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Engaging Citizens in Shrinking Cities

The Role of E-Participation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Daniel Hummel
July 22, 2016

church-986847_640The post-industrial ‘Rust Belt’ of the Midwest and Northeast United States has been experiencing population decline since the mid-20th century. Decades of perpetual population loss has led to the rise of an alternative approach to planning in these ‘legacy’ cities. This has been referred to as ‘right-sizing’, ‘smart decline’ and ‘shrinking.’ In essence, instead of planning for population growth, the city plans for loss with a focus on improving the quality of life and balancing the budget. This is not a new concept as it has been around since the 1980s. The first city to officially plan for population loss was Youngstown, Ohio in the early 2000s.

There have been many critiques of the approach. Some indicate that it is simply Urban Renewal 2.0. The literature on right-sizing suggests that it is primarily led by grassroots civic activism with a focus on quality of life factors. In addition, this approach has made citizen engagement in the process a cornerstone. The days of federally-funded, massive community overhauls with limited community feedback seen during the Urban Renewal Era is not politically or fiscally possible today.

One of the concerns is engaging citizens in the process of planning for decline. Traditional city hall meetings or even focus groups have formed the foundation to city approaches to citizen participation and engagement. Online citizen participation has not received the same attention from cities in its utility in getting citizens involved in the right-sizing process. There are many hurdles to getting people involved online such as the ‘digital divide’, a lack of technologically proficient staff at the city and problems with online incivility.

A few years ago, I interviewed public information officers as well as information technology and public relations department heads at various shrinking cities across the country about the use of online tools for citizen participation. Most of these cities were using external social media sites to discuss municipal issues with the citizenry. These cities felt that most of the posters were regulars and usually pessimistic toward the city and its leaders. There did not seem to be a lot of optimism regarding the utility of these sites in facilitating productive citizen participation. It seemed like a place for discontented residents to complain and say things they would not normally say in person.

I also followed the online reader posts from the Detroit Free Press regarding stories related to the city’s bankruptcy and municipal reconfiguration under a state-appointed emergency manager. As a city, Detroit is suffering from extreme population loss. I used these online reader posts because it is not uncommon for cities to use them for feedback on municipal issues. Although I noticed that there were episodes of name-calling and blatant racism, on the whole most people had informed and respectful opinions. This seemed counter to what I was hearing from city officials.

E-participation can be a very effective and powerful method in getting people in a shrinking city engaged in the right-sizing process. In my interviews and through my observations, I noticed these efforts will need to be focused, managed and moderated. A deliberative forum to discuss housing demolitions, a plan for a community garden or a rescaling of public transportation can facilitate community conversations. It will need to be managed to ensure that only community members are participating in the forum and that it remains on topic. It will need to be moderated to ensure that uncivil comments based on a defined code are removed and those posting them are reprimanded.

One of the things I learned through my conversations and through my observations was that it was the same people who caused problems in these forums. This makes the problem easier to manage since these individuals can be identified and removed. The concern is making sure that these forums are representative of the community and that a community is being sustained there. Shrinking cities are usually struggling to find a community identity. A racist rant will do the opposite and may drive people away from the process.

There are many that prefer the in-person approach to citizen participation. Online participation is not a panacea in which it simply supplements other avenues for participation. Many community members who are unable to make city meetings for various reasons would greatly appreciate being involved in the discussion.

This is particularly the case if major changes are being proposed in the city. For example, Detroit proposed scaling down services gradually to scarcely populated areas of the city before the bankruptcy. There are many living in those areas that might find that idea untenable, but are unable to make city meetings. The online forum would be a great place to discuss concerns as well as ideas on a better approach. Ultimately, this would improve the decision-making process of city officials in these struggling places.

Author: Dr. Hummel is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Idaho State University. He is also the MPA Director. He teaches classes on state and local government, community planning, public budgeting and finance and intergovernmental relations. His research interests are urban resiliency and right-sizing cities. Email: [email protected]

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