Keep It Simple, Cities!

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Translation: Consider changing the land-use permissions on a 4.5-acre lot of land that I think belongs to Central United Methodist Church. Right now, if they wanted to build on the land, they could only do medium density, which would be, like, 25 units per acre.

Writing this guide was fun but also exasperating. It was some of the densest copy I’ve ever read in my life. The shocking thing is that it’s assumed ordinary working folks will actually understand this. 

After a few hours, I sent the “translation” around to a few friends, including my boyfriend who attended the meeting, gave comments on a few of the public hearing items, and was invited to grab coffee with the mayor. My boyfriend is also a philosopher and natural orator, so I will not suggest that such an outcome would be ordinary, but it is interesting to consider what kinds of productive conversations could happen if more citizens understood what the heck was going on. 

Civic Engagement Matters

Making council meetings easier to understand is just one example of how cities could make civic participation easier for their citizens. Here are two others. First, cities that want to encourage more civic engagement could also embrace greater transparency about the various ways the city is changing. So often, citizens feel out of the loop and caught off guard by new real estate developments, long-term construction projects, and the use of public funds. 

Cities that want to foster dynamic civic cultures should find creative ways to be more upfront about these kinds of things and they should do it in a way that citizens can understand. What’s to keep cities from writing a layman’s guide to council meetings, passing out clearly written updates on the budget at the Farmer’s Market, hosting a Q&A at a local pub, or posting “explainer” content on social media?

Second, cities could be more intentional about creating opportunities for direct civic engagement. My friend Matt Harder who runs Civic Trust helps facilitate such opportunities using the process known as Participatory Budgeting. He provides the software that helps cities allocate a portion of their budget to an improvement project nominated and chosen entirely by citizens. 

For instance, in Candler Park, Georgia, citizens nominated 43 ideas through the software and then voted on them. Renovated park bathrooms was the idea that won. The city pitched in $45,000 and local nonprofits matched that, bringing the total to $115,000. It took seven months to run the entire process and the city is currently working on implementation. When the same program ran in Atlanta, 115 ideas were submitted and a pedestrian-only street emerged as the winning idea, backed by $1 million from the city. 

“When city leaders show interest in their population’s ideas on how to improve their cities, the residents feel trusted and engaged,” Matt told me. “This engagement can be the first step in citizens creating new civic identities based around problem-solving, collaboration and community improvement.”

Moving Toward a Different Understanding of Success

Making these kinds of changes is not impossible, it just requires a mindset shift. So often, our city leaders focus so much energy on qualifying for state or federal grants, courting developers, attracting potential employers, and following the advice of “experts.” Citizens, especially those on the margins, often get lost in the shuffle. Embracing more transparent, accessible engagement requires rethinking the purpose of the city and who it is really for. Is the city just the playground of elites and “experts”? How does citizen participation shape our understanding of success?

Historic cities weren’t perfect. Plenty of people leveraged their power for their own interests. Plenty of citizens were excluded from participation, but they did seem to understand that the heart of being a citizen is participation and stewardship, not just passive observation and consumption. They understood that participation is what gave citizens a sense of pride and belonging and that is what made their city strong, because a city with those kinds of citizens is a city that’s truly resilient. 

It’s in our best interest to recapture this humble attitude towards the everyday citizen and find ways to cultivate meaningful participatory experiences. Such efforts should start by figuring out how to meet people where they are and, for the love of God, communicating in plain English.

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