Urban Wire How Citizen–to–City Hall Engagement Can Promote an Equitable Recovery
Mary Bogle
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During the COVID-19 pandemic, many communities have faced unprecedented challenges. No one understands these challenges better than local residents, but they’re often left out of the decisionmaking process.

This is particularly true in disinvested neighborhoods. And because of nearly a century of racist policies and practices that have intentionally excluded people of color, residents of color are often disproportionally represented in disinvested neighborhoods.

As America focuses on building back from the COVID-19 pandemic, a renewed commitment to engaging citizens can help mayors and city leaders address racial legacies and advance equity in their communities. A citizen engagement model called Love Your Block offers city leaders lessons on how to engage residents’ energy and opinions.

The Love Your Block model  

The Love Your Block program supports city residents in hands-on revitalization of their own neighborhoods. The 10 cities selected to receive 2018 Love Your Block competitive grants each received up to $25,000 over two years, help from AmeriCorps VISTA members, and technical assistance from Cities of Service experts. In turn, the cities disbursed minigrants of $200 to $2,000 to community groups, block clubs, and informal, volunteer groups to address blight in low-income, high-crime areas.

As part of the program, high-level city officials, such as deputy mayors, neighborhood engagement coordinators, and department heads, work directly with the teams to provide resources and staff, including sanitation services, access to parks and recreation space, and public health and safety workers.

A recent Urban Institute study found the minigrant projects formed by the 10 cities in the 2018 Love Your Block cohort collectively carted away 299,997 pounds of trash, cleaned 1,040 acres of vacant grounds, and removed of 1,313 square feet of graffiti, all while creating 637 new features, such as pocket parks, and planting 146 trees.

Our study also validated an earlier Urban Institute report that found the direct connections forged between city leaders and citizens can catalyze collective neighborhood action, primarily because it builds social capital and cohesion among everyday citizens.

Local leaders have a unique opportunity to center equity in their recovery plans

Our evaluations show the Love Your Block model benefits both localities and their residents. With an unprecedented amount of flexible funds for state and local governments, local leaders have a chance to prioritize equitable recovery by engaging residents. Here are a few ways the Love Your Block model could help them achieve this goal.

1. The model facilitates community resilience

In spring 2020, city leaders in the 2018 cohort pivoted quickly to meet new pandemic realities. This is largely because nimble Love Your Block citizen teams were already on the ground in the places hit hardest by COVID-19’s health and economic consequences: communities of color with low incomes.

Love Your Block authorized volunteers to use their minigrants to meet newly urgent needs, such as taking personal protective equipment door-to-door. Some cities used Love Your Block’s strong in-person connectivity to create crucial virtual links between city officials and neighborhood leaders.

As COVID-19 variants emerge and efforts to immunize citizens who remain distrustful of media and public-sector messaging around vaccines continue, citizen teams allied with public health workers could help keep communities safe and well.

2. The model creates a direct link between community members and decisionmakers

The tasks Love Your Block neighborhood leaders and their social networks carry out are important to mayors because they typically focus on solving public problems like crime, litter, and code violations. By providing small, competitive grants and coordinating city services directly with citizen-led teams, city leaders can have a direct, measurable impact on the look and feel of neighborhoods.

Love Your Block teams form and operate organically, springing up from grassroots (citizens) to reach the grasstops (government officials and resources) without middleman conduits, like nonprofit intermediaries. In some projects, city mayors have even met with teams personally to encourage their efforts and gather feedback.

During the pandemic, mutual aid networks, which focus on citizens helping one another directly, sprang up across the country and this movement is likely to continue in recovery. The ground-level immediacy of mutual aid models pairs well with the direct city-to-citizen connections forged by Love Your Block.

3. The model increases residents’ influence

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Love Your Block approach is how it builds social capital by expanding the influence of informal neighborhood leaders, who already hold great sway with their immediate neighbors but often lack access to city power players. 

When Love Your Block minigrant teams spot an issue, such as illegal dumping that attracts rats and threatens neighborhood health and safety, the team leader doesn’t need to call a 311 line or sit in a long coordinating meeting to get support. They can pick up the phone and produce visible results more quickly—a rarity in long-ignored neighborhoods that can go a long way toward motivating other neighbors to join or lead local improvement projects.

Our research, which includes a special report on mapping social networks, reveals that benefits run in both directions. The high-level city officials who interact with Love Your Block teams often design new policies and practices based on what they learn. For example, citizens’ lived experience contributes insights into how the city workers might address behavioral health problems among residents more sensitively, rather than simply applying counterproductive fines to issues like hoarding.

Community engagement is key to an equitable recovery

The COVID-19 recovery is a unique opportunity for states and localities to use these funds to right historic wrongs and ensure the people most affected by policies have a seat at the decisionmaking table.

At a time when citizen frustration with every level of government is boiling over, Love Your Block’s capacity to create warm, mutually beneficial relationships between citizens and city hall offers an important lesson for a nation in need of healing and connection.

If local leaders want to facilitate an equitable recovery that empowers and engages residents as change agents and decisionmakers, they can consider the Love Your Block blueprint. But the time to act is now. Localities are receiving only two American Rescue Plan Act disbursements over this year and next, and the money must be obligated by 2024.

The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success. 

Show your support for research and data that ignite change.  

Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
Tags COVID-19
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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