Civic Engagement in Local Planning and Problem-Solving: Three Examples

Back to Spring 2019: Volume 108, Number 1

By Marcia L. Conner 

Civic engagement, simply defined, is working together to make a difference through a combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to achieve a desired result. Those who work to achieve this result commonly include: policy makers, city planners, developers, land owners and local residents, along with the poor and disenfranchised. When one considers the list of all parties with a vested interest, a successful civic engagement effort can prove complex and demanding.

According to Martha McCoy and Patrick Scully, “Civic engagement relies upon a series of interconnected issues, people, and institutions within a political system. Those engaged in it are implied to have voice and agency, a feeling of power and effectiveness, along with real opportunities to influence the political system. It implies active participation with real opportunities to make a difference.”1

In order to highlight how civic engagement can be used to effect change, I have chosen to focus on three specific projects: the development and adoption of a Community Master Plan for the Town of Atlantic Beach, South Carolina. the Barnes Avenue Project in Durham North Carolina, the relocation and design of a day labor site in Austin Texas.

  • The development of a master plan for the Town of Atlantic Beach involved working with residents, renters, businesses, developers and property owners within a historically African American beach town. At the time, the Town of Atlantic Beach was in need of development after many years of decline and neglect.
  • The Barnes Avenue Project was a collaborative effort between the residents of Northeast Central Durham, the Durham Housing Authority, and the City of Durham’s Housing and Community Development Department. Its purpose was to enhance, restore and revitalize a site which had suffered from blight and neglect over a period of 40 years.
  • The project to relocate and develop a day labor site in Austin, Texas was a collaboration between four separate invested parties: the Morningside-Ridgetop Neighborhood Association; the Airport/Interstate 35 Neighborhood Association, which represent residents closest to the site; the City of Austin’s Health and Human Services Department; and the day laborers themselves. The goal of this project was to provide opportunities for employment in a safe, managed environment.

Although these three projects presented challenges, their combined successes clearly demonstrate the benefits of civic engagement, as do the lessons learned when these “wicked problems” are approached without the direct engagement of those community members most affected by public development projects. In examining these cases, all three began as the local government’s desire to solve a problem in one area of the community, only to impact another, as was the case with the relocation of the day labor site. Therefore, a close examination of the civic engagement at work with each project is necessary, as an examination provides the context for determining the ultimate long-term success of each project.

While each project presented familiar challenges, such as government regulation, financing, and racial and social disparities, there also exist differences that give each project a unique level of divergence. The level of efficaciousness is often overlooked or considered unmeasurable because of the length of the evaluation period. Exploring each of these efforts more comprehensively provides a prospective and perhaps a model for future endeavors.

Atlantic Beach, South Carolina

Atlantic Beach is a small beachfront town that has over the years experienced both resurgence and decline. Its rise to prominence began in 1934 when the residents, mostly black descendants of slaves, came to the one of a few beach towns available to African-Americans along the east coast of the United States. Founded in 1934, Atlantic Beach became a thriving community filled with commerce and entertainment venues for black entertainers who were not allowed to live in nearby Myrtle Beach after performing at the hotels and entertainment venues.

Black celebrities and entertainers frequented Atlantic Beach and used the venue to enhance their careers and to capture the nightlife both with international tourists and the local residents. But with the inception of desegregation and an increase in housing and employment opportunities for black residents, the Town of Atlantic Beach became less of a mecca for commerce and entertainment. Its close proximity to Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach, now available to blacks, also became a factor in the decline of the town, as those communities offered newer hotels and entertainment options to tourists.

The town’s 98-acre tract of land was purchased in 1934 by developer George Tyson, who later sold the land to black doctors and educators and other well-to-do residents. Those investors then sold the land in small tracts to local residents. Over the years, the primary land owners moved away, and locals have, through attrition, made Atlantic Beach largely a rental community, with 70 percent of residents living in rental units. A hurricane destroyed the waterfront in 1954 and made it difficult for most residents to rebuild because of a lack of insurance coverage. Absentee ownership, logistical concerns and difficulty in obtaining a consensus among the stakeholders about the future, caused the Town of Atlantic Beach to struggle. Leaders in the community have made efforts to return to prominence by highlighting the city’s proximity to surrounding local attractions and by promoting the town to groups such as the African American Bikers Association.

After years of attempts to establish a vision and masterplan for the town to spur economic development, the town finally was able to adopt a masterplan, which its leaders hoped would attract interest in developing the beachfront. Unfortunately, the master planning process proved to be one of the most challenging civic engagement processes. The challenge that emerged was the need to develop a process in which all stakeholders would actively participate, have their ideas heard, and embrace the final results of the adopted master plan. With new leadership on the Town Council and a desire to have better results than what had happened in the past, the master planning process began.

One of the first steps of the project was to have the Town Council visit a community similar in size in order to show them what attributes their town could have. A visit, walking tour, and meetings with developers from nearby Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina was arranged. Additionally, a retreat was held with the Town Council and a few representatives from the Planning Commission to begin the discussion of establishing a vision for the town.

After the retreat, work began with the Waccamaw Regional Planning Commission to establish the formal process to select both a planner and an architecture firm to lead the master planning process. To ensure that all of the stakeholders were represented, the selection committee included representatives from the landowners’ association, local residents, along with the town’s leadership and professional planners. The goal was to ensure both transparency and community involvement.

Once the planning firm was selected, the firm was given the opportunity to present their approach to the community stakeholders. It was important to assure the stakeholders that the plan would reflect the desires of all stakeholders (renters, landowners, the business community, town council, and potential developers). Several sessions were held with each of the stakeholder groups to obtain their vision for the redevelopment of the town. A master plan was need that would maintain the historical character of the town, but also support the development of the beachfront.

One of the most controversial aspects of this was whether or not to open access to the town via Highway One, which would connect the two adjoining communities. This was an emotional issue because since the town’s inception, the community had purposely walled itself away from the adjoining towns for fear that development would occur along the beachfront and that the remainder of the town would not be included in the redevelopment. This strategy had also protected the local resident’s access to the beach and preserved its natural beauty. Furthermore, it prevented the massive destruction of homes that would be relocated or demolished to provide for the road’s development.

Finally, there was the fear that if the road was opened, the town could be annexed into one of the adjoining communities and lose its identity as a historically black town. Therefore, a process which was originally planned for six months, took nearly 18 months to complete. Nevertheless, when concluded, the masterplan represented the consensus of all local stakeholders and was unanimously adopted by the Town Council amid hope for a redeveloped future.

Many obstacles had to be addressed during the planning process, for instance, the community’s distrust of the process, the intentionality of creating a process that was not driven by developers or the resident’s self-interest, and, finally, overcoming the local fears of a loss of historical value and sense of community, while wanting to enjoy the economic success of neighboring communities. Local residents and renters did not want to be displaced as a result of development. Renters were one of the key stakeholders who had not abandoned the town. The business community wanted to make sure the redevelopment plan which did not impede their desire to continue to be prosperous.

Since the development of the master plan in September 2006, very little development has occurred. With the downturn in the economy in 2008, constant turnover in the town’s leadership, and its inability to achieve consensus on how to move forward, both the town center and its pristine beaches remain undeveloped.

Durham, North Carolina

The Barnes Avenue Project (renamed the Eastway) in Durham provides a compelling view of how civic engagement combined with a determined city government can lead to a successful outcome for its residents. The Barnes Avenue itself has long struggled with classic urban issues such as high crime, low income, vacant lots, abandoned properties and absentee landlords. The area in Northeast Durham (NECD), North Carolina was largely ignored by city leaders and this, combined with changing demographics, led to an increasingly diverse population, increased drug activity and unemployment.

The redevelopment of Barnes Avenue began in 2001, when the City of Durham Department of Community Development was approached by the Durham Public Housing Authority to become a partner in the Barnes Avenue area. This partnership would facilitate a comprehensive redevelopment of an area that had suffered from neglect for years. The Durham School District was also a key partner, with its identification of Eastway Elementary School as one if its priority schools. Along with the local government and school officials, the residents of Northeast Central Durham began to discuss the feasibility of redeveloping Barnes Avenue. The challenges of this project included developing homeownership opportunities, lowering crime, providing education in a safe environment, and offering better public housing options to the targeted community.

The civic engagement process began with hosting a community hearing on the proposed plan with the residents who would be impacted most. The plan was at first met with resentment from the community. There were other issues considered more important by residents, such as crime in the area, high unemployment, lack of code enforcement, and the overall condition of housing in the NECD area. At the hearing it became apparent, that before the local government could move forward with the Barnes Avenue project, some of those issues would need to be meaningfully addressed. It was also apparent from the hearing, that the NECD community leaders did not have a comprehensive vision of what it wanted. With such divergent views from the community, the City of Durham would need to work more closely with local residents to update its community plan and address the issues.

After the hearing, the city staff had to regroup and determine what the best options were for moving forward. Initially, the local government’s focus was to take advantage of a concentrated effort to partner with the Housing Authority and provide much needed housing to the area. In short time, a housing code enforcement initiative was implemented for the NECD, the planning department began working with the community to update its neighborhood plan, and the community development and housing department began to develop the plan for the Barnes Avenue project. Importantly, these plans all required input and leadership from the NECD community.

Identifying the leadership of the community was challenging. There were formal and informal leaders who would need to participate, as well as a growing Latino community with language barriers. Nevertheless, once a core group of community members were identified and regular meetings were held to seek input, the process of meaningful dialogue began to focus on the needs of NECD. When an initiative to focus on NECD was endorsed by the Durham City Council, the steps to support Barnes Avenue Project seemed more likely. Individual meetings were held with the homeowners of Barnes Avenue, and where possible, with the absentee owners to develop a plan for redevelopment. After more than a year of working with the NECD Community, the Barnes Avenue project was approved by the city council. The process for purchasing homes began and first phases of development began, though it would be years before the project would be fully funded and completed.

Despite having been previously approved by the city council, it was not until 2009, that the Director of the Department of Housing and Community Development galvanized a team to implement the redevelopment plan. This was achieved through the use of a citizen approved municipal bond, which was specifically created for the preservation, development and promotion of affordable housing throughout the city.

The plan involved the use of federal housing funds and grants, along with public and private investment, to improve and enhance approximately 11 acres of land. Development costs included construction of single-family homes, condominiums and mixed-use facilities. There were also marketing costs, funds needed for security, appraisal and consultant fees, architectural analysis fees and more.

Prospective residents were provided homeowner assistance programs which provided for low cost loans and buyer education programs to insure homeowner stability. Local developers were solicited to not only build specific size units, but to establish a timetable that matched the building of homes with condos and townhomes. With the recently renovated Eastway Elementary School professionals held town hall meetings to provide information and support for current and prospective residents.

Of course, there were some setbacks along the journey. They included illegal dumping from contractors, infrastructure concerns from flooding and corrosion, and an attempted reemergence of criminal activity. Those setbacks, however, though significant, have not had a lingering effect on the development and revitalization of Eastway Village. The success of the project is evidenced by the continued development of roads and bridges, improved occupancy rates, and a high local homeownership rate.

Austin, Texas

In May of 1999 the City of Austin, Texas, approved a plan to move a blighted day labor site from a coveted downtown location. The proposal was motivated in part by the city’s decision to make way for one of three seven-story buildings for the Computer Sciences Corporation. The city gave the company incentives to move downtown as part of a plan to build 400 new apartment units, a museum and a city hall on seven blocks.

The original location for the day labor site, in the heart of downtown Austin, became a place for immigrant laborers seeking to find work. Established around 1994, the block-long site, was built on West Cesar Chavez St. between San Antonio and Guadalupe streets, behind a government supported homeless shelter. The original plan was designed to be a place where employers could drive in, pick up workers and exit in an orderly fashion. That plan, however, had its challenges from the onset. It soon became evident that the intended occupants of the center had been interspersed with those who were mentally challenged, and some with criminal histories. This made the site a less desirable place for the employers, workers, and for those whose daily commute was affected by the chaos. Complaints from residents, laborers and employers began to pour in to city leaders. When the situation became untenable, city leaders set up a task force to help to provide solutions.

Business owners, a homeless task force, neighborhood and religious groups, immigrant advocacy groups, police and city leaders all met to resolve the issues. The decision to move the site to a different location was met with some dissention but was eventually approved to be moved to a new location by a council vote of 4 to 3. While it would have been more suitable to have additional time to work with the neighborhood regarding its concerns, the timeline was impacted by the need to transfer the land to the Computer Sciences Corporation.

After the final decision to relocate the day labor center to the Morningside Neighborhood, the city staff began work with the residents, police department, homeless advocates, and the day laborer community to begin the planning process for the site move. Through the research of the homeless taskforce, the City of Glendale, California, was identified as a community which had established a concept of how to empower day laborers, while also addressing the need for workers in the local community.

Initially, the center was to run by a nonprofit board, whose members included residents of the Morningside neighborhood, representatives from the Health and Human Services Department, the police department, and the homeless taskforce. In addition to the oversight of the center, the advisory board made a recommendation to help provide training for skilled jobs, a higher minimum wage for day laborers, and language instruction. Soon, site visits were suggested, and members of the taskforce traveled to the sites to hear from the business community, neighbors, day laborers, the City of Glendale, and many other stakeholders.

One of the suggestions that emerged from a member of neighborhood included changing the name of the center to First Workers and refraining from the use of the words “day labor,” which carries a negative connotation. Many of the concerns of the residents included, not being consulted in the decision to locate near their neighborhood, the possibility of increased crime around the center, trespassing in the neighborhoods, traffic congestion, operations of the center, and police enforcement and presence.

Tasked with these challenges, the advisory board worked diligently with residents to establish operating procedures and worked with the workers to establish worker expectations. Those techniques included developing a neighbor survey to assess the immediate concerns of the community. Subcommittees led by residents were then developed to address the concerns of everyone. Initially, the concept that the workers could run the center was difficult for everyone to accept. It was not until the center opened, that opposition to self-management abated.

The decision was made to adopt a plan similar to a successful plan that was established by the city of Glendale, California. That plan allows for more worker involvement by allowing those workers to resolve problems by consensus. Regular meetings are required to discuss wage issues and relations with police and the community. Public funds were provided, but the workers also pay membership dues with the effort designed to make the program self-sufficient. Volunteers were dispersed in and around the site to patrol old day labor sites, telling employers that it’s illegal to solicit workers on the street.

The First Workers Center has not been met with euphoria by all parties. Some workers said it is too far from their residences, and others are not necessarily enthused by the lottery system being used to assign workers with employers. There were concerns expressed by some law enforcement officials regarding the center being a safety zone, which was reinforced when the city council adopted ordinances to protect the workers. From its establishment in 1999, this site has proven to be a successful enterprise. No longer a non-profit, and funded by the city, the site, now called First Workers Day Labor Center, still exists today and provides a sustainable solution for both workers and employers in Austin.


Among the lessons to be learned about civic engagement from these three projects are the following:

One, there was a need to include all potential stakeholders in conversation when a problem is first identified. The day labor example demonstrated that once all parties were engaged in the dialogue, developing solutions was possible. Trust among the stakeholders increased as they became more engaged in the process. Furthermore, the projects are more successful when the stakeholders take ownership and view the projects as their own.

Civic leaders who are engaging in a process must invest the time to understand the obstacles and historical challenges that the group has confronted. In the case of the Barnes Avenue and the Town of Atlantic Beach, years of neglect, false starts, and a desire to hold on to the historical past impacted the community’s ability to fully participate in the process. Once those fears are identified and acknowledged it is possible to move beyond the storming process of engagement.

The most successful engagement may begin with the local government, but the greatest chance of success and engagement is identifying the formal and informal leaders who bring others to participate and are able to get the community to be engaged.

When there is conflict and diverging interests, keeping the dialogue open and assisting with identifying common goals is important. This openness was especially useful with the Town of Atlantic Beach, where the landowners and current residents did not always have the same goals or interest in the town’s future development.

Using nontraditional channels to make sure everyone is heard is also important. For example, the use of door-to-door surveys when possible allows for direct contact and information conversation with those that may be impacted most, yet do not come to formal meetings.

Scheduling meetings when the stakeholders are most available is very important. An example of this is that day laborers are on the streets early in the mornings, absentee landowners are most available on weekends when they can travel to a meeting. Hosting meetings at popular community locales (coffee shops, internet cafes, barber shops and hair salons).

Finally, acknowledging cultural barriers, both historical and linguistic, and finding opportunities to share those with the stakeholders is of key importance to finding solutions. This can be seen in the presence of a uniformed police officer at a work center, which does not encourage workers to freely participate. Encouraging dialogue and having law enforcement participate in other less overt ways, such as serving as tutors or providing classes on individual safety, will build trust.

Developing solutions to some of the wicked problems which face our communities cannot be solved by our local governments alone. Successful civic engagement is the best solution for long term success.

Marcia L. Conner is Executive Director of the National Forum of Black Public Administrators. She has also served as City Manager of Durham, NC, Assistant City Manager of Austin, Texas and Budget Director of Arlington, Virginia. She is also a Richard S. Childs Fellow.

Martha McCoy and Patrick Scully, “Deliberative Democracy to Expand Civic Engagement: What Kind of Talk Does Democracy Need?” National Civic Review, Summer 2002, p. 118.

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