A while back, I tried my hand at defining a purpose for cities: Cities exist, I suggested, to create citizens. And who are citizens? They are people who take responsibility for their communities. If a city can do this, it’s as close to a silver bullet as you can find because:
Cities get much better as they create more citizens. Just about every problem in a city is easier to manage if citizens will step forward to help, from social ills and unresponsive government to a struggling local economy. So, just as businesses must focus first on creating customers in order to achieve their other goals, cities should focus first on creating citizens if they want to make progress in any other area.
But how do cities do this? How can they help passive residents become connected, committed citizens—people eager to run for office, volunteer for citizen boards, vote in elections, serve as neighborhood watch captains, tutor schoolchildren and report problems? To answer that, let’s look at a place that does a good job of creating just such citizens and try to figure out how it does it.
The city is Decatur, a close-in suburb of Atlanta. I’ve known Decatur for years and even had an office there once. But I really got to know it last year when I helped with a visioning project that was part of a larger strategic planning process called Where to Next? There are a number of ways of doing visioning, which involves convening groups of citizens to think about their community’s future. The one we used in Decatur asked citizens to attend three separate sessions lasting two hours each, with each session focused on a different set of topics.
A good rule of thumb for visioning projects is to aim for getting at least 1 percent of residents to participate, depending on population. (It’s easier to get a higher percentage in a small town than in a big city. In New York, for instance, 1 percent would be 90,000 people.) Decatur has fewer than 20,000 residents, so the goal should have been to get 200 participants. In fact, organizers got 740, three-quarters of whom attended all three sessions.
But it wasn’t the numbers that convinced me that Decatur had cracked the code on citizenship. It was what participants said in those sessions. One theme I heard repeatedly was the feeling of connectedness and community ownership people felt there. As one person put it, Decatur was the kind of place where residents expected “a hello on the street, pride in the community, (the) ability to be involved and contribute.” Another added, “There are 66 homes in my neighborhood; I know 55 of those families.”
Even more striking, these citizens wanted more opportunities for involvement. There were lots of ideas about how the city government could help with this, from “volunteer expo” fairs to booths at festivals and neighborhood block parties where people could sign up for community activities. One group suggested a “sister streets” program, somewhat like “sister cities,” so neighborhood leaders in one part of the city could get to know leaders in another part—and trade ideas and assistance.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m accustomed to hearing participants in visioning projects say they want greater connectedness with their community. But I’m not used to them saying they already feel fully connected—and want even more involvement. So how did Decatur get to this enviable place?
Well, it has some advantages. Decatur is a small, densely developed city. It’s only 4.2 square miles in size and was built mostly before World War II, when houses were closer to one another. It’s easier to be neighborly when you are physically close to your neighbors. Decatur is also a well-educated place, a city where 62 percent of adults have four-year college degrees or higher (nationally, only 28 percent have bachelor’s degrees). As a rule, the higher the education, the greater the level of civic involvement.
But these things simply mean Decatur started with some advantages; they don’t explain how the city capitalized on them. And for that, the local government deserves a good deal of credit. Here are five things Decatur’s government has done to create citizens:
- It has a great citizen-education program called Decatur 101. Classes are free, held in morning and evening sessions, and there’s usually a waiting list of people who’d like to participate. Offered since 2000, Decatur 101 has seeded the community with people who know how city government works, what the city’s history and most important goals are, and who holds elected and appointed office. Not surprisingly, graduates of this program are among those most likely to serve on citizen boards and run for office.
- It has a surprising number of community events, two of which are its acclaimed annual book festival and beer festival. (Thankfully, these are separate events.) But they’re just the beginning. By my count, there are more than 40 festivals, concerts, events and parties sponsored by the city or non-profits, many of which are supported by businesses. There’s a serious side to this fun: Public events connect citizens to their community and each other—and open up numerous volunteer opportunities. These are keys to building citizenship.
- It has a town square, where most of these events are held. I don’t think having a town square, main street, courthouse, central park or clearly defined downtown is essential to creating citizens, but it helps. That’s because community citizenship requires a larger sense of loyalty—to the city as well as a neighborhood, ethnic group, religious faith, political faction or workplace. And having a place where everyone in a city comes to celebrate—“neutral ground” that belongs to the entire community, not a neighborhood or private interest —helps build that larger loyalty.
- Decatur has a full-time volunteer coordinator in city hall whose job is to match community volunteers with volunteer opportunities. Many of these jobs are helping with the city’s festivals and events, but others are ongoing responsibilities such as crisis-line volunteers, pre-school tutors and nursing home visitors. In the last 10 years, the city’s volunteer coordinator has built a database of 2,000 volunteers—10 percent of Decatur’s population—and helped move a generation of residents from wanting to serve to actually doing so.
- It does a good job of communicating with citizens. Decatur doesn’t have its own daily or weekly newspaper. Its main news vehicle is a newsy, smartly designed newsletter published by the city and supported by local businesses. Called Decatur Focus, the newsletter is mailed 10 times a year to local households and keeps citizens aware of community events and what the government and their fellow citizens are doing.
Interestingly, though, communications was an area citizens thought could be improved. They wanted more frequent communications, delivered in new ways, mostly electronically. But they also wanted new types of information: about how to get involved, which problems to keep an eye on, what neighborhoods were doing to improve themselves, what could be recycled, how to take advantage of recreation opportunities and farmers’ markets to be more fit and healthy—and on and on. This is important because it shows that Decatur’s citizens viewed city government as more than a service provider; they saw it as a potential information resource —with innovative communications pushing out that information to citizens every day.
This may, in fact, be the highest level of citizenship a city can aspire to: where citizens tell the government, give us the information we need to make this a better place, help out where you can, and we’ll take it the rest of the way. Decatur is on the verge of reaching that level. Other cities should join it.