Reclaiming Shared Space through City-to-Citizen Collaboration
In 2018, Cities of Service commissioned a new study by the Urban Institute to examine how Love Your Block affects neighborhood-level blight remediation, resident engagement, and city government collaboration. This study examined the 2018-2020 Cities of Service Love Your Block program and expanded on the lessons from an initial Urban Institute Love Your Block study conducted in 2017.
This evaluation affirms the observation in the previous study that social capital and collective efficacy sparked at the neighborhood level by Love Your Block lead to improved collaboration with government and inside city hall. This web of reciprocal relationships produced by Love Your Block can spur citizen-centered innovations in policy and practice and create a healthier city.
How the study was conducted
Over the course of two years, Urban Institute analyzed qualitative and quantitative data to understand Love Your Block’s effects on the 10 cities participating in the program. The evaluation examined Love Your Block’s impact on blight, as well as the connections formed between city leaders and resident volunteers due to the program and the effectiveness of technical assistance from Cities of Service.
The inquiry included surveys of staff leading Love Your Block programs, analysis of grantee data, site visits to five cities, and interviews. The researchers also combined social network analysis and outcomes mapping to analyze how strategic relationship building might contribute to concrete results in policy or practice.
The Urban Institute study demonstrated that Love Your Block reduces blight and also helps city officials and residents build connections that can have a positive impact on neighborhoods and city government.
Key findings include:
Love Your Block Reclaims Space through Impact Volunteering
The 10 cities’ mini-grant projects accomplished tasks aimed at reclaiming shared spaces, including removing nearly 300,000 pounds of trash, cleaning over 1,000 acres of vacant grounds, removal of over 1,300 square feet of graffiti, creation of more than 600 new features such as pocket parks, and planting nearly 150 trees with the help of volunteers.
Love Your Block Builds Social Capital across Citizens and City Hall
In interviews, staff of cities from across the cohort emphasized that resident engagement, trust-building between city hall and neighborhood groups, and partnerships with local community organizations were beneficial outcomes of Love Your Block. These neighborhood-centered investments of time and money can help build social capital and strengthen connections between stakeholders working to address untended or underused spaces in a neighborhood.
Love Your Block Creates a Web of Reciprocal Relationships
Love Your Block’s emphasis on strong reciprocal relationships between citizens and city officials who work together closely at the neighborhood level can spark more integrated, citizen-centered reforms and innovations in city policy and practice.
City officials use Love your Block mini-grants to cultivate the trust, reciprocity, information sharing, and cooperation that are typical of strong social networks to generate real value at the neighborhood level (e.g., the creation of community gardens, a reduction of trash in the streets), often becoming an integral part of the networks themselves.
The social networks created by Love Your Block flow between mini-grant leaders and city hall officials in ways that reach beyond the standard target city practice and policy outcomes, leading to results such as improved code enforcement and municipal cost savings.
Love Your Block Helps Spur New Policies and Practices for a Healthier city
Deep engagement between citizens and city hall can lead to the creation of policies and practices that improve a city’s health. For example, citizens can help city officials understand and deal more sensitively with the financial behavioral health problems of residents. These underlying issues might lead to costly code violations for illegal dumping or rodents, but can be better dealt with other interventions that address root causes and support residents.
At a time when citizen frustration with some city functions is boiling over, the Love Your Block program’s capacity to create a natural feedback loop between citizens and city hall may be its most important contribution to the field of civic engagement.
Cities of Service Support for Love Your Block Benefits Cities
Cities valued the technical assistance from Cities of Service, the AmeriCorps VISTA members, and the Cities of Service network. Cities of Service offered 19 webinars and group calls and more than 50 virtual engagements over the two years of the grant. Cities of Service offered programming specific to COVID-19, including webinars on local approaches to serving vulnerable populations and on food access. AmeriCorps VISTA members were overwhelmingly recognized as a key benefit of Love Your Block, expanding staff capacity and strengthening connections between residents and cities.
Lessons Learned from Love Your Block
The Urban Institute study provides insights that Love Your Block may offer to the broader fields of city planning, municipal management, and community organizing. These include:
- Sustaining blight reduction results requires sustained citizen engagement that perhaps only deeply collaborative programs can provide.
- AmeriCorps VISTA members are an effective way for cities to inject energy and effort into results-focused neighborhood engagement.
- A small but visible commitment from the mayor and other well-placed city officials can energize the grassroots.
Love Your Block may offer a sustainable and cost-effective way to solve persistent municipal problems. Collaborative citizen engagement efforts like Love Your Block may offer a much-needed “small and mighty” alternative to larger collective impact approaches.
- Love Your Block may offer a sustainable and cost-effective way to solve persistent municipal problems. Collaborative citizen engagement efforts like Love Your Block may offer a much-needed “small and mighty” alternative to larger collective impact approaches.