Where does Atlanta’s NPU system stand in the changing face of community engagement at the municipal level? A comparative analysis
By Cara Woods
As the capstone of the MCRP program, students undertake original research in a subject relating to city and regional planning, resulting in an applied research paper or thesis. These works demonstrate the student’s ability to analyze challenges and situations they will encounter in professional practice. Here 2012 MCRP graduate Cara Woods provides an overview of her applied research paper.
Since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s the way citizens and governments view community engagement has changed drastically. As civil rights activists expressed their displeasure with neighborhood changes they did not support, poorly distributed city resources, and general inequality, a need for public participation and community engagement became evident. The first interactions between neighborhood groups and local governments were conflict-based. Community organizers assumed that their interests and those of the government were in opposition (Kathi, 2005).
Since that time economic, changes have altered the way citizens use city resources. Neighborhood associations have started privatizing city services in instances where the city’s budget could not meet neighborhood needs. Additionally various age groups view community engagement differently, making it difficult to engage all generations at one time. This research attempts to figure out how Atlanta’s NPU stacks up against these new challenges.
The initial steps for this analysis were the selection of comparable cities with neighborhood-based citizen participation and/or community engagement programs. Cities with similar demographic makeups to that of Atlanta were selected. To assess the effectiveness of local government neighborhood departments, surveys were conducted with planners or administrators from each of the selected city departments.
Within the City of Atlanta NPU chairs and neighborhood association presidents were sought out for interviews as well. Three NPUs were selected based on their demographic components. Demographic diversity was a priority in this selection. The purpose of these interview questions was to assess whether the NPU system addresses the needs of citizens, improves the allocation of resources to all neighborhoods, and increases local government’s understanding of citizen priorities.
Ultimately, what NPU Participants wanted the most, across the board, was to see the city dedicate a budget to each NPU. In order to advertise NPU meetings, enhance engagement efforts, and encourage leadership NPU participants felt that NPUs needed to receive funding. However, participants were unsure how this funding could be fairly allocated since some NPUs have more neighborhoods within their boundaries.
Participants would also like to be assured that their voices are actually heard through the Neighborhood Planning Units. They wanted to see appointees from APAB or the NPUs serving on the Urban Design Commission (UDC) and the License Review Board (LRB). Additionally, participants recommended that when a license is denied at the NPU level, that the LRB communicate with the NPU as to why the denial was made. As one participant noted, when a business is not supported by its neighborhood it is difficult for that business to thrive.
NPU participants would also like see various kinds of training. When new people come into leadership positions, there is not always someone there to train them. These positions are already time consuming enough without having to learn about planning terminology on their own. Additionally, few residents are professional meeting facilitators, accountants, or community organizers, so workshops and training on keeping neighbors engaged and running a functional neighborhood association would be useful for many neighborhoods. Participants also expressed a need for technical assistance to run websites and create advertising.
Finally, improved communication from the city via standardized NPU websites was recommended. One participant saw a campaign branding the NPUs as being important, because of the amount of time that has passed since their creation. Another advantage of a branding campaign for the NPUs would be taking some of the pressure off of the neighborhoods to advertise and promote the importance of participation.
The Ideal Model
The role of planners and administrators in the ideal model is to facilitate meetings, provide technical expertise, and provide tools for community engagement. In order for a community engagement system to function the way it was intended neighborhood groups need to be able to engage people in their service area and run a functional organization. Many community engagement programs rely on neighborhood associations to get and keep people involved. In order for the neighborhood advisory groups to truly represent the priorities of an area it is important for neighborhood associations to be able to engage the maximum number of people. Because of this, offering capacity building and training is important. In addition to this training and as recommended by participants, training in planning terminology would be a great asset to any community engagement model.
It is important that elected officials participate in any community engagement model. They must also be supportive of the model, and willing to assess their own work. Participants noted that the council members often supplemented a lot of the work of neighborhood associations and the NPUs. The public support of the mayor was also seen as being a major factor in the success of NPUs.
The ideal model recognizes that how community engagement and citizen participation are defined has changed over time. While some people see voting and attending meetings as an ideal way to affect neighborhood change, many people would rather volunteer their time to community service activities like cleanups, housing rehabilitation or gardening. In order to keep diverse groups engaged it is important for a community engagement model to allow for different forms of participation from voting to volunteering.
An ideal community engagement model would have a formal democratic process to include neighborhood input into planning processes. The importance of communication from both directions cannot be underestimated. When lines of neighborhood-government remain open distribution of services is more equitable and implementation of programs becomes easier.
In the past, due to high levels of economic competition citizen participation in government decisions tended to be focused on the desire to shape decisions about growth resources. Those who participated had the most to gain or lose from decisions about where growth and land development would happen. The engagement needs of the city during urban renewal when the NPUs were created have shifted. Now land development is on the backburner and vacant housing, crime, and redevelopment are at the forefront of citizen’s concerns.
In order for the NPU system to remain relevant it is important for it to be coupled with training, have a more flexible definition of community engagement, emphasizing the importance of neighborhood input, and for politicians to truly get behind it in public support and funding. Advertising the history importance, and purpose of NPU participation is key. Acknowledging changing neighborhood needs will be important even as the economy recovers. Engaging young people is the only method to make the program and individual neighborhood efforts sustainable. People who work closely with the NPU believe that if the city truly values input from its neighborhoods, then there will be more funding in the future for the work that NPUs do. Finally for the NPU system to function the way that it was intended it is important that the city makes an effort to prioritize neighborhood input, and make sure that decisions made by NPUs carry a heavy weight.
Cara Woods graduated from the MCRP program in May 2012 with a specialization in Community Development and will begin working with Habitat for Humanity International in New Orleans in August. She came to the School from the University of South Florida, where she earned a B.A. in sociology and anthropology.