Empowering neighborhood groups and de-centralized planning structures is one strategy that cities use to promote equitable civic engagement. But how effective are these structures?
Critics often point out that neighborhood associations can become insular, power-seeking entities that serve as “gate-keepers” that discourage newcomers from participating. Neighborhood activists may experience burnout from too many meetings, the decentralized structures themselves can fall into disuse or city planners and decision-makers may stop listening.
Enter the Center for Civic Innovation (CCI), a nonprofit group that bills itself as “Atlanta’s Home for Good Trouble.” The mission of the organization is to address inequality in Atlanta by “informing and inspiring the public, investing in and amplifying the work of community leaders and advocating for local policy change.”
Founded in 1978, Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit system grouped together 180 neighborhood organizations in 24 “NPUs” that were to serve as forums for neighborhoods to put forward their own community plans, to engage with relevant city departments, and provide avenues for residents to express their wishes and concerns.
For years, the CCI had been pushing a more effective and equitable NPU system, but in 2018 the group decided to take a different tack. It launched a comprehensive, community-based effort to analyze the existing system’s strengths and weaknesses and how it might be improved.
Partnering with DataWorks, a Georgia-Tech data analysis consortium, CCI held one-on-one meetings with stakeholders, conducted focus groups, and fielded citywide surveys to gauge the impact and effectiveness of the system and develop recommendations for how it could be improved.
In September of 2021, CCI issued its report, identifying key challenges facing the CPU system and making detailed recommendations in three overall areas—clarifying the purpose of the system, strengthening the leadership and capacity of the system, and improving mechanisms for accountability and evaluation.
As a recent case study by Democracy Cities describes it, the CCI designed a “robust, grassroots apparatus centered on relationship building in order to build direct lines of communication with the NPUs and neighborhood stakeholders and - by extension - determine the ‘anchors’ of a neighborhood that carry greater weight in neighborhood’s decision-making.”
Other cities may want to look at Atlanta’s example of how a community-based nonprofit organization might step in to help make equitable neighborhood planning entities more effective.
You can read the full case study of CCI’s innovative, community-based evaluation process here.