Government at the grass roots
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Sep 03, 2001
Shirley Edwards ambles past the rows of fruits and vegetables thriving despite
their inner-city surroundings. Edwards and others from her Rochester, N.Y.,
neighborhood, where the median income is $13,000 a year, cultivated the
3-acre farm last year on property that laid dormant for two decades.
Edwards' neighborhood alliance bought several urban farms, developed
a food production and distribution business, and plowed the profits back
into the community to benefit the area's 17,000 residents.
Working with the city, the neighbors also used federal dollars to buy a
computer, a plotter and geographic information system software. Using GIS
data, the group was able to present city officials with a rezoning map for
an "urban village" project that would greatly expand their food business
by adding several more properties.
The effort has given the neighbors hope and 11 varieties of tomatoes,
five varieties of peppers, three types of eggplant, grapevines, collard
greens, zucchini, summer squash and cherry trees.
It is also a testament to the growing trust between residents and their
local government. City officials have bolstered that trust by giving people
a voice in government. They have realized that residents often have good
ideas for improving their neighborhoods, but lack the tools for turning
those ideas into plans and sharing them with government officials. Rochester
has changed that by empowering residents with the training and technology
to shape their own communities.
Trumpeting Change in City Hall
It wasn't always so. Despite Rochester's rich, activist history it
was home to both Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass neighborhood
leaders like Edwards fought for years to get City Hall's attention. Cindy Silver, a neighborhood leader, said people often became frustrated
with City Hall but very rarely were their concerns heard. "If you did want
something, you had to get really angry and you really got loud," she said.
Tom Argust, commissioner of the city's Department of Community Development,
said there was interaction, but "in my opinion, [the city] was very controlling
and patronizing" toward residents.
But seven years ago, after William Johnson Jr. was elected mayor, the
city began a grass-roots planning effort called Neighbors Building Neighborhoods
(NBN). Officials wanted to collaborate with residents on community planning
and development, which was once the exclusive domain of city government.
After all, they figured, residents know what their neighborhoods need better
than City Hall officials do.
With NBN, hundreds of people throughout 10 neighborhood sectors became
"planners," partnering for projects with community stakeholders including
city government, schools, colleges, businesses and churches. Each sector
had a list of two-year projects.
The partners worked together on reconstructing and beautifying streets,
developing affordable housing, improving transportation flow, addressing
zoning issues and attempting to attract desirable retailers or com.panies
to their neighborhoods.
But soon, the paper trail for tracking all of these proj.ects became
unwieldy for the city. Vickie Bell, director of the Bureau of Neighborhood
Initiatives, which is responsible for monitoring NBN's progress, said the
manual reporting ate up staff time and resources. To make sure it was all
accurate, staff members had to interview residents to confirm details and
descriptions of the projects.
"By the time you got the information, it was almost obsolete," she said.
"It was tiring for us. Sometimes it was not accurate. We finally said [the
system] was not working."
So to track the ongoing neighborhood efforts, and give the neighbors
even more tools to work with, last year city officials introduced the piece
de resistance for NBN the NeighborLink Network. They equipped neighborhoods
with computers, mapping software and, most importantly, access to a customized
database that can track projects, list grant sources and participating volunteers,
and enable residents to share ideas electronically.
Technology Tools for the Average Citizen
The city put the community computers in public libraries, which have
been Internet-accessible since 1995.
"It allowed the [NBN] sectors to start thinking of their libraries
as a place where they can go [to] access the Internet and other resources,"
said Richard Panz, who heads the city and county public library systems.
The computers all came with GIS software and access to city databases
planning tools normally available only to professionals. Every sector
got a copy of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community
2020, a fully functional GIS tool based on Caliper Corp.'s Maptitude software.
Sector leaders learned how to use the software during two-day training workshops.
Providing the computers has had the added benefit of addressing the
city's digital divide, officials said. And it was a far cry from how citizens collected data in the past,
said Dana Miller, a former Sector 4 leader. "There really wasn't a mechanism
or path for an association to go down to City Hall saying, 'I am doing this
in my neighborhood. Can I get a map?' Unless you had connections."
Near downtown Rochester, in St. Mary's Hospital where Sector 4's office
is located, Miller displays several multicolored maps depicting economic,
educational and demographic conditions in the city and surrounding suburbs.
He said his group was surprised to learn that a large part of his neighborhood
was indistinguishable economically with the adjacent suburb. He and his
neighbors thought the suburb was in a much higher income bracket. Another
map showed the location of national fast-food restaurants in the Rochester
area none of them were in Sector 4.
With that data in hand, the group approached a fast-food chain that
previously claimed the neighborhood was out of their coverage area. The
group persuaded the chain that not only was the Sector 4 neighborhood closer
than some of the outlying suburbs in the chain's delivery area, but that
the neighborhood was equal in income levels to the suburbs.
"In the past, we could have gone down to the economic development agency
to get the data," Miller said. "This is a little more empowering."
Sector 7 co-chairwoman Cindy Silver said that because residents can
share information more quickly, they are realizing how technology can accelerate
the planning process.
"We've seen like never before neighbors, citizens, merchants impacting
their surroundings and seeing it in a fairly timely fashion. It wouldn't
have happened without this technology," she said.
Rochester in the 21st Century
By next year, the city hopes to provide communities with even more technological
tools. With assistance from the Rochester Institute of Technology's film
and animation departments, the city plans to develop a 3-D virtual imaging
It's not enough for citizens to simply look at data, Bell said. They
want to see how a project might actually look in their neighborhood. Argust
said that if a CVS or Eckerd drugstore wanted to move into a neighborhood,
citizens could actually use design specifications to place the building
into a virtual setting and see how it might blend in.
"Up until this point, there was no opportunity for citizens on their
own to plot it out and take a look at that from different angles on the
street," Argust said.
To pay for the project, city officials applied for a federal Technology
Opportunities Program grant that funds information technology projects in
under.served areas. They'll hear this month from the U.S. Department of
Commerce on whether they will get the $250,000 award. City officials hope
to have a pilot project in place by next spring in one, as yet unidentified,
"They've taken the notion of citizen involvement, public participation
and decentralized planning...and brought it much closer to the people where
they live," said Bill Schechter, director of the Washington, D.C., office
of the National Civic League.
"I'm not aware that anyone's done that particular combination of decentralized
planning, empowering neighborhood citizen organizations and using new technology
quite the way they have," he said.
Other cities have taken note of Rochester's initiative. Staff members
from the city's community building department have made presentations to
officials in Corpus Christi and Houston, Texas; Des Moines, Iowa; Miami,
Fla.; Buffalo and Syracuse, N.Y.; Newark, N.J.; and at various planning
Argust said that more than a few of the government officials he has
talked with fear they would give up power if they adopted something like
"This is so foreign to the culture of communities where elected officials
and bureaucrats view with suspicion, view with fear, view with concern the
sharing of information/power with citizens," he said. "I think NBN has put
the mayor in a much more powerful position, and the City Council, too."
Back in Sector 10, residents have purchased a vacant restaurant and
a two-story, 7,400-square-foot warehouse. They plan to use the first floor
to store vegetables from their food business, then convert the second floor
into a community technology center to help residents start micro-businesses.
They'd like to have the center open by late fall.
Working with the city, residents said they felt they were driving the
process and not being driven to it. They've developed relationships with
individual city department heads unthinkable a decade ago.
To Edwards, the whole idea of government seems different something
that's about her and her neighbors more than some elusive City Hall.
"Government," Edwards said, "is now more trickle up than it is top down."