Building Better Communities by Aligning Interests

Local government leaders have the tenure and familiarity with a place to create and sustain communities.
April 21, 2010
Bob O'Neill
By Robert J. O'Neill Jr.  |  Contributor
Past executive director of the International City/County Management Association
Ron Carlee
By Ron Carlee  |  Contributor
Ron Carlee is ICMA's executive in residence and director for domestic strategic initiatives. Dr. Carlee was county manager of Arlington, Va., and holds a doctorate in public administration from George Mason University.

Much has been written about the importance of public participation in creating and sustaining communities where people want to live, work, play and do business. Given the long-term fiscal outlook for the federal government and most U.S. states, the responsibility for dealing with the issues that matter most to residents will certainly fall to local communities.

Business and nonprofit executives as well as local elected officials can play catalytic leadership roles in community building. Sustained commitment to change, however, requires the full engagement, dedication and leadership of the city or county manager, agency heads (such as the directors of planning, public works and neighborhood services), and their street-level staff, including planners, traffic engineers, inspectors, police officers, street crews and others.

These local government professionals have the tenures required to see a project from conception to outcome across several economic cycles. They are also familiar with the diffused power structure within the community and are often the ones who influence resource allocation decisions, focus on implementation, align rules and regulations and live with the results.

Though not sufficient on their own, there are several prerequisites for successful community building:

Leadership. For diverse groups to come together in a shared effort, someone must initiate the conversation. Leaders must have a vision of what is possible. They must understand what is necessary to initiate and evaluate the effort and how to achieve the critical mass required to translate ideas and vision into a plan. This is a critical role that city and county managers play in coordination with their elected officials.

Engagement. At the core of the effort should be the people who actually live in the community. They need to sit at the table with business owners, landowners, developers, nonprofits and the local government. This process can be messy and time-consuming, but it creates understanding and builds trust. A recent redevelopment project in Arlington, Va., involved tenants, historical preservation advocates, a developer and the local government to create a win-win proposal that preserved an important immigrant community, saved important historical structures and made money for the developer. (For more examples of engagement, download this pdf.)

Shared vision. When interests are purely transactional, the potential value of relationships across organizations is easy to calculate. In community building, however, the benefits of working together are more ambiguous and long term. Diverse stakeholders must collectively determine what kind of community they want to create, what it will feel like and whether their shared vision is economically feasible. Place-based development should achieve multiple victories across a range of stakeholders, including homeowners, renters and small business owners. The financial implications for investors, such as residential and commercial property owners, are important, but should not overwhelm the broader, enlightened self-interest of community partners motivated by policy and societal objectives.

Long-term commitment. Thinking long term forces us to ask ourselves hard questions. What will happen if we do nothing? What will be the lasting implications of our work? How can we create a sustainable community in which people choose to live, work, play and invest -- today and over subsequent generations? In order to institutionalize a culture of positive community building, long-term projects must involve stakeholders who have the ability to translate the shared vision into reality and also to sustain it over time. An example of the effectiveness of a long-term commitment is the award-winning Coalition for Youth in Hampton, Va. It begun as a result of dialogue among the mayor, city council, the city manager's office and the community. The youth strategies have been shepherded for over 20 years by staff from the city manager's office and most importantly the department heads of planning, neighborhood services and the youth coalition.

Capacity building. Well-intentioned people with diverse interests may be willing to work together without necessarily knowing how. Developers, government, and advocacy groups do not have equal capacity to work effectively with residents, or with one another. Likewise, residents need the skills to effectively interact with what they may see as power structure. Leaders must pay attention to developing all parties' capacity to understand one another's interests and engage in constructive dialogue and negotiation.

Successful place-based development requires creating communities where people live not just by chance or circumstance but by choice. It should protect the lives of the people who live in the community and unite neighborhoods with their local government, businesses and other institutions.

Leadership can come from anywhere -- within the neighborhood network or via an outside catalyst -- but ultimately it is those who live in, invest in and govern each neighborhood that must institutionalize their commitment to a sustainable community that respects and improves the lives of each and every resident.

An expanded version of this article is scheduled for publication in the third volume of Voices from the Field, a series published by the Aspen Institute's Roundtable on Community Change.