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Urban Democracy: How the City of Seattle Empowers Its Neighborhoods

Most people try to avoid bureaucracy as best as possible. Others fight the government wherever they can. Too bad, if you ask Jim Diers, a former community organizer who initiated Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods in 1988 and served as its first director until 2002. “Cities work best when local government and the community are working as partners”, and there are lots of things that communities can do better than government can, he concludes in his book: Neighbor Power. Building Community the Seattle Way.

According to Diers’ approach, governments shouldn’t consider themselves as service-providers for their (passive) customers. Quite to the contrary: Dependency on government money and government planning ruins people’s sense of responsibility for their own neighborhoods. At the same time, an incredible wealth of “social capital” goes unused. In order to build ongoing community engagement, you have to allow citizens to choose what they want to change and then accomplish this change in a collaborative effort.

One of the most impressive and convincing examples for this model is Seattle’s “Neighborhood Matching Fund”. The city provides funding for citizen-initiated projects; but for every dollar the city spends, the applying person or group has to come up with one dollar in cash, volunteer labor or donated goods and services, too.

The allocation of money is decided by a citizen council. Eligible applicants are non-religious, non-partisan, non-fraternal organizations that have open membership and are democratically governed as well as neighborhood based. They need not be incorporated. In fact, any number of persons who agree on a project can apply. There are four different types of grants, including the Tree Fund, where groups are – quite simply − provided trees in exchange for planting them in city parks or streets. Seattle’s Neighborhood Matching Fund has grown from 150,000 Dollars in 1989 to a proposed budget of more than four million Dollars in 2008. It has helped to create a wheelchair-accessible playground, a drug-free zone-neighborhood and a community school; to conduct oral history projects and paint murals; to replant urban wastelands, to promote the reuse of rainwater, to install public art and to convert gray asphalt patches into green parks. Current projects are just as diverse, ranging from bike and music festivals, a fitness camp, and a summer math program to ravine restoration, installing a composting toilet, and a positive hip hop program.

Thanks to the Neighborhood Matching Fund, tens of thousands of citizens were involved in more than two thousand self-help projects, contributing to Seattle’s astonishing 62 percent of adult citizens participating in at least one neighborhood or community organization on a regular basis.

Another popular Seattle invention is “P-Patch”, now the largest community garden program in the US, providing more than six thousand urban gardeners with 23 acres of land. Both P-Patch and Neighborhood Matching Fund have successfully been copied (on various scales) all over the United States, from Los Angeles to Charlotte, NC. Besides improving city neighborhoods and fostering a community spirit, the citizen-initiated activities are also a great way to better integrate marginalized citizens into the community: kids and seniors, homeless people, endangered youth, immigrants and racial minorities, the unemployed and the disabled. And, as Diers’ examples prove, it doesn’t take a huge crowd or budget to make a difference. “Neighbor Appreciation Day”, a citywide activity which now involves at least 18,000 Seattleites annually, originated from one woman’s letter to the mayor. Another small citizen group solved a recurring rodent problem in their neighborhood by loaning a cider press and using the fruit before they spoilt.

There are three fundamentals Diers adheres to. First: Start, where the people are, in terms of networks and in terms of issues they are already focusing on. So Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods gathered existing community organizations and had them identify, connect and utilize the community’s assets, be it material, skilled or unskilled labor, its historic heritage or racial diversity. The department simply served as a catalyst, assisting and training neighborhood organizations to push their own agendas, not the department’s – or, as the Christian Science Monitor once perplexedly put it: “Mayor trains activists to beat up on city hall”.

Second: Focus on goals that are “immediate, concrete, and achievable”. People will get involved when they see results. Most are not interested in meetings which might create nothing but more meetings, but they are willing to commit to a short-term project that shows tangible improvements within reasonable time. So the department supports individuals or groups with their single-issue projects first. The lessons learned and the confidence gained in accomplishing one goal often lead to an ongoing, active community network.

Third: “The best organizers work their way out of their jobs.” Meaning: the city government should use specific issues and related projects to develop leadership within the neighborhood, so the community can develop an organization that’s broad based and self-sufficient. According to Diers, governments “can provide tools and resources for community initiatives, but government should never do for community organizations what they can do for themselves.”

“True partnership requires government to move beyond promoting citizen participation to facilitating community empowerment”, stipulates Diers. His personal account of the Seattle department of neighborhood’s first 14 years “testifies to the remarkable achievements that communities can accomplish when government takes its democratic foundations as seriously as it does its responsibilities for streets, public safety, and other services”. The book can serve as a manual and an inspiration for individuals and community organizations on the one hand as well as motivated city officials on the other. And it documents one of the reasons Seattle has a reputation of being one of the most innovative and civically minded cities in the United States.

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