Birmingham’s Citizen Participation Program formed out of the Civil Rights Movement and is one of the oldest and most successful CPPs in the South. In addition, the structure of Birmingham’s CPP is very similar to the proposed NOLA CPP. For information on the Birmingham CPP please see below (for a pfd copy, please click here…White Paper Birmingham Case Study.doc).
Birmingham Citizen Participation Program Case Study
It is difficult to identify exactly when and where the first citizen participation program in the Southern United States appeared; the concept became popular in the early 1970s as a way to grow and sustain the equity born out of the Civil Rights movement. However, it is no stretch to say that Birmingham, Alabama is home to one of the oldest and most successful programs in the country. In its earliest form, the Birmingham Citizen Participation Program is credited with the creation of the city’s first official interracial working group. Today, it has evolved to address everything from land use decisions to social justice issues. While the Birmingham Citizen Participation Program has been studied by planners, researchers and city officials around the country, its story is particularly important to cities in transition, like New Orleans, as it demonstrates the possibility of new growth in a troubled city and the enduring benefits of engaging citizens in government decisions.
For most of early 20th century, Birmingham was the center of black industrial employment. The city also had one of the worst race relations records in the South prior to and throughout the 1960s. Owing to this history of staunch segregation, the city became an arena for major Civil rights protests and integration policy debates. The courageous actions of its citizens and the potent resistance of its government thrust Birmingham into the national spotlight during the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps due to the citizens’ active role in the changes born out of that chaotic decade, by the 1970s Birmingham became a pioneer in citizen-centered planning.
|Birmingham CPP Information|
|Number of Neighborhoods||99|
|Number of District Coalitions||23|
|Fiscal Year 2011 Budget||$854,833|
|Number of Full Time Employees||6|
At its inception, citizen participation in Birmingham served two main purposes: to mend an ailing city and to satisfy federally mandated participation requirements of federal redevelopment funds. In 1962, the federal government told the city of Birmingham that the funds would not be renewed due to a lack of diversity on the Planning Commission since there were no black members on the committee to study minority group-housing problems. In 1963, Birmingham created the 212 member Community Affairs Committee which had 27 black members, making the committee the first formal interracial participation structure in Birmingham. While the federal government may have provided the impetus for change, community leaders continued to push for a strong participation system, helping the city to exceed the basic participation requirements. In a 1977 report, the Department of Housing and Urban Development noted only 10 (including Birmingham) out of the 558 Community Development Block Grantee cities had a participation program in which all citizen members were elected.
However, this effective system was not created or accepted instantly. According to official notes from a public meeting on citizen participation held in 1974, almost all speakers had some opposition to the proposed plan. In order to save the participation plan, the city sensibly turned to its residents. The city conducted workshops with more than 130 participants and created a plan that was more widely accepted. It was adopted in October 1974 and elections for neighborhood representatives began the following month. The strength of Birmingham’s participation model owes much to the practice of consulting citizens during the planning process. While drafting the neighborhood boundaries for use in the Citizen Participation system, a team of city staff took to the streets, knocking on every door in the city, to ask residents how they perceived their own neighborhood. Birmingham officials involved in this process insist that this step was essential in the successful implementation of the Citizen Participation Program. It established a two-way communication system and laid the groundwork for a trusting relationship between citizens and the city.
The Citizen Participation Program in Birmingham has continued to evolve over the last three decades to suit the changing needs of the City and its residents. However, it remains structurally similar to the program model that won approval in the 1970s. There are 99 recognized neighborhoods in the system, up from 85 at the program’s start. The average neighborhood population is 2,740, but this ranges from 180 to 8,200 depending on the area. These neighborhoods are grouped into 23 Communities, which represent 2 to 6 neighborhoods each. One representative from each of the 23 Communities serves on the Citizens Advisory Board (see figure on next page). This board advises city officials on important decisions and delivers information to the Communities.
The Birmingham Citizen Participation Plan includes certain regulations and operating procedures for neighborhood associations, communities, and higher structures within the system. These regulations supersede Citizen Advisory Board, Community, or Neighborhood bylaws. These regulations include a mandate for formal review of the Citizen Participation structure and process every two years. Amendments to the system have been made following this review process three times since the beginning of the program. Additionally, the operating procedures outline the criteria for voting membership within the participation structure; voting membership in the neighborhood associations is open to any resident 16 years of age or older.
In acknowledgment of the fact that geographic neighborhoods may have difficulty representing all city stakeholders, the Birmingham Citizen Participation Program also calls for the inclusion of Neighborhood Advisory Groups, which would represent local organizations or other underrepresented groups and advise Neighborhood Association leadership. However, implementation of these groups has had only limited success thus far. The Birmingham Citizen Participation system is staffed by Community Resources Officers who work out of City Hall in the Mayor’s Office of Citizen Assistance. There are currently six such officers in Birmingham. Funding for these officers and all other aspects of the Citizen Participation program came primarily from Community Development Block Grants until 1987. Since then, the participation system has been included in the city’s regular budget with only a few small changes made to the program to reduce costs.
Figure: Structure of Birmingham’s Citizen Participation Program
The real success of Birmingham’s Citizen Participation Program is the programming and access it provides to its citizens. While the Birmingham CPP does not typically provide direct funding to Neighborhood Associations, it does allocate money for special projects in neighborhoods based on citizen input and neighborhood programs. Some of the benefits the Birmingham Citizen Participation Program offers to citizens are:
- Training to neighborhood leaders,
- Gathering citizen input on city wide decisions,
- Neighborhood needs assessment surveys,
- Monthly information packets and meeting notice updates from Community Resources Division to all households,
- Early warning of zoning and land use decisions.
The Birmingham Citizen Participation Program is considered a major urban and Civil Rights success story. Given early warning of zoning and land use decisions, residents from all backgrounds in Birmingham have shown greater interest and taken a more active role in the process. Additionally, developers recognize the role of citizens in the planning process and the benefits of contacting the appropriate neighborhood associations about development plans before going to the city for permits.
Perhaps the most significant product of the Citizen Participation Program in Birmingham is the positive impact on the communities’ identities. Many neighborhoods have utilized the participation structure to organize local projects and cultural events. The Citizen Participation structure has provided residents with the opportunity to improve their own communities and to rely less on government assistance. Beyond that, the participation system has allowed Birmingham residents to see themselves as an integral part of a cohesive, effective system of city government. This is truly an accomplishment for any city, but even more so for one with such divisive roots as Birmingham. Cities with fledgling Citizen Participation Programs can benefit from the lessons learned by Birmingham over the last several decades. While the Birmingham model has influenced programs from all over the country, these lessons are particularly useful for a city like New Orleans that shares some of its cultural history and social justice struggles with this historic city. Birmingham’s Citizen Participation Program offers over 30 years experience and knowledge from which the citizens of New Orleans may pull in order to create the strong, equitable system they deserve.