Vibrant Neighborhoods Forum: Leveraging Civic Engagement for Social Impact

January 22, 2021

The Vibrant Neighborhoods Forum provided a unique opportunity to bring six cities in the United States and Europe together to explore how civic engagement can be used to address challenges in six neighborhoods segregated by race, ethnicity, and/or income. Through the design of VNF, city cohorts worked together to develop a plan to leverage civic engagement to address a problem or challenge in the neighborhood—and in VNF 2.0, to use creative placemaking as a specific tool to engage residents and foster dialogue and inclusion.

Three representatives from three distinct stakeholder groups drew on their networks, leveraged their positions and skills within neighborhood and city government to work together to bring resident voice into key decision-making processes that impacted their neighborhoods, while also working to connect with larger city initiatives. This report summarizes three years of work done by the participating VNF members and highlighted the successes and the challenges to civic engagement. While it is important to discuss the challenges, ultimately it was each participant’s passion and dedication which created the great successes documented in these pages. In the end, no matter the challenges, it is passion and dedication that will win the day.

The successes and struggles experienced by the VNF cohorts are instructive for any city that strives to improve the quality of its civic engagement efforts. As the six projects progressed, three common ingredients for success became evident: leadership, community trust and enthusiasm, and capacity. These factors interact to create conditions that allow for success, while their absence makes the ability to engage all the more difficult. Without leadership and capacity, projects struggle to move forward and/or sustain themselves, which can in turn erode community trust, lead to burnout, and thus make engagement more difficult over time. The converse is also true: if community leaders build trust by consistently involving residents in the pursuit of tangible goals, their capacity to succeed will grow over time as their ability to raise funds, generate interest, and engage residents improves.

Whether the tradition of resident engagement is strong or weak in a city, the case studies presented here can spark conversations about what lessons may be learned and what new approaches may be tried to ensure that all residents feel included and heard in the building of a better community.