There are probably as many definitions for livable communities as there are residents. Some define livable as having affordable housing, great schools, walkable streets, services for seniors, easy access to healthy foods, or a wide range of employment opportunities, to name a few. One thing is for certain, livability is inextricably tied to safety.
Without feeling safe and secure, our residents cannot thrive. Many approach everyday living tentatively afraid to accidentally knock on the wrong door at the wrong time, anxious as they send their children off to school, or to even to spend an afternoon shopping at the mall. Yet to create livable communities, local government leaders face the daunting challenge of engaging residents at a time when they may feel there is no such thing as a safe space. Why attend a council meeting or a planning session and risk being threatened for expressing a point of view or suggesting alternatives to the status quo? This is further complicated by the fact that improving the quality of life for all requires that all segments of the community, especially those that feel most disenfranchised, be represented.
There is no doubt that it is hard and sometimes may even seem impossible to move the needle on a “wicked” problem like this. And yet that’s what local government leaders do every day. They work with their staff to incrementally achieve the outcomes that create the kinds of communities that people want—livable and safe. The relentless march of daily headlines describing senseless acts of violence resulting in multiple deaths has brought us to a tipping point. If there were ever a time to begin the work of reimagining community, it is now. To be certain, every community is unique and will have different starting points, distinct processes for engagement, and various ways of setting and measuring outcomes. However, there are a few elements that I believe would be helpful in every reimagination effort:
Tap into the energy of recent graduates joining your local government staff for the first time.
From new hires into the public works department to management analysts in the city manager’s office, pairing new hires with experienced veterans and making them part of the resident engagement process can offer new ways of looking at persistent issues.
Establish innovative partnerships with universities.
I was fortunate over the course of my career to work with some amazing institutions, including the University of Texas and Oakland University in Michigan. Often though, we can get bogged down in the day-to-day challenges of what may seem like the city within a city nature of these relationships. In the June issue of PM, the feature article, “Cultivating University and Community Partnerships,” explores four creative examples of the benefits that this type of engagement can bring to your city or county. If you do not live in a town and gown community, you could explore online universities who are always open to getting their students hands-on experience.
Connect with your peers.
This is definitely not the time to “go it alone.” In every corner of the world, you can find local government pioneers who are trying new things. Share your challenges with your ICMA and state association networks to spark discussions of both successful and failed programs and build relationships around specific issues that your community may be facing. The Local Government 2030 Initiative is one such cohort whose work promises to benefit our profession, as well as our communities.
As our partner, Polco/National Research Center, points out in their article, while safety is always a top priority in terms of what matters most to residents, trust in police has declined in recent years. Including public safety professionals in the reimagination process provides the best opportunity for transparency and a holistic approach to reaching safe community goals.
The level of uncertainty facing our residents today makes it clear that we all need to join together to redefine community. As local government leaders, you have seen the power that comes from engaging our residents. Groups of people—including parents, businesses, nonprofit and spiritual organizations, people at the margins, our local government team members, and most especially our young people—hold the promise of arriving at the values, principles, and goals of a reimagined community. The questions they will ask are far-reaching—what does it look like, how do we sustain it, how do we transition from where we are to where we want to be. This work is of paramount importance because it feels as if we are standing on a precipice, and in the absence of communication at this moment, what thrives is fear.
As the community engages around its shared future, fear will be eclipsed by curiosity, understanding, trust, and finally excitement at the prospect of a new beginning.
MARC A. OTT is CEO/Executive Director of ICMA, Washington, D.C.
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