Accidental overdose: community involvement

When Michelle and I were living in Arlington – we bought our first house and moved in together – I accidentally got involved in community improvements, and learned a lot of very valuable lessons. We had bought a house on the street that had the occasional speeder going through, making it very loud and a little dangerous when they did. The dips in the road restricted visibility considerably, and you could easily come over the hill at high speed and find somebody in the way with very little time to react. My neighbor told me there was a neighborhood improvement plan that was proposing a stop sign, or a center median, or something to slow down the high speeds on our street without overly restricting normal speeds. The idea sounded very sensible to me, so when he asked me to come to a community organization meeting to look at the proposal, it was a no-brainer to say yes.
It was a very odd meeting. A handful of people took forever to very boringly go over some minor changes to the proposals. I was shocked when the president said that they could probably get a revised version of the document out in just a few months time! We’re talking like a very few edits of a very unsubstantial scope, and her timeframe for doing it would cause us to miss the summer funding session, pushing the projects back by at least six months. So I volunteered to do the rewrites, just to get things moving. Proposal goes in, I’m thinking things are smooth, and I get on with my life. Then the next community meeting is posted with details of the proposals, and the shit hit the fan like you wouldn’t believe.
Hundreds of people showed up, almost all incredibly opposed to the proposals, even the no cost, beautification projects! It turned out the community “leaders” hadn’t bothered to ask any of the residents what they thought of these proposals! There was the usual assortment of change-is-bad folks but most had some pretty valid points. For example, a proposal that I thought was fine would have directly affected a dozen homes, and the proposal had been written without their knowledge or consent. The pitch sounded innocuous: convert an abandoned alley way into a walking path. But the alley had been abandoned for decades, and almost all of the houses had adapted their landscaping and fences to use this open space. Granted, it wasn’t their open space to use; the land belonged to the county. But you can’t slap something like that in as a surprise to people. At least, not if you want their support.

Side note: a similar issue ironically occurred in our Walnut Creek neighborhood. The city planners had quietly decided to tear down some open space and put in some high density, low income housing, and had gone considerably out of their way not to allow the neighborhood to find out. Fortunately, Michelle and I had been through the problems, similar problems, and Arlington, and knew how to engage our neighbor’s outrage into an actionable plan, and the rogue city planner ran into a buzz saw.

But back to Arlington. The community overwhelmingly voted no to the proposals, and things were looking grim. Arlington had opened up considerable funds for community improvement, as long as they got community buy-in to the proposals. Everything was now at risk because the community association hadn’t gotten by in from the community before hand; they sprung it on everybody, all at once. So long story short, I ended up becoming president of the Civic Association, teamed up with the irresistible energy force of a displaced New Yorker, Lewis Bromberg by name.

Lewis had recently moved into our neighborhood, a few houses down the block, and right in the zone where Waverly Hills transitions from a nice set of suburb housing to some pretty Third World housing and a small commercial strip. Lewis was on board with the notion of community improvement, but by no means was able to knuckle under to a flawed plan put together by flawed leadership. He somehow drafted me into helping out, and between the two of us, plus some key support from a few other people in Waverly Hills, we completely redid the community improvement plan, pretty much from scratch. Shockingly, it turned out that asking people about what they would like to see in their community was a much more successful approach than coming up with a plan and surprising everyone with it. And when we delivered the new plan to the Civic Association meeting, again with hundreds of people attending, it passed with overwhelming support; 90% plus. We not only structured the plan around ideas generated by the community, we phased the developments in tune with changes to project funding structures we knew were in the works from the county. And with surprisingly little effort to me – Lewis did by far the most leg work of anyone involved – we were able to pull in over $3 million in government funded projects to improve our community. Anywhere from colonial style streetlights, infrastructure improvements to the local park, or traffic calming measures on the major streets. One potential drawback of the plan really concerned Lewis and I: there was a lot of legwork involved to make a project happen, both at the community level, and at the county level. And while we were willing to invest the time in a few starter projects, there was no way we were willing to do all of the work, all of the time.
To make it scale better, we redid the proposal to require all new projects to have two block captains involved, located in the affected area. The block captains were on the hook to get local buy-in to potential improvements, not us. Then we’d help them bootstrap the project with the county: which department to apply to, what they’re looking for, how much is potentially available, etc. Essentially a primer on how to make a project happen. Then the block captains would take over the legwork from that point, pushing things forward with the county. It was this organizational scalability that allowed us to tap into so much county funding.

Arlington County loved the approach. In fact, they took our proposal and made it the baseline standard for other communities looking to get involved in the programs!