Friday, April 24, 2009

The Tricky Nature of Community Involvement

In spring 2008, the Wedge (LHENA) approved the neighborhood’s NRP Phase II Action Plan. As described in the executive summary, the plan “aims to promote a neighborhood vision through stakeholder-identified goals and strategies.” In an attempt to identify these goals, a survey was distributed at neighborhood meetings, at National Night Out events, through emails, and through publication in The Wedge, the neighborhood newspaper.

The results of this survey are a vivid example of how many important neighborhood decisions – in this case the shaping of neighborhood decisions, those involving large amounts of money – are being directed by a small group of active and involved individuals. The survey, its results made available in Appendix E of the Phase II Plan, shows a grand total of 21 respondents. Of these respondents:

90.5 percent owned and lived in their homes
This is compared to a rate of 14.7 percent of the neighborhood as a whole, based on 2000 census numbers. That percentage likely went up in the 2000s due to condo conversions, but most neighborhood residents remain renters.

4.8 percent were renters
One respondent chose not to answer this question, so in a best-case scenario less than ten percent of survey respondents were renters. In a neighborhood where 85 percent of homes were rentals in 2000, this is obviously a major disparity. The one renter was also “highly satisfied” with his or her landlord; while that’s good news (especially for him or her), I know that there are some slumlords in the Wedge, too. It would be nice to see some of their tenants getting active and involved and advocating for change from a renter’s perspective.

71.4 percent lived in single-family homes
I don’t know the exact statistics on this, but given the large number of duplexes and apartments in the Wedge I would assume that the percentage of single-family homes is nowhere near 71 percent.

On average, respondents had lived in their current home for 18 years; the average tenure in the Wedge neighborhood was 22 years.
In other words, these respondents were a self-selecting group of people with deep-rooted ties to the community. They may well be the best people to make informed decisions and suggestions about the future of the neighborhood, but they’re certainly not representative of the neighborhood’s demographics.

There were no respondents younger than 45
Given that only 15.7 percent of the Wedge’s population was 45 or older in 2000, this number is also skewed. There needs to be a way to get at least a handful of younger people involved in neighborhood issues. I know there are many younger people out there who do care about the neighborhood and who have strong opinions on its evolution, but for various reasons few of them are choosing to become involved through the traditional means favored by older residents.

Nine respondents had children under the age of five
I was quite happy to see this; Uptown, and the Wedge in particular, aren’t often seen as “family” neighborhoods. This number is skewed too, of course, but I’d rather see over-representation than under-representation.

No one made less than $29,999 household income in 2006
I know there are people in the Wedge making less than $30,000. Let’s get them involved, too.

One third of respondents had a graduate degree
While certainly not a bad thing that this group of respondents was highly educated, it is another indicator of the imbalance that so often occurs when dealing with neighborhood decisions, boards, and community-wide conversations.

90 percent of respondents were white, with the remaining 10 percent declining to answer.
87 percent of the population in 2000 was white, so maybe this isn’t too far off. Still, a little more ethnic or racial diversity would have been nice.

I’m not bringing up this survey to fault the Wedge or its NRP Phase II Plan; I think they made a strong effort to provide all residents with the opportunity to participate. The small response rate – 21 people out of a neighborhood with close to 6,000 residents, most of them adults – shows how hard it can be to engage the majority of a neighborhood’s residents in local issues or politics. While most people living in the Wedge probably have opinions about what can and should be done to improve the neighborhood, many of them aren’t going to get involved unless they see a pressing need. On the one hand, this may suggest that many residents are happy with the neighborhood the way that it is. On the other hand, by not getting involved or expressing their opinions they run the risk of a small but vocal minority of fellow residents potentially defining the future of the neighborhood, and possibly in a different direction than the quieter residents would like.

The Wedge, along with its fellow Uptown neighborhoods, is lucky to have a core group of neighborhood activists. These people care about the area and are willing to invest time and energy to make their neighborhood a better place to live, play, and work. But, as both neighborhood board demographics as well as surveys like this show, the people who actively participate in more formalized forms of neighborhood governance or decision making tend to reflect a small sliver of the larger neighborhood demographics. In a city where neighborhood boards, DFL conventions, and similar activities have a great impact on both political and practical matters, it is even more important that every effort be made to involve a broader cross-section of residents in the community.

I’m not sure what the solution should be. We’ve all heard that old saying, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” That doesn’t mean we should give up. This lack of involvement needs to be a priority in all four official city-defined Uptown neighborhoods. While it’s unrealistic to think that everyone, or even a majority of, local residents are ever going to attend a local board meeting or even a neighborhood block party, it’s not far-fetched to think that the rates of participation across different demographic subsets could be increased.

Locally, the Kingfield neighborhood seems to be doing a good job with their outreach efforts; their excellent website and e-letter provide an easy way for even those with odd hours to feel connected, and their recent annual neighborhood association offered free childcare. Although not a Kingfield resident, I’ve now subscribed to their email-based newsletter, and continue to be impressed with their community-building efforts. The Uptown neighborhoods have many achievements and innovate ideas of their own, of course, but I, for one, will continue to keep an eye on Kingfield for additional inspiration of how the neighborhoods of Uptown can continue to build community, engage all citizens, and generally go about building and sustaining the vibrant, safe, and thriving Uptown that we all want.

No comments:

Post a Comment