Thursday, January 5, 2012

Neighborhood-Centric Cities

With an uptick in robberies and shootings recently here in Central Arkansas; and with the city of Little Rock set to start collecting a cool extra $100 million in a couple of months; and with the Arkansas Times devoting last week's edition to great writing on various neighborhoods; and with blatant civic dis-investment happening in some of those neighborhoods, I got a little curious about possible other ways of doing things.

Here's a great paper from IBM (I know- weird, right? IBM? Trust me though, it's good.) that outlines the idea of organizing all city government decisions and functions around neighborhoods instead of the various departmental silos we have now. The fundamental goal for city government under the new paradigm is improving people's quality of life at the neighborhood level. And, the easiest way to gauge progress toward that goal is by looking at property values. When quality of life improves in a place, more people will want to live there, and (thanks to the magic of supply and demand) property values there go up. Plus, as a significant added benefit, when property values go up, revenue for the city goes up too. Everybody wins. In a way, the city begins to look at itself as a revenue-generating entity rather than just assuming that revenue is just something that happens independently of civic decisions.

On one level we all identify with the city or town we live in, but on a much more fundamental level we identify with our neighborhoods. While someone getting shot at 12th and Woodrow impacts everyone in Little Rock to some degree, I'd venture to say that those of us in the Central High and Stephens neighborhoods feel it a lot more than someone living where Deauville Drive, Deauville Circle, Deauville Boulevard, and Deauville Place all come together. On a more positive note, a new sidewalk / fire station / school / park / etc. typically affects the quality of life of the people who live nearby more than it does for someone who lives on the other side of town.

Right now in Little Rock, as in most cities, there's a pot of money each year that gets allocated between Police, Streets, Parks and Rec, Fire, Code Enforcement, Transit, Housing, Courts, etc. and then each of those departments has to decide how best to spend its own money citywide. What Big Blue and others propose is to re-imagine that formula. Divvy the money up based on neighborhoods, and then allow the decision-making process to operate on that more local, personal level. Would it be better for a particular neighborhood to have more librarians or police officers? Do we need sidewalks or another fire truck? Should we add frequency to a bus route or widen a street? Etc. The same things will still happen as today, but the difference is that it'll be easier to make local decisions that affect multiple departments instead of having those departments act somewhat independently as they do now.

That' a simplified overview filtered through my pre-coffee mind, so do read the IBM paper for a much more complete version.

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