Civic participation to create great neighbourhoods
I was fortunate enough to live and work in Chicago for just under 2 years. A city known for its long history of community organising and activism, beautiful architecture, picturesque neighbourhoods and citizen-led action, I was inspired by every block and corner. I mean the Obamas were from here. You could buy a Frank Lloyd Wright House 15km from downtown. It has one of the best jazz scenes in the country!
During my time there, I was humbled by the people, cultures and moved by its strength and hope in community. Being an urbanist I had a moral obligation to understand the complexity of this city and I wasn’t blind to the major issues the city had – from its historically redlined neighbourhoods creating modern day apartheid to the gun violence and political corruption. With all that in mind, I was cautious and curious to learn about its neighbourhoods, its political landscape, and people.
We lived in Logan Square, a vibrant, predominantly Latino neighbourhood that was undergoing rapid gentrification. Developers were buying up blocks along the elevated version of the highline – ‘the 606’ and young Latino kids would be protesting on it, calling upon local Alderman to protect rights of local residents to prevent displacement through rising rents and land values. On our block, one of our proudly Puerto Rican neighbours would pull out his bright red pick up truck playing loud Spanish music and sell fresh produce, meeting my last minute dinner needs for a lime or an onion. Our local favourite playground, Lucy Flower Park would hold fundraisers and working bees to encourage young people to be involved in the maintenance and upkeep of the park. Another park would hold mum and bub classes for next to nothing, through the Chicago Parks District. I met my future nanny there. Our local pool Holstein Pool was free. The brand new apartment building we lived in had a full time property manager, who would organise yoga classes, movie nights, coffee and food from local businesses. I met many of my neighbours, and a few become some of my closest friends. The sense of community was so tangible and so strong I felt like I belonged right away.
Whilst spending countless hours in parks and playgrounds, walking the main streets, exploring neighbourhoods by foot I discovered that many places displayed a strong neighbourhood character and clear ownership from the community – from the residents planting on their natures strips and providing benches, community gardens, to girl scout cookie sales, small business pop up shops like Boombox to summer neighbourhood block parties, school fundraisers and benefits. Posters and flyers to join, network, attend, or volunteer your time in your community were found to be everywhere. There were countless opportunities to participate and be heard, talk to your neighbours or rally together for a call to action. I could clearly see fingerprints of community all over my neighbourhood and city. So I thought to myself, what does this all mean? Why are people so engaged? Why did this feel so different to living in Melbourne? Why were people so nice and friendly? And inclusive? And community-oriented? Why did they care so much?
Because of a culture of enablement. The US is known for relying on the private, philanthropic and not for profit sector to provide for things that usually fall in the lap of government here. Lack of government funding and process (and enforcement!) means that people are able to self organise and do what needs to be done themselves. Take for example CDCs (Community Development Corporations), who deliver more investment in underserved neighbourhoods or provide more affordable housing than the government or private sector alone. Or SSAs/BIDs that deliver streetscape improvements, public way maintenance and beautification; district marketing and advertising; business retention/attraction strategies, special events and promotional activities; pedestrian and bike improvements; security; façade improvements; and other commercial and economic development initiatives to name a few. In lieu of these, here in Australia there would be usually one entity doing all these things. Any guesses? Yes your local council. Or traders association (maybe). Or nobody. Community, traders, residents are not cultivated for enablement the way historically has been done in the US.
The City of Chicago municipal area covers 77 neighbourhoods, with their offices in downtown. With almost 3 million people to service, there is just no way the city would have enough resources, budget or time to spend on improving every single park, nature strip, alley, footpath or vacant block. Federal money on housing and urban development was gone after Trump came in, and generally speaking state funding on local neighbourhood projects were very much left up to local community groups, business improvement districts and locally elected Alderman to lead and manage.
After months of doing bits of freelance work, networking, and trying to get my foot in the door I landed a role in at my local chamber of commerce, as their new Business Improvement District (SSA33) Manager. I reported to the City of Chicago and my local Alderman to oversee our budgets, expenditure and did all the necessary due diligences and training on how to prepare and manage the budget. This is where the major difference in service delivery happened – instead of the City deciding how the local tax levy was spent in the neighbourhood, it was overseen by a volunteer group of local commissioners who, in order to become a commissioner had to be a local business owner and tax payer along the commercial corridors. Decisions on improvements to the local neighbourhood to keep it safe, clean, vibrant, appealing and commercially attractive were made by a group of people invested in seeing it prosper and grow. Not someone sitting in an office downtown removed from local issues, or a technical expert who over manages every little detail. The designation of authority to local people gave them agency and ownership to deliver services from the ground up, thereby creating more social trust and connection and a stronger sense of place and community. We met on a monthly, strict commission schedule that was open to the public, addressing issues around amenity, landscaping and beautification, sanitation, graffiti removal, public art, neighbourhood branding and identity, pedestrian and bike safety, as well as bigger issues around affordable housing policies, and addressing high vacancies in the commercial corridors through writing letter of support for the development of legacy leases for long term small business owners.
It is very timely that whilst writing this blog piece, I stumbled upon this article about enablement, and how letting go can help governments achieve more. It really resonated with my experience with the SSA in Chicago and there are lessons to be learnt that can apply to our local context here in Australia. Thankfully the tide is changing and with programs like The Neighbourhood Project and we are seeing a grassroots movement to creating social resilience and thriving neighbourhoods from the ground up. There is still however, a lot more work to be done to break down those barriers to cultivate ownership rather than control it.
By Samantha Choudhury