In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week Karen Tapahe, City of Provo, Utah, Community Relations Coordinator, writes about Provo’s neighborhood program.
Provo City’s Neighborhood Program just turned 50 years old and I am happy to say it is still going strong. Provo City’s Neighborhood Program was first instituted 50 years ago, when city leaders were seeking resident input on the general plan. At its inception, the program designated 19 different neighborhoods and neighborhood leaders were appointed by the mayor.
I became the coordinator of the program just four years ago. Over the years, as Provo’s population has grown (from 45,000 to 116,000 residents), the neighborhood program also had to adapt, and has grown to include 34 different neighborhoods. Neighborhood leadership had also evolved to a more grassroots system, with neighborhood residents selecting a resident to serve as the local neighborhood chair. With numerous factors influencing change in a community and its neighborhoods, we have found that several elements are key to running a successful neighborhood program: effective communication, partnering for improvement, and training.
As in pretty much every other success story, communication plays a key role. Our city committed to gathering input from its residents and we needed the leaders of Provo’s 34 neighborhoods to help us with that. Neighborhood chairs receive agendas for city council, planning commission, and other board or commission meetings; land use application notices (for their neighborhood or citywide applications); city newsletters, and other correspondence relating to the city. Residents can count on their neighborhood chair to let them know when something needs their attention.
Neighborhood chairs also gather input and information from residents. This happens at meetings, by email, on Facebook, and even in person. How they quantify and collect the information passed on to city officials and staff makes all the difference. While it is tempting for a neighborhood chair to say, “everyone in my neighborhood is against this,” it is improbable that the chair gathered the opinions of every single person in the neighborhood. Rather, feedback is much more helpful to decision makers if it is presented in context. Chairs are encouraged to provide more detail in their reports, such as the number of comments received and methods of comment submission, as well as specific comments on particular elements of a project (as opposed to a unilateral yes or no). Our city council and planning commission also invite neighborhood chairs to comment on agenda items during public hearings, which reinforces their role in representing residents.
Partnering for Improvement
Another component that has made Provo’s neighborhood program successful is matching grants. Every neighborhood has unique needs; even if the improvements sought are on the city’s radar, those needs may not be prioritized among other capital improvements or critical infrastructure updates. Providing matching grants gives residents the opportunity to get some projects done sooner by donating labor and maximizing the city’s resources.
For example, one industrious neighborhood decided to take on a series of efforts to improve the city park in their boundaries. Over a 10-year period, they worked with various city departments and adjacent neighborhoods to utilize matching grants. In that time, they constructed over 3,500 linear feet of concrete pathways, planted over 50 trees and shrubs in the park and hillside, installed four picnic benches and three park benches, repainted the underside of the pavilion, renovated two bridges, installed four solar bollard lights, installed bike racks, placed paving stones around old park signs, installed seven plaques that explain the history of the park around the walking loop, and cleared brush to reduce the fire hazard on the hillside. When flooding took out the stairs that went up the hillside from the park, individuals from the neighborhood took turns to watch over the new set of stairs (in a better location) to make sure no vandalism happened as the concrete set. As a thank you for their ten years of investment, collaboration, and service, our city replaced the aging sign at the entrance of the park with a new sign that included the neighborhood’s name.
In many ways, our neighborhood chairs function as ambassadors for both their neighborhoods and the city. They are volunteers who have been elected by their neighbors, and come into this position with varying skills, knowledge, and experience. Without some training, many would quickly burn out. They receive numerous emails regarding city meetings and events and are expected to organize neighborhood meetings to discuss current issues for their area. Deciphering the jargon, finding information in the city code, and navigating city bureaucracy are usually the top three things I try to help them conquer. Then we work on meeting basics and how to get information out to their residents. We hold two large training seminars each year with the entire group of neighborhood chairs and allow them to learn from each other. Training is a never-ending process.
While running a neighborhood program may seem chaotic to the unfamiliar, there are a great many payoffs that come as a result. The most important result is keeping lines of communication open between city government and residents. Some issues would not get the needed attention without someone acting as advocate. The partnership between the city and the neighborhoods also really comes to life with matching grant projects and it has been great to see residents investing in their own neighborhoods. Often overlooked is the fact that many residents who serve as neighborhood leaders move on to serve on various boards and commissions and even run for public office. Four of the seven members of our current city council served as neighborhood leaders before running for office. For the average resident of our city, the biggest payoff is having someone who can pay closer attention and alert them to important issues; most people don’t want to read through the fine print of every city council agenda, but they definitely want to know when changes will impact them. Before working as the neighborhood program coordinator, I experienced these benefits as a resident and I continue to be impressed with how well this system works.
For more information on Provo’s neighborhood program, visit Neighborhood.Provo.org.