Council called Commitment to Community (C2C).  The C2C process has brought together residents, police officers, and parks department personnel to create new parks and redevelop existing ones that were plagued by drug activity, making them safer and more accessible to local families.

In Charlottesville, Va., a federal Promise Neighborhoods planning grant helped advance the City of Promise initiative, which seeks to provide children living in a public housing complex and two surrounding neighborhoods with a continuum of "cradle-to-career" supports for learning.  Neighborhood residents, who comprise one-third of the City of Promise steering committee's members, receive training to help guide the initiative.  Regular community dinners and events build trust and strengthen relationships among residents, community leaders, and agency staff.

Reaching At-Risk Families

While lack of trust between underserved neighborhoods and local governments can stand in the way of effective neighborhood engagement, it is not the only barrier that small cities encounter.  In other communities, residents may be confident in their municipal government but also reluctant to seek help in addressing personal financial challenges.  To overcome the stigma associated with receiving assistance, city officials are finding ways to partner with other trusted leaders in the community.

For instance, when certain neighborhoods in Dedham, Mass., experienced a surge in subprime lending and foreclosure activity, the town worked with local clergy to reach out to struggling residents.  Through the Neighbors Helping Neighbors initiative, town and church leaders brought a wide group of stakeholders together to connect residents with foreclosure prevention counseling, as well as home heating assistance, affordable health insurance, and other opportunities to reduce household costs.

Lifting Up Neighborhoods and Residents

In small communities such as Aiken, S.C., neighborhood engagement strategies are addressing multiple challenges at once.  The revitalization of the city's Crosland Park neighborhood leveraged CDBG grants and additional federal and local funds to purchase blighted houses and hire unemployed residents to renovate them and make them energy efficient.  At the same time, the city used Safe Routes to School funding to improve sidewalks, and partnered with a coalition of organizations to sponsor afterschool activities for youth and other programs serving the neighborhood.  Underscoring the value of neighborhood capacity building, the city has supported the formation of neighborhood associations that helped engage residents in these community development initiatives.

Details:  To view the "Municipal Leadership for Children and Families in Small and Mid-Sized Cities" report, visit www.nlc.org/smallcities, or go to www.nlc.org for additional NLC resources on building strong neighborhoods and promoting civic engagement.