Management & Labor

Neighborhood Eyes and Ears

If the physical condition of a neighborhood is a significant indicator of its overall health, then few cities in the country are taking the measure...
by | March 31, 2006

If the physical condition of a neighborhood is a significant indicator of its overall health, then few cities in the country are taking the measure of neighborhood well-being quite as accurately as Worcester, Massachusetts. In fact, city officials and citizens say, documenting the incidence of cracked sidewalks, missing street signs and abandoned vehicles is a way of assessing the municipality at large.

The formerly down-at-the-heels industrial town in the central part of the state is on the leading edge of an ongoing experiment that marries citizen action and technology. Community leaders and city officials alike argue that it has changed how citizens and government view each other, as well as the big job of keeping a cash-strapped municipality and its downtown district and myriad neighborhoods healthy.

The experiment, known as ComNET (tech talk for "computerized neighborhood environment tracking"), offers participating neighborhoods a customized mechanism for objectively gauging the physical conditions that define them. Now in use in nearly 60 communities and business districts nationally, from New York City to Seattle, ComNET was developed by the Fund for the City of New York's Center for Civic Innovation "because we discovered that citizens in large part judge government by the physical condition of their streets and streetscapes," says the Fund's Barbara Cohn. By engaging the community in the process of accurately cataloging such conditions, she says, the Fund hopes to get citizens, businesses, nonprofits and government working more closely together on sprucing up their communities.

To date, the ComNET phenomenon has illustrated its power in focusing citizen action on streetscapes, and on improving the look of downtown business districts. Whether that will translate into broader civic activism or any real improvements in municipal fiscal health remains to be seen.

A Punch List

The ComNET system is straightforward enough. Using hand-held mini-computers about the size of a BlackBerry, along with digital cameras, citizens survey the conditions in their neighborhood, from run-down houses to busted streetlamps. Armed with that inventory, neighborhoods not only have "a punch list of problems," notes Ronald Charette, executive director of the South Worcester Neighborhood Center, but also a baseline for gauging whether their fortunes are rising or declining.

Under the Worcester program, neighborhood monitors now set out on annual, weekend forays to check up on the physical condition of their streets and streetscapes, homes and businesses. Walking tightly prescribed routes that have been downloaded into the ComNET hand-helds, the system allows users to document problems with pinpoint accuracy using either street addresses or lot numbers.

Traveling in teams of three or four - typically a scout to keep the team on its prescribed route, the unit user to input findings and one or two others to point out trouble spots - participants call up menus listing nearly three dozen broad categories of physical features, from "Building-Residential" to "Crosswalks," offering a drop-down menu under each that lists more specific conditions such as "roof/chimney broken" or "lines fading." The data is then uploaded for analyzing and tracking, allowing users to generate a wide variety of spreadsheets depending on the kind of analysis they want to do or action they want to take.

As data accumulates from year to year, neighborhoods get a clearer picture of specific areas of need, along with a gauge of whether they're dealing effectively with documented problems. Four neighborhoods in Worcester piloted the program in 2001, and four more were added in each of the following two years. In all, the dozen neighborhoods encompass approximately 55,000 of the city's 175,000 residents, according to the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, which oversees the program.

Who's Responsible?

The idea of arming citizens with tools they can use to pressure government to act might strike a lot of municipal officials as a supremely dangerous idea. And one of the Worcester officials who might be most nervous having citizens loaded with facts about the physical condition of their neighborhood is Robert L. Moylan Jr., commissioner of the city's Department of Public Works. "Streets, sidewalks, litter, lights, all that's ours," says Moylan.

In fact, he says, ComNET has led to at least two interesting phenomena. Rather than creating a noisy new lobby haranguing his department about potholes and missing street signs, the process of documenting problems has actually led to a much better understanding among citizens of the whole issue of demand versus resources. Moylan says neighborhoods now are much more tuned in to the fact that given the city's budget situation, the city simply can't address every problem that neighborhoods list - unless citizens want to see a big jump in property taxes. Second, and perhaps even more important, he says, ComNET has led to a much better understanding of who, exactly, is responsible for what when it comes to fixing up a neighborhood.

Neighborhood activists confirm Moylan's view. "For a long time, we kept hearing the word 'they' when it came to neighborhood problems," says Edith Morgan, who lives in the Brittan Square neighborhood. " 'They' should do something." The "they" to which Morgan refers, of course, is the city. As Morgan talks, she unfolds a ComNET-generated spreadsheet listing all the specific trouble spots in her neighborhood. Next to each there is a clear designation of responsibility. For a remarkably high number of them, it's the community itself that's been designated as lead agency.

With the advent of ComNET, Morgan says, has come an increased willingness among citizens in her neighborhood to step up and deal with problems themselves. Now, she notes, if there's debris accumulating in someone's driveway or yard, for example, neighborhood activists know to approach the homeowner directly, a tactic that she says has proved surprisingly effective. In the case of residents who might not have the physical or financial wherewithal to repair or clean up their property, community members have frequently chipped in to get the work done.

According to the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, about one-quarter of all the problems identified in neighborhoods aren't issues the city is responsible for, but rather neighborhood issues, whether it's a run-down residence or bushes growing over a sidewalk. "It really has gotten citizens and the city to both understand each other's responsibilities better," says Roberta Schaefer, executive director of the bureau.

ComNET has done more than just connect city and citizens, though. As a way to boost broader civic participation among some of the city's most prominent institutions, the bureau has teamed up with Holy Cross University to incorporate ComNET into its curriculum.

As part of two courses - in urban policy and urban politics - Holy Cross students join up with the neighborhood teams to go out and conduct the annual surveys. It's a good way to add a little practice to the theory, says Jeff Reno, assistant professor of political science at Holy Cross, who teaches the two courses. Not incidentally, it also has helped break down some of the traditional town-and-gown barriers that typically afflict college towns, he says. The partnership with Holy Cross is just one example, Schaefer adds, of how ComNET can be adapted to local circumstances and opportunity. "Getting students and neighborhoods together has been a nice sidelight," she says.

According to the bureau, the on-the-ground results of ComNET have been pretty good, too. To date, 64 percent of around 10,000 identified problems have been addressed by public works, code enforcement or neighborhoods, according to bureau data. Between 2003 and 2004, the city increased sidewalk repairs by 33 percent. Five thousand abandoned vehicles were removed. And the city has boosted street resurfacing by 58 percent. No neighborhood has seen a less than 50 percent solution rate, even in the city's poorest neighborhoods. Advocates point to this as another benefit of ComNET: allowing city officials to document relative equity in neighborhood action and investment.

Beyond the Neighborhood

Still, the city faces huge issues beyond whether or not this pothole gets patched or that window repaired. Even though his budget has doubled in the past few years, from $4 million to $8 million, DPW director Moylan points out that the city is still slipping backwards on such fundamental issues as pavement resurfacing. Worcester has 400 miles of road. Assuming a lifespan of 20 years, Moylan says, the city should be resurfacing 20 miles a year. In fact, it's doing eight.

And while the city has undergone a remarkable renaissance, fueled by a boom in education, medical care and research, there are chronic fiscal issues that threaten to overwhelm it. According to City Manager Michael O'Brien, employee health care costs, for example, have gone from $23.4 million in 1991 to $65 million in 2005. It's an unsustainable trend that O'Brien says policy makers and city workers alike have to come to terms with if the city is going to remain fiscally viable.

Which leads to the larger question of whether a program such as ComNET can translate into broader political action. The vision, says Jim Cruickshank, executive director of the Oak Hill Community Development Corp., is to move people beyond the street focus and toward citywide advocacy. If ComNET isn't doing that directly, he argues, it's at least another avenue for attracting potential new talent and energy to the larger cause. "Everyone has certain interest buttons," he says, and ComNET has been yet another way to draw people into civic action. Ron Charette, who represents the city's poorest neighborhood, is more blunt. When it comes to broader fiscal issues bearing down on Worcester, what his group is doing through ComNET "is just one small corner of the playing field," he says.

The other significant question facing ComNET is sustainability. As far as community interest goes, neighborhood activists say they've been successful at assembling teams to do the ground-level surveying. Paying for it all is another question. ComNET's current costs come to about $35,000 a year, including hardware, software, administrative costs and a small fee to the Fund for the City of New York for warehousing Worcester's ComNET data. The bulk of the costs are covered by a grant from a nonprofit, which is slated to end in 2007. (Costs for ComNET vary among communities, says Cohn at the Fund for the City of New York. It all depends on variables such as how much of the customized software work can be done locally, how much training is required, what kind of technology is already in place and who will administer the program.)

And so in the next couple of years, the city and local activists are going to have to decide whether they value the program enough to pay for it themselves. Cruickshank thinks the program is worth it, and that through some joint fundraising it can survive. "I think the approach is to look at how we can come together to raise resources to continue, and we'll definitely work on that."

Ron Charette says that he, too, would love to see ComNET continue, and he thinks it is in the city's interest to maintain it. At the moment, though, he can't see diverting current resources away from other clear areas of need. "Do I sacrifice money that right now I'm using to get people fed?" says Charette. "That's the rub."

It's a tough choice, he adds, especially given that he credits ComNET, in part, with saving his neighborhood. At the end of the 1990s, a huge slice of South Worcester was slated for demolition to make way for an access road to the airport. "There were plans to wipe out 200 homes for the airport road. We used ComNET to document the positives and galvanize the neighborhood. ComNET was an epiphany. It gave us the sense that we could fix things."

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