First Person: Strength in Neighbors: Community Empowerment, Not Mere Citizen Participation, Is the Key to Great Cities

Article excerpt

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Cities work most effectively, one might argue, when citizens and municipal government work in collaboration toward a common goal. This was the very catalyst that drove the formation of Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods, created 20 years ago with the intention of bringing government closer to city residents.

For department Director Stella Chao, who took over the office in 2007, this energy has been sustained by engaging residents in civic participation and empowering them to make positive contributions to their communities.

The results have been astounding.

From matching funds for neighborhood-improvement projects to historical preservation to community gardening, the department has succeeded in growing Seattle residents' involvement in civic discourse, opportunities for positively impacting their quality of life, and prospects for strengthening their neighborhoods.

Parks & Recreation magazine caught up with Chao and asked her about the importance of an engaged citizenry--and what other cities might learn from Seattle's success.

Parks & Recreation: Individual neighborhoods can get lost in the context of a large urban area such as Seattle. Talk a little bit about the importance of the neighborhood as a daily microcosm.

Stella Chao: One of the beauties of Seattle is that neighborhoods define our city as opposed to getting lost in the urban context. Seattle is often referred to as a "city of neighborhoods" and, in general, people identify strongly with their neighborhoods.

In fact, when our new superintendent of parks and recreation first moved here from out of state, he told me that while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail he would meet people who lived in Washington and [he would ask] where they lived. At first, he thought there were many towns in Washington he was unfamiliar with, until he got here and realized that instead of saying they lived in Seattle, they had identified their neighborhood.

Seattleites expect a lot out of their neighborhoods in meeting their daily needs. They highly value their neighborhood businesses and feel strong ownership of their neighborhood parks. Our Neighborhood Service Centers are localized "little city halls" where people can access information about city programs and pay their utility bills, license [fees], and traffic tickets without having to go downtown. Peoples' experiences, and therefore passions, focus on the local environment. This importance in our daily lives is what has spurred Seattle's leadership in high levels of civic engagement.

P&R: Can you share some specific examples of projects or events that have created a genuine sense of community in Seattle's neighborhoods?

Chao: Neighborhood planning in Seattle has been studied, written about, and followed closely by community members and academics in urban planning. It is an example of urban planning done by neighborhood members themselves, providing the city with a guide for the way people see their neighborhoods' growth and development over the decades.

Neighborhood planning has been a complicated and often difficult process and, people being people, involves many disagreements and controversy. In the end, we have urban plans that are "stewarded" by community members as the city grows. Some outcomes of that planning process have been the formation of new community groups, exciting revitalization of some neighborhoods, and people coming together for a common agenda and learning from each other.

After neighborhood plans were adopted by the city council, community members used the Neighborhood Matching Fund to implement several amenities that were identified in the plans.

Seattle's Neighborhood Matching Fund is a great program that supports community members in improving their neighborhoods. Through this program we create partnerships between community members and city government that have significant impacts. …