Power of the People: Cities Can Harness It
By Eric A. Johnson, Ph.D.
If you don’t believe in the power of urban residents to help themselves — and help struggling American cities in the process — let me tell you a story about Akron, Ohio.
Like many traditional cities, the loss of manufacturing jobs hit Akron hard, and the Great Recession only deepened the blows. But today in Akron, residents in the city’s oldest neighborhoods are engaged in block groups, faith groups and now even a group to explore the possibility of imposing a property assessment (on themselves) to raise money for neighborhood improvements.
Here, residents are discovering that by joining together, they can collectively counter negative forces that result in crime, blight and a sense of hopelessness.
Recently, Akron’s University Park Alliance hosted a Neighborhood Summit that drew a crowd of 300 for five hours on a Saturday to discuss the future of a 50-block area at the center of Akron. With computers and keypads supplied by The University of Akron, we followed the format of the national nonprofit America Speaks for polling citizens on their priorities for their own communities.
It is probably no surprise that “safe streets” ranked No. 1 in the voting. In second place: “Neighbors helping neighbors,” in affirmation of block groups and faith groups serving as agents of change. (If Akron residents are feeling the impact of these groups lately, it’s because they’re seeing how they can leverage City Hall by banding together in groups. In one case, a report to City Hall resulted in the boarding up of a home where activity had posed a threat to neighbors.)
The scope of citizen commitment we are seeing in Akron, and the extent that people are willing to give of themselves, touches me deeply.
When we asked Summit participants about their income, 18 percent reported annual household income of less than $25,000. An additional 20 percent reported annual household income of less than $50,000.
Yet when we asked how many would be willing to explore the possibility of a yearly property assessment for five years, to raise money for neighborhood improvements, a resounding 83 percent said yes.
At UPA, our philosophy is that urban revitalization must take place within the context of robust civic engagement. Just as cities assess their institutional assets, such as those emanating from universities and hospitals, it is equally important to draw on the dynamic power of human assets.
The way to build strong, healthy neighborhoods — supporting schools and families — is by coalescing the most positive influences in the neighborhood at all levels, from neighbors to civic and business leaders. In University Park, we’re especially fortunate to have numerous faith communities that form a basis for people coming together across social, racial and economic lines.
During our Summit, we talked about how urban neighborhoods could ill-afford to wait for local, state or federal government solutions. That is a self-defeating strategy. Rather, if citizens embrace the full potential of democracy, they have the ability to generate a collective strength that could amaze them.
Often, people rally around crisis. But opportunity is also a rallying point — and an exciting one. In Akron, we closed our Summit with residents saying what they’d do to support an additional property assessment for the University Park neighborhoods.
The prospect of a new tax? They cheered the idea.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 20th, 2012 at 9:18 am and is filed under Collaboration, Leadership, Neighborhood Initiatives, University Park Alliance, UP Akron. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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