Southern cities has a unique history of Citizen Participation Programs. In many Southern cities, CPPs came out of the civil rights movement to help create more equitable government decision making.
A History of Citizen Participation in the South
Born out of the Civil Rights movement, Citizen Participation Programs in the South helped to unify communities still ailing from the injuries of segregation and created a way to preserve the hard won ideals of equity and social justice.
The Role of the Federal Government
The Federal Government was an important motivating factor in the creation of Citizen Participation Programs across the country, especially in the South, where exclusive politics were the norm until the Civil Rights movement demanded more equity. The Model Cities Program was created under the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1966 with goals to emphasize comprehensive urban planning, rebuilding and rehabilitation, social services, and citizen participation. Although this program had mixed results, and only ran until 1974, many of the citizen participation models, or at least the expectation of citizen input, persisted after the program ended.
Since its creation in 1974, HUD’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) has included a requirement that cities provide a forum for citizens to give input into how the CDBG money is spent. This is one of the longest running federal grant programs and has been providing cities with a starting place for participation since its inception. Several Southern cities receiving CDBG funds, took their participation programs beyond the basic requirements to create sustainable, broadly effective programs, the benefits of which these cities continue to enjoy.
The Formation of CPPs in Two Southern Cities
Atlanta’s participation system was created in the late 1960s and officially adopted in 1975. It served as a way to do away with the Client/Patron relationship created by the elite business class as a way of capitalizing off of the increasing number of minority business owners and community leaders but maintaining an uneven balance of power. The Citizen Participation Program formalized interracial collaboration while increasing equity and effectiveness. Atlanta’s Citizen Participation Program structure is representative of the majority of participation programs in the South. The City has 242 neighborhoods that make up 25 Neighborhood Planning Units (NPUs). One delegate from each NPU then serves on the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board (APAB) which is structured much like a city council. The APAB advises City Council and presents trainings and workshops to the neighborhoods.
Though culturally similar to Atlanta and other major Southern cities, Birmingham was called the worst city in the South for race relations in 1956. This deep division turned the city into an arena for the ideological battles of the Civil Rights movement. A little over a decade later, the Birmingham Citizen Participation Program facilitated the creation of the first formal interracial participation structure in the city. By the late 1970s, Birmingham had become a model for other fledgling participation structures across the country.
Expansion of CPPs
While the Federal Government may have started the ball rolling, the cities who house these programs deserve credit for sustaining them and allowing them to evolve over the following decades. Several programs in the South, including Birmingham, Atlanta and Charleston, got their start in the mid to late 1970s. Through a citizen review process, they have since amended their programs to best suit the needs of their changing cities. Other cities like Houston, Jacksonville, and St. Augustine, FL, adopted their programs more recently, in the early 1990s and 2000s, using the best practices of more established programs to inform their own CPP.
These cities have extended the use of the Citizen Participation Programs beyond collecting input for allocation of federal money. The City of Birmingham has used its participation system to conduct neighborhood needs assessments and to distribute monthly newsletters to every resident. The citizens of Birmingham have utilized the structure to organize cultural events and community service projects. Charleston’s Citizen Participation Program also distributes a newsletter to residents and maintains a network of neighborhood leaders. Citizen Participation staff in Charleston have also noted the increased level of responsibility citizens feel for maintaining their neighborhoods, taking preemptive steps to prevent crime, blight and to create a stronger community. These are just a few examples of the many positive things that can be accomplished when city government shows an interest in the opinions of its people and citizens are empowered to take initiative.
While the struggle for equity and social justice continues today, it is important to recognize the key role Citizen Participation Programs have played in making advances in these areas. Coming out of the Civil Rights era, Atlanta and Birmingham used federal funds to create Citizen Participation Programs that would be sustainable and ensure equity in government decision-making. Other cities, like Houston and Jacksonville, saw the success of these trailblazing cities and created Citizen Participation Programs of their own. These cities were able to learn from the mistakes and incorporate the best practices into their CPPs. Now it is time for New Orleans. There is more than 35 years of history in the south to learn from and use in the formation of a Citizen Participation Program that will improve equity and transparency in government decision-making and bring New Orleans in line with its peers.
Giles, Michael W. “The Atlanta Project: A Community-based Approach to Solving Urban Problems.” National Civic Review 82.4 (1993): 354-62.
Berry, Jeffrey M., Kent E. Portney, and Ken Thomson. The Rebirth of Urban Democracy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1993
Connerly, Charles. “Chapter 14: Federal Urban Policy and the Birth of Democratic Planning in Birmingham, Alabama , 1948 to 1974.” Planning the Twentieth-century American City. By Mary Corbin. Sies and Christopher Silver. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. 331-34.
Neighborhood Services. Department of Planning and Neighborhoods. City of Charleston.
Strange, John. “Citizen Participation in Community Action and Model Cities Programs.” Public Administration Review 32 (1972): 655-69.