It starts with the best of intentions. (Doesn’t it always?) City governments realize they’ve created systems that are difficult to navigate and slow to solve their community’s problems. They’re not wrong.
Too often it’s challenging, if not near impossible, for even the most engaged citizen to figure out which form to file to whom or when exactly the public meeting is being held or how to read those signs telling you the zoning is changing on the parcel next to your home.
Acknowledging these shortcomings, local governments respond by borrowing from the private sector to improve “customer service.” The “citizen” becomes the “customer.” In our often dysfunctional systems, this can be a promotion.
Often the actions associated with these pushes for improved “customer service” make things better for residents. Forms are simplified, meetings are better advertised, and processes are streamlined. These are all definitely improvements our governments should be making.
The trouble is that thinking in terms of “customer service” promotes a false dichotomy. It makes us see the city government as the provider of services and the citizens as the recipients of those services. But a city isn’t something that’s built by the government alone and strong towns can’t be made by passive customers merely consuming city services.
That’s why at Strong Towns, we promote the concept of Strong Citizens. With this understanding, citizens are not merely passive customers, but active investors in their communities. Sometimes this is literally true through owning homes and businesses. But it can be just as true for renters and homeowners alike when it comes to organizing block parties, volunteering at local schools, keeping an eye out as part of a neighborhood watch, or providing ideas on how to best design the new pocket park around the corner.
When local governments recognize their residents as partners in building strong towns, it can transform how we build and govern our communities. Instead of just thinking about how to make it easier for citizens to receive services, public officials should also be seeing citizens as their most valuable partners.
For example, when I was on the city council in the small town of Sandpoint, Idaho, we wanted to launch a program to plant at least 100 street trees annually in the right-of-way all over town. Street trees were a great incremental way to improve property values, make neighborhoods more pleasant to walk in, and, through the shade they provided from harsh sunlight, delay the need to repave roads by years, resulting in substantial savings.
The trouble was, while we could afford the cost of trees, there was no way we could water them and maintain their growth, especially in their early years when they needed more attention. Our solution was to ask our residents to help. We would provide the trees if they would agree to care for them.
In the first year, we found more than enough people willing to help us plant trees along the streets in front of their homes. However, almost everyone who volunteered was from the relatively wealthier parts of town — which definitely benefited from additional street trees — but there was even greater need elsewhere.
Carrie Logan, a fellow council member and future mayor, suggested a few of us knock doors in the other neighborhoods to make sure people knew about the opportunity. It paid off with even more volunteers spread more evenly across the city the following year.
Ultimately, I believe this is how we build better communities. Too often people don’t step forward to be strong citizens because they don’t realize or are denied opportunities to participate. Meanwhile, local governments don’t ask for help because they underestimate the potential of their residents, particularly those living in neighborhoods they’ve stereotyped as lacking civic capacity.
Cities aren’t just their governments. They are the people who live, work and raise their families there. When we recognize this, we suddenly gain huge new capacity to create the kind of places we want to call home.
(Top photo source: Scott T. Sturkol)