The effect of rapid community development has its benefits, but when key community stakeholders are not involved, mistrust and discord can often follow. In response to construction of the new Falcons stadium, Atlanta’s City Accelerator team fostered a partnership among the Westside Future Fund, the Atlanta Housing Authority, and Georgia Institute of Technology to engage residents of Atlanta’s historic Westside neighborhoods. The purpose was to develop an inclusive and transparent process to combat the asymmetrical relationship between the city and many of its poorest residents. Through the City Accelerator, Atlanta’s partnership:
Conducted interviews with over 100 city employees and residents to understand their communication practices and preferences, giving the team ideas and methods for how to better engage neighborhoods on future public projects.
Created the Westside Task Force – a collaborative of nonprofit city department heads intending to coordinate efforts around gentrification policies, affordable housing, public safety matters and more.
Partnered with the Westside Future Fund, a public-private fund created to revitalize historic neighborhoods of the city and whose work became more urgent given the stadium project on the Westside.
Produced the Atlanta Community Engagement Playbook that the city’s Office of Planning has agreed to own and implement after proper training on how to use it.
Created a database of community leaders, resources and existing engagement efforts. This database provides insight into patterns about active leaders; overlapping efforts and interests; and connections across a wide diversity of projects, organizations and people.
Ideas to accelerate
Partner with universities to enhance a project’s sustainability. Georgia Tech has been a critical partner to the Atlanta team throughout the City Accelerator project, designing an inclusive and creative process for community engagement and conducting and analyzing interviews. This university partnership provided consistent and stable access to researchers and students, and a rigorous method that would not have been possible otherwise.
Compile engagement tools for regular use by city government. The Atlanta Community Engagement Playbook is a customized set of tactics and methods for city agencies and community advocates to use during the planning phase of any project. The playbook includes content for both community associations and service providers; defines key terms so stakeholders have common definitions to work from; and links to a repository of action guides, checklists and case studies to guide engagement strategies and improve trust and transparency. Having a playbook specifically designed for Atlanta increases the credibility and familiarity of the content.
Provide a one-stop shop featuring commonly needed engagement templates. The Atlanta City Accelerator team created Action Guides to give local groups access to templates for commonly needed documents like memoranda of understanding, checklists for developing action plans, tips for recruiting new members and other tools, and posted these all online. Having templates for these documents available will save valuable volunteer time and assist community associations and residents to become leaders and partners in engagement efforts.
Why this work matters
When a major capital redevelopment project impacts a low-income community, local governments should work to include residents’ voices in shaping that redevelopment as much as possible. As in cities across the country where new stadium or arena projects are designed to drive investment into communities, the City of Atlanta’s efforts to engage the community in shaping these investments were seen as lacking by many. The Atlanta City Accelerator project sought to repair relationships with residents by engaging them in the conversations about how the city could address their concerns and mitigate any negative impacts from increased commercial and sports-related traffic in their neighborhood. By being open to feedback and fostering transparency, cities can rebuild trust among the residents by ensuring they benefit from the intended improvements to their neighborhoods.
While the Atlanta team originally intended to solicit stories and narratives from community members, it occurred to the team that residents of the Westside were already fairly engaged community members. The problem was in demonstrating a feedback loop that shows what results from citizens’ participation. Through City Accelerator, the city worked to identify and overcome the weaknesses in traditional civic engagement and develop strategies for future engagement efforts.
Watch Atlanta’s pitch video here.
Correction (March 2, 2017): The original version of this post misidentified the third partner in the work of the Atlanta City Accelerator team.