Building vibrant and engaged neighborhood-based communities that can work together to solve problems won’t happen by simply adding another mayoral commission and using social media.
I’m passionate about community — people who identify with and support one another. While there is a role for government and not-for-profit organizations, there is no substitute for inclusive communities when it comes to caring for one another and the environment, preventing crime, promoting health and happiness, creating great places, advancing social justice and strengthening democracy.
The best place to build inclusive community is at the neighborhood level. Seattle’s neighborhoods provide the key ingredients that make community possible — a common identity, small scale, gathering places and opportunities for collective action. True, there are other valuable types of community that are defined by shared interest or identity, but neighborhoods are the only type of community with the potential to encompass all of the other identities (e.g. class, age, race, culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, politics) and interests (e.g. business, environment, social justice, public safety, education). Everyone lives in a neighborhood.
Building inclusive community isn’t easy. People tend to associate with others who are like themselves. There are dozens of formal and informal associations in every neighborhood organized around culture, youth, seniors, sports, schools, crime prevention, faith, art, environment, hobbies and so much more. No one association can fully represent a neighborhood.
When the Seattle Office of Neighborhoods was created in 1988, a key objective was “to foster cooperation and consensus among diverse neighborhood interests and to facilitate connections between neighborhoods.” Thirteen district councils were created with that in mind. All of the pre-existing community councils and business associations within the catchment area of each Neighborhood Service Center were entitled to designate representatives to their district council.
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This was highly controversial at first because many of the business and residential groups had historically been at odds with one another. Fairly quickly, though, relationships were built and the groups started to work together on shared interests (e.g. an anti-hate crime campaign on Capitol Hill, revitalization of Columbia City, and downtown public restrooms).
Even so, there was a recognition that membership on the district councils and the neighborhood associations they represented tended to be whiter than Seattle’s population. Some neighborhoods in the Central Area, Delridge and Southeast Seattle had no community councils, so there was a focus on helping them get organized. Progress was made, but the continuing inability to be fully inclusive for people of color, youth, renters and other underrepresented groups caused the City Council to call for a review of the district council structure.
Mayor Ed Murray recently responded by announcing that the city would sever its ties to the district councils and stop providing staff support. Instead, he pledged to find new ways of engaging people in the Seattle process including the formation of a citywide Commission on Involvement and greater use of social media.
The mayor misses the point. District councils weren’t established as the voice of the neighborhoods to City Hall. In fact, many community councils initially resisted the formation of district councils because they didn’t want another layer of bureaucracy between them and their government. They valued their independence and wanted to continue to be able to contact city hall directly just like any other association or citizen. As a result, district councils were given no powers apart from the responsibility for making recommendations to the mayor and City Council on allocations from the Neighborhood Matching Fund and Neighborhood Street Fund.
The primary purpose of the district councils is to help with networking among community associations. The mayor’s proposal won’t help with that.
Here’s what could help to build strong, inclusive communities:
• Give the 13 district councils the tools they need to be more inclusive. Help with translation and interpreters. Restore cuts to the coordinator positions. Give the councils some real power so others will want to join. Set standards for inclusion and hold district councils accountable.
• Revive community planning. In the late 1990s, 30,000 citizens shaped 38 neighborhood plans. No planning program before or since has been more inclusive or productive. Yet, the program was terminated in favor of planning led by city staff. Give people a real say, and they are much more likely to get involved.
• Restore the massive cuts to the Neighborhood Matching Fund. This program engaged tens of thousands of diverse citizens in community self-help projects such as planting street trees, building playgrounds, creating public art, building cultural centers, documenting community history, and so much more. People are more likely to get involved in short-term projects than in endless meetings. But again, staff cuts have made the program much less accessible especially for first-time applicants.
• Support the P-Patch program. One of the places where the full diversity of the community is visible is in the community gardens where almost 7,000 people from all walks of life participate. The number of gardens has doubled to 90 over recent years. but there has been no increase in staff. Consequently, there is a moratorium on creating new gardens despite long wait lists in some neighborhoods.
• Facilitate block-watch organizing beyond crime prevention. The police department has developed an extensive network of block watches over the years, but the blocks would be so much more vibrant (and safe) if the neighbors used them as a vehicle for providing mutual support. The City of Edmonton (in Alberta, Canada) is sponsoring this kind of block organizing in conjunction with its neighborhood associations, which are gaining a much broader and more inclusive base as a result.
Citizens are unlikely to engage with City Hall if they don’t first feel connected to one another. They will also be reluctant to participate if it’s about nothing more than providing input to processes in which they have no real power. City Hall needs to renew its support for community initiatives. That’s unlikely to happen through yet another mayoral appointed commission.