Cities behave in tricky ways. What may seem an obvious problem, or an obvious solution often seems less so after a little research. Acting before researching can waste time and energy. It can also reinforce the stereotype of active citizens as highly vocal, but largely uninformed. The stereotype is the most often-cited excuse for dismissing calls for greater citizen participation in local decision-making.
Here is a typical story of what can happen for lack of a little research.
People living in a quiet neighbourhood receive notice of a proposal to
use a nearby residence as a psychiatric half-way house. Fears of "crazy
people" running amok prompt them to form an ad hoc citizens group,
which moves swiftly into action to combat the proposal. Having skipped
research, they don't discover that most special needs residential facilities
(or snrfs) do not create problems, or reduce property values. They don't
discover that most snrfs are not even known to local residents. Without
these facts, the group goes to battle. Over nothing.
Gather existing information on your neighbourhood
Information on your part of town already exists. The municipal planning department has community profiles, traffic studies, zoning and other maps, aerial photos, and possibly an official community plan. Local health authorities or service agencies may have a needs assessment or more focused studies of your area. Back copies of community newsletters and local newspapers will contain the recent history of many local issues. Your branch of the public library will have copies of many local reports, studies and newsletters.
Discover your human resources
To really understand your neighborhood, you need to research its capacity to act. Start by answering these questions:
Find out what people want
- Who can help?
- What resources does the community have: churches, hospitals, schools, business groups, religious organizations, citizen associations, clubs, ethnic groups, sports and recreational groups, cultural associations, service groups, major property owners, businesses, individuals? For a practical guide to tapping local capacity by working in partnership with other organizations see John Kretzmann and John McKnight's book Building Communities from the Inside Out.
- How, why, and where do people get together?
- How do people find out what is going on?
- Who has a stake in the neighborhood?
- Who most influences local decisions, local funding, and local investment?
In the absence of a single over-riding concern, your group will have to identify neighbourhood issues. In many cases you will try to answer the following questions:
- What do residents like about the neighbourhood, and what do they want
- What are the opportunities for making the neighbourhood more interesting, identifiable, understandable, helpful, friendly.
- What is the highest priority problem? Who is affected?
- Where is it located? What has been done? What can be done? Who can help?
Give this research some time. A question such as, "What do you like about the neighbourhood, and what do you want to change?", can take a group a couple of evenings to itemize, condense and prioritize.
Consider a survey of residents
Any survey requiring face-to-face interaction not only provides information but helps build community. For details on conducting a listening survey see The Listening Project
Go to those in the know
Interview those who know what is going on in the community, and those who know how to deal with an issue. Often they are people with first-hand experience. A small focus-group discussion with six teens can reveal more about teens in the community than a survey of 500 adults. Other sources of information are community activists, and people listed as contact persons for community organizations.
Research solutions from other places
A problem in your neighbourhood probably exists in other neighbourhoods and other cities. Find out how citizens in other places are solving the problem. Many cities provide contact information for lneighbourhood and other associations on their web sites. You can also ask citizens in other cities for help; if you have a computer and Internet access, post requests on the communitynets of other cities.
Finally, check out the books and periodicals in "The Citizen's Library".
The Citizen's Handbook / Home
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The Citizen's Handbook / Charles Dobson / citizenshandbook.org