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South Gate’s Path to Community Participation and a Healthier Community

Case Story City of South Gate

Ten years after a highly publicized corruption scandal, the City of South Gate is implementing a visionary general plan that seeks to develop a healthy, inclusive and economically vibrant community that is rich in community participation and transparency. The city invested almost one million dollars to develop the plan, which included extensive community participation. As a result of the robust public engagement process and the visionary updated general plan, South Gate has received numerous grants to support its implementation and related projects.  

Community: City of South Gate (LA County)

Population: 95,304


The City of South Gate’s three year general plan community outreach process proactively engaged the city’s Latino population, a group that had been historically under-represented in the city’s decision making process. The city not only utilized existing Latino community networks to develop champions who encouraged citizens to attend the planning meetings, it also mobilized volunteers and students to “meet people where they are.” This brought many new faces into the process. The extensive public outreach process served as a productive two-way dialogue between residents and the City and resulted in a shared vision for the future.

Program Highlights

  • From the start of the general plan update process, the City aggressively sought to involve new sectors of the community through a unique blend of grassroots outreach, culturally sensitive engagement, and participatory planning techniques.
  • All public planning meetings were heavily publicized to a diverse audience through flyers, posters, banners and flyers in both English and Spanish. The message was also conveyed through word-of-mouth campaigns and outreach messages through community events, schools, religious institutions and citizen advisory committees, on local media channels and through the city’s telephone reminder system.
  • The general plan update education and engagement strategy used for the foundation for education and engagement of residents that has become useful in solving subsequent problems  and addressing ongoing community concerns.

 Lessons Learned

  • Attracting residents to the meeting is important, but each meeting must be accommodating, have a specific purpose and build upon outcomes from previous interactions with the community. This demonstrates a commitment by the city and advancement of the public engagement process. 
  • It is important to acknowledge residents’ concerns and address their immediate needs.  Don’t ignore the “small” concerns of community members. Rather, try to encourage them to think about the larger implications of those concerns and how they relate to broader decision making within the jurisdiction. 
  • Meaningful engagement takes commitment. Be hands-on and available to community members in order to create trust and a lasting partnership. 
  • Partnering with community based organizations and consultants is important.  However, it is important to make sure the agency is deeply engaged and “owns” the information and relationships developed during the process to create a legacy that goes beyond the individual effort.  

 The Rest of the Story

Located 10 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, the City of South Gate is home to approximately 100,000 people, more than 95 percent of whom are Latino. Over the past decade, Latino residents have become more involved in the local government decision making, in part as a direct result of public engagement and outreach efforts made during the city’s general plan update process.

South Gate began the general plan update process in 2005, shortly after a corruption scandal that ended in the recall of three members of the city council and the city treasurer. The new city leaders hoped to build from the new-found civic interest in local politics and governance.  They began the first general plan update in 17 years to help rebuild confidence in government and encourage participation in community planning. From the start of the general plan update process, the city aggressively sought to involve new sectors of the community through a unique blend of grassroots outreach, culturally sensitive engagement, and participatory planning techniques.

City staff worked with consultants and non-profit organizations to engaged residents during their daily errands, distributed flyers and hung banners in both English and Spanish on major streets, at corner stores, Laundromats, and coffee shops to promote upcoming public meetings. In addition, city staff and volunteers met the residents at community events to inform them about the city planning process and to listen to their needs. In order to encourage participation at the meetings and make it possible for adults to attend, the city provided child care and food at the planning meetings, since more than 35 percent of the city’s residents are under 18.  

Once at the meetings, residents participated in interactive discussions, small group exercises, informal discussion and workshops. The meetings also contained fun elements such as games and raffles to maintain interest and encourage participants to remain at the meeting. Meeting organizers noted that because many of the Latino residents previously had not been involved in the local decision making, many of them started off by talking about “small concerns. With the help of the facilitators, the city was  able to expand upon those concerns to help develop a future vision for the city.  Facilitators made sure that each meeting had a specific objective and built upon of the information received through the public discussions, which fostered open dialogue and trust. 

In 2007, the Los Angeles section of the American Planning Association selected the City of South Gate for the Public Outreach Award for outstanding public outreach and community engagement on the General Plan Update. 

As a result of its inclusive and extensive public engagement, the South Gate general plan was one of the first “form-based” comprehensive plans in the United States. It is a plan that guides the form and character of community, as opposed to conventional land use designations. In addition, the general plan includes a healthy community element that focuses on physical activity, access to nutritious foods, transportation safety, and air quality.  This is an optional element in addition to the mandatory elements of a general plan.

Because of the visionary updated general plan, the city has received more than two million dollars in grants to help implement it, including funds to complete a greenhouse gas inventory, energy strategy, safe routes to school strategy, community bike plan, an updated zoning ordinance and a downtown specific plan. 

The city also created additional parks and open space and is now working on a sustainable regional economic development plan.  

While it has been difficult to maintain the number of residents who were engaged during the general plan update for subsequent community efforts, city officials say that the Latino population remains well represented in the current planning efforts. City staff continue to update community members on the many positive outcomes that the city has enjoyed as a result of this robust, and inclusive general plan update process. 

Resources to Learn More

Consultant PowerPoint

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