The City of Lansing is one of several cities participating in a Cities of Service “Love Your Block” cohort focused on fighting blight and revitalizing neighborhoods in low income communities this year. As part of its Cities of Service membership, key personnel and neighborhood leaders participated in a listening and learning tour of the City of Flint, where under Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, city employees and private partners supported by a Cities of Service Love Your Block grant empowered residents and volunteers to remove 4,500 square feet of graffiti, clear 1,075 tons of waste, clean up 122 abandoned properties, and create 57 green spaces.
Andi Crawford is the City of Lansing Neighborhood Resources Coordinator.
he City of Lansing, MI is continuing to climb out of the Great Recession. We have been working to diversify the economy, expanding beyond the historical big three of government, higher education, and the automobile industry. Lansing has become a hub of both the insurance industry and emerging biomedical sciences industry. These changes are defining the city today.
At the same time, the services of the city have been cut back significantly, and a new model for citizen engagement and service delivery is needed. Parts of Lansing are beset with aging housing stock that presents environmental concerns, such as lead based paint and asbestos. We have infrastructure in desperate need of repair.
Lansing also has a rich history of neighborhood organizing and citizen engagement. The challenge now is to invite and cultivate new leadership in these groups and to connect them together in service. Our current efforts are strong, but can be expanded through better coordination and tools for resident engagement.
The Cities of Service Love Your Block program will help us create new strategies to address neighborhood challenges and connect existing efforts together for maximum impact.
Recently, our Mayor Virg Bernero joined 20 neighborhood and community partners on a trip to Flint, where we met with Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and members of his staff who have worked on neighborhood revitalization and Love Your Block programs.
Mayor Walling is a former AmeriCorps member who served in the City of Lansing in the beginning of his career. He served in our Northtown neighborhood, an older area of the city. The President of the Northtown Neighborhood Association even connected with Mayor Walling as he reminisced about his time in Lansing.
The mayors discussed some of our two cities’ similarities. Both cities have been devastated by the loss of jobs in the auto industry. Mayor Bernero complimented Flint’s creativity in addressing their budget issues and their regional collaboration with Genesee County. Both Mayors described the need for new ideas and the reality that both cities must do things differently with input from new sources.
Emergency situations drive radical change in a city. As part of their emergency management plan, Flint has fully privatized its waste removal services through Republic Services. Unless you’re from a rust-belt union state, it’s hard to describe what a radical notion this is. Many Republic Services staff were present and had been hired from the City of Flint. Their partnership helped to establish a recycling program and an impressive city-wide coordinated, month-long neighborhood cleanup. The coordinated cleanup effort was the envy of many neighborhood leaders from Lansing.
We also learned that Flint has only one community police officer, Tanya Meeks, who provided valuable insight into how Flint works with its volunteers. A veteran of the force, she essentially provides the neighborhood service on behalf of the city, coordinating cleanups and neighborhood trainings. She is the primary liaison to all the neighborhood block clubs and connects them to critical city services. She works with the Blight Manager and residents to clean up neighborhoods. She has been working on coordinated resident training out of necessity because of the large number of residents she must serve on her own.
In addition, we learned about valuable public/private sector partnerships and city/county collaboration that resulted in creative solutions.
The efforts of the City and Keep Genesee County Beautiful to encourage, educate and engage the community in the ongoing clean up and beautification of Genesee County were impressive to learn about. One of our favorite stops was Mowing School, where volunteers undergo three hours of training on large mowing equipment, and then are able to rent and use the machinery. We also heard a passionate argument for the benefits of environmental design and proper grounds keeping — crime prevention! Criminals can hide in tall grass and elude detection, but through programs like Mowing School and other education,the City is able to both accomplish neighborhood cleanup, and connect and empower residents on an issue that they care deeply about: safety.
We also heard from Mayor Walling about how the City of Flint enacted practical, creative solutions such as planting clover rather than grass, which requires mowing only two times per season vs. ten times for grass.
The reaction from most Lansing neighborhood leaders on the trip was one of encouragement and excitement.
Lansing neighborhood leaders who attended were excited to hear new approaches to issues of cleanup, blight, and debris removal.
They were impressed with City of Flint Blight Manager Raul Garcia and his hands-on approach with residents. Raul is well known in the community and is working with individual property owners, along with groups of residents and block clubs to clean up city streets. Lansing is similarly transitioning the way we provide service to neighborhood leaders to a model of citizen engagement and increased public/private partnership, along with impact volunteering to increase services in the city.
A challenge for resident-led neighborhood cleanups in Lansing has been liability. Removing this barrier to resident involvement in the management of city property has a been key priority for the Lansing team, so that residents can help maintain Land Bank and city owned properties without the neighbors or neighborhood organization having to assume liability. A task force in Lansing is working on this issue, which must include both city and county officials. It was helpful to learn that in Flint, partnership with the United Way led to it covering the cost of the annual liability coverage, thus covering residents who participate in programs.
The Lansing team returned with ideas about new ways to conduct neighborhood service in Lansing. The collaboration in Flint is impressive and our residents are already talking about new ways to work together. We want to immediately address the liability barriers for residents wishing to help the Land Bank care for the vacant properties in their neighborhoods. Since our return from Flint, we have had meetings with City Council members, County Commissioners, and Land Bank leadership to begin working through this seemingly simple, but ultimately quite complex issue. With 220 properties set to be demolished in Lansing in the next 18 months, the issue will continue to challenge us and we look forward to a practical solution.
While those were the most educational moments of the day, a really funny moment happened as we were leaving the city. As we happily ate our boxed lunches and discussed our learnings, our bus driver, Dale, suddenly pulled the bus to the curb — we had been pulled over by the police. He headed out of the bus and started laughing — he’d been stopped by Officer Meeks. She hopped on the bus and said she’d forgotten to hand out her business cards. As Dale’s blood pressure began to return to normal, she laughed and passed out her contact information.
Back in Lansing, we also have begun hosting LiNCS (Leaders in Neighborhood & Community Service) meetings at the request of neighborhood leaders of all types, so groups and critical city services can gather and share ideas and strategies, and create connections. In May, we heard from City Parks and Recreation staff and discussed neighborhood group summer gatherings in the parks. Standing agenda items include an update from the Land Bank on demolitions and from me, on the progress of the Cities of Service Love Your Block projects.
We look forward to seeing what Lansing can do, together.
Visit the Lansing Love Your Block site.