San Jose’s Strong Neighborhoods Initiative Empowers Residents
Community: City of San Jose
The City of San Jose’s Strong Neighborhoods Initiative has received much praise since its inception in 2000. With the local redevelopment agency as a partner, the city developed a program that empowered residents from 19 low-income and ethnically diverse neighborhoods to propose and prioritize improvement projects in their neighborhoods. San Jose invested $104 million to implement more than 75 percent of the resident-proposed projects. Even with the economic downturn and the loss of redevelopment dollars, the city has been able to sustain a level of community engagement through a Neighborhood Council. The city council has now made the Neighborhood Council a permanent part of its decision-making process.
- In its 10-year span, the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative opened up the decision-making process to a new group of residents and let them set the agenda and priorities for projects in their neighborhood, rather than voting on proposals that originated at the city level.
- The program’s design empowered residents and created an expectation that community members will be actively involved in decisions that affect their lives and neighborhoods.
- The initiative produced a new generation of neighborhood and community leaders. Some residents went on to join the planning commission and lead citywide task forces. Others were elected to the Neighborhood Council and continue to work with neighborhood associations to strengthen city-resident partnerships.
- Despite the economic downturn in 2010 and the state government’s dissolution of redevelopment agencies in 2012, the spirit of the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative remains intact. The San Jose City Council voted in 2013 to make an extension of the program, the Neighborhoods Commission, a permanent means of involving the community in local decision making.
- The dedicated staff of 35 people played a critically important role in implementing San Jose’s Strong Neighborhoods Initiative. When staff was reduced to four in 2009, the program began losing momentum.
- The residents originally became involved in the program because of the projects, but stayed because they felt a sense of community, success and empowerment.
- Having three representatives from each district serve on the Neighborhood Council made it difficult to reach consensus. The council voted to reduce the number to two.
The Rest of the Story
For several decades, the City of San Jose grew rapidly outward. During the 1980s and 1990s, the city concentrated on creating new suburban subdivisions and downtown high-rise housing to help accommodate the booming population. But between these areas lay 19 older, blighted neighborhoods that suffered from high crime rates and aging infrastructure.
In the late 1990s the City of San Jose set out to bring equity in terms of resources and attention to these low-income, ethnically diverse areas. The city launched the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative in partnership with the local redevelopment agency in 2000. The initiative was designed to not only revitalize the neighborhoods, but also to engage the people living there.
The city designated $100 million of redevelopment funding for the blighted neighborhoods without specific restrictions on how the money would be spent. City leaders followed three guiding principles for the downtown neighborhoods process:
- Listen to people: Recognize that neighbors know more about their neighborhoods than you do.
- Build on existing strengths and assets.
- Respond to community priorities as part of the process.
The outreach began by identifying the known formal and informal leaders in each of the 19 neighborhoods to identify a core coalition of members. Working with consultants and staff, each group of neighbors developed a Neighborhood Improvement Plan that reflected the community’s desires, demographics and development interests.
After months of discussions, the individual neighborhood groups prioritized their community needs and developed a list of their top 10 priority projects. The plans were then submitted to the city planning commission and the city council for approval.
The approved plans were handed off to the Strong Neighborhood Team, which comprised a team manager and representatives from four city offices: the San Jose City Council; Planning Department; Building and Code Enforcement; Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services; and the Police Department. This team was responsible for carrying out the projects. If issues arose, each team had a direct link to City Hall and access to the deputy city manager and the redevelopment agency deputy director.
Through this structure, 90 percent of the top 10 priority lists were completed. While the program originally focused on spending redevelopment funds, the city also was able to leverage grant funding and received help from private investors, such as Santa Clara County and the Santa Clara Valley Water District, to help complete the neighborhood action lists.
Due to the program’s overwhelming success and community support, the city council approved spending an additional $5.7 million in 2006 to expand the project to three additional areas, using the same approach. With the downturn in the economy in 2009, the program’s pace began to slow, and the initiative officially ended in 2010.
One element of the program remains: The Neighborhoods Commission is a 30-member advisory group that contains with three members from each of the city’s 10 council districts. Interested residents send applications to the City Clerks Office, and are designated through a neighborhood caucus process by their peers, and forwarded to city council for appointment.
Public engagement remains a consistent and important part of the city’s culture. Each September since 2009, nonprofit groups join the city and San Jose State University to hold a conference designed to highlight community engagement and community leaders. Neighborhood groups and their leaders from throughout the city are invited to learn how to make their neighborhoods safe, organized and attractive at a Neighborhood Development Training Conference. Awards are given to selected residents for their outstanding community engagement efforts. Several hundred people attend the conference each year.
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