Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Citizen Participation and Strong Communities

Dateline: 12:13 pm July 16, 2008 Filed under:

The immortal words of John F. Kennedy are quite relevant these days. But change the word “country” to “community” and you get “Ask not what your community can do for you, ask what you can do for your community.” That how I look at it. I believe strong neighborhoods and community bonds are vital to democracy, and it is up to neighbors to work together to make it so by being involved at the local level and electing sensible officials who will make good decisions at the higher level.

The work of Richard Florida and the “creative class” is interesting and I buy in to it. We as a society have choices in where to live, and cities are aware that they need to provide quality places and not just jobs to attract critical talent. But we need to be careful that we don’t feel an entitlement that cities provide us with everything in a top-down sort of way. My casual observation since the release of Florida’s book is that too often city fathers and mothers of a down and out rust-belt town think they can create a hip district and attract a groundswell of young creative people. That is a bit simplistic, if not misdirected. More than ever, I think strong civic involvement is critical to creating long term sustainable communities.

I was in Tucson last year, and, as I love to do when traveling, I opened the local paper. Inside I found an editorial about the lack of community participation and interest in Tucson. Maybe it is the lack of year-round homeowners in Tucson, or perhaps the nice weather creating a lull of complacency among Tucson citizens, but it got me thinking about how nice it is that my hometown of Minneapolis is very civic-minded, and also why it is so.

Civic-minded as we may be, here in Minneapolis we are faced with a major change in how neighborhood groups work with the city to make improvements to the community. 20 years ago the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) was created to keep Minneapolis a vibrant place in the face of a drug and gang epidemic, suburban flight and declining school enrollment. A TIF district was created in our thriving downtown to disperse millions of dollars across the city – to spread the wealth. Neighborhood groups were formed across the city to work together and choose how to spend that money.

If the creators of the MasterCard “priceless” commercials were advertising for the NRP program, it would go something like this: TIF dollars to finance neighborhood development – $280 million. Neighborhood groups benefiting from NRP – 84. Real estate development resulting from NRP – $1 billion. Tax dollars generated from that investment over a 20-year period – $250 million. Citizen involvement in the decision making process of their neighborhoods – priceless.

A great number of community enhancements have resulted in the intervening 20 years. Minneapolis is a great place to live, in part because of the funding from that TIF district, but also because it allowed residents to have an increased say in the future of their city. You can find all the statistics to measure the success of the NRP, but the citizen involvement part is much more qualitative, and therefore interesting. It is indeed priceless.

Recently, the 20-year TIF district was extended for another decade, which will allow NRP to continue. But there will be changes in its level of funding and how it will be run. As a result, there will be fallout as neighborhood groups realize they may have their main source of funding curtailed.

Put in perspective, the city faces very different challenges than 20 years ago. And although we can no longer count on the same reliable source of income, I doubt interest in community participation will necessarily suffer. Rather, my gut says it will increase when neighbors realize they can no longer count on the city directly. This presents great opportunities to work amongst ourselves to raise money through other means such as grants and private dollars.

In other words, it is time for the residents of Minneapolis to ask not what the city can do for them, but what they can do for the city.

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