By Douglas Moran
Neighborhood Associations: Why they are still importantUploaded: Mar 10, 2015
The recent news coverage of the difficulties facing one of Palo Alto's premier neighborhood association (College Terrace) brought forth comments that such associations have been rendered unnecessary by social media, such as Nextdoor.com.(foot#1) Such comments represent a very shallow and narrow perspective on what a neighborhood is. Social networking is very good for seeking simple information from "the crowd", such as recommendations for a plumber or reuniting a lost pet with its family. But it rarely is adequate for bigger issues, especially ones requiring concerted action over an extended period. These problems with social networking being equated with true activism is such that it has its own names, such as "Slacktivism" and "Clicktivism".
"Strengthening City Engagement with Neighborhoods" is one of Mayor Holman's priorities for the year and she has joined with three other Council members (Vice Mayor Greg Schmid, Pat Burt, Cory Wolbach) in a proposal on the March 16 Council agenda.(foot#2) Part of this is outreach meetings. While this is laudable, having productive meetings is difficult and requires lots of work and planning. In other cities doing this?for example Mountain View?these meetings reportedly can turn out to be little more than a series of individuals from that neighborhood who talk in turn about their individual issues, with the result of the meeting being a long staff report providing isolated responses to those complaints and suggestions.(foot#3) That is, the meetings are in the neighborhoods, but not with the neighborhoods.
My experience?from 19 years on the Board of the Barron Park Association including six as President and five as Vice President(foot#4) ?is that for such meetings to be productive there needs to be substantial involvement in planning, execution and follow-up by some form of leadership from the neighborhood.
My intention with this posting is to provide a foundation for neighborhood leaders and others to provide their perspectives. So if you are an early reader of this, please return to see the comments, or you can sign-up for email notifications of new comments (at the end of this page).
For those unaware of the important differences between a Neighborhood/Residents Association, henceforth "neighborhood association" and a Homeowners Association (HOA), there is an explanation at the end.
Be aware that in Palo Alto, neighborhoods tend to be self-defining and "flexible". There may be no exact, agreed-upon boundaries: City Hall's boundaries may be different from those used by various real estate agents and from the newspapers and from the residents themselves. And residents may disagree among themselves as to where the boundaries are, that is, which neighborhood they live in.
Neighborhood associations can function at multiple levels, and which activities they actually focus on varies by their circumstances?their needs, opportunities?and the availability of volunteers to pursue them.
The declining sense of community has long been an issue of concern and discussion.(foot#5) Those that would claim that online interactions can supplant face-to-face interactions should look at the experience of tech companies with virtual teams. While a lot can be done in cyberspace, they have found no substitute for periodic physical interactions, to the extent that they accept the cost in time and money to fly in distant team members. Bi-weekly to monthly physical meetings is what I have been hearing regarded as the minimum.(foot#6)
Events where neighbors can meet and informally interact have become more important as previous opportunity decline. For example, encountering someone you know in a store has become rare enough to be remarked-upon for many?we are shopping at increasingly distant B&M stores and online (Farmers Markets have become one of the significant places where neighbors encounter each other).
With lives being so busy, parents of children focus their social networks on similar parents. As a test of who knows whom, ask a parent for the names of adult neighbors who don't have children, and vice versa. My experience is that the results are depressing.(foot#7)
Experience and "Corporate Knowledge"
Those who haven't organized a neighborhood event?something larger than a block party?tend to seriously underestimate what is needed. But even that estimate may be so daunting that few are willing to take it on. This task becomes more manageable if there is a reservoir of experience and reliable volunteers to draw on.(foot#8) The organizers of my neighborhood's primary social event created, and maintain, a notebook of instructions, checklists and other resources to simplify the task, whether it is them or a new person handling the next iteration. A neighborhood association is the prime candidate for this function, in large part because of the overlap with many of the other aspects of a neighborhood being a community and not just a label on a map.
Dealing with City Hall
Having a known group of people experienced in dealing with City Hall can help residents get their problems addressed by telling them who to contact and how to present the problem. The "how" is often crucial. For example, simply using the correct terminology can make all the difference?wrong terminology can result in City Hall thinking that the problem is not something that they can address. Similarly for knowing which potential solutions are practical and which are implausible. And the solution may be a good-enough workaround that the resident wouldn't have thought of.
Among the active neighborhood associations, it is not uncommon for a member of the core group to act as the advocate/representative of the resident in dealing with such problems. This can simplify the interaction with City Hall and has the added benefit of adding credibility to the request or complaint (because the neighborhood leader is a "known quantity").
Corporate knowledge on neighborhood issues
One step up from this is the benefit of having a known group of people with knowledge and experience with neighborhood issues. They become initial points-of-contact for City Hall, the press, developers? This allows local situations and concerns to be considered at early stages in the process?when such have the best chances of having impact. The existence of such expertise also "incentivizes" City Hall to factor in those concerns (to reduce conflict later in the process). Some in City Hall will also take advantage of this expertise in planning for more effective public outreach meetings.
The expertise gained working issues for your neighborhood may also get you appointed by City Hall to a citizens advisory group, although residents who interact with City Hall primarily through neighborhood associations?as opposed to single-issue advocacy groups?are woefully under-represented on such panels.
Many of the announcements coming from City Hall, and other organizations, fail to provide residents with enough information to know whether the topic of the meeting is important to them, and even if it does, those announcements typically fail to give residents the information needed to participate effectively. Some of this is the result of a failure to adapt from a time of hardcopy announcements, physical bulletin boards and newspaper column-inches (subject of a recent blog post). But it can also represent a desire to minimize involvement by residents.
Many of these announcements could benefit from a resident's perspective. First, reformatting to be appropriate for email, especially mobile, both for initial reading and for later searching. Second, translating and/or explaining jargon. Third, reorganizing and highlighting to focus on those aspects of particular interest to the neighborhood. Fourth, adding links to additional information that would be useful to people attending the event.(foot#9)
Unfortunately, in this era of hyper-partisanship, this has proven to be highly controversial, and consequently some neighborhoods simply forward the announcements they receive.(foot#10) If a neighborhood wants to have these improved notifications, it needs to have a (small) group of widely respected people to produce them, and a somewhat larger group to support them against the inevitable attacks.
Note: The term "meaningful notification" is one I have used in earlier writings (for example, "Visioning or Potemkin Villages?"). While this term hasn't caught on, I haven't seen any suitable alternatives.
Many online issue-oriented discussion groups have recognized the destructive effects of various categories of "bad actors" (trolls, bullies?) and have moved to tighter moderation and regulation. Some have shut down in frustration. Neighborhoods are geographically compact enough that they have the capability to keep these "bad actors" in check. But it requires agreement on what is appropriate and a willingness to follow through. And it requires residents to put civility ahead of "tribalism"?for example, if someone demonizes those that disagree with him, you shouldn't tolerate/defend that conduct because you agree with the offender on that issue.
Even on discussion lists/groups where individual submissions are not moderated, it is valuable to have moderators acting behind the scenes, and occasionally publicly, because participants often forget to honor the wide range of discussion styles, with the more aggressive/abrasive styles driving others away from the group.(foot#11)
"Issue advocacy" encompasses much more than asking City Council to make a particular decision/vote. It can also involve advocating for more attention or priority be given to certain issues or perspectives. For example, it has long been neighborhood associations at the forefront of trying to protect retail (one of Mayor Holman's announced priorities).(foot#12) The neighborhoods that do engage in issue advocacy have varying criteria, such as limitations on categories of issues, how to determine levels of support for positions and thresholds required (often super-majorities). Even when the association itself doesn't take a position on an issue, its "corporate knowledge and experience" can help groups of residents be more effective in presenting their cases and having their perspectives taken more seriously.
Emergency preparedness was a major topic in the comments on the PA Weekly article.(foot#1) Some of the commenters believed that neighborhoods would easily come together in such events. My experiences in one of the hardest hit areas of Hurricane Agnes (1972) were to the contrary. It was a town where most everyone knew each other?it was common for children to grow up within walking distance of at least one set of grandparents. The difference was immediately apparent between groups that were "just neighbors" and those that had experience working as a team: Teenage boys played an outsized role because their groups tended to be geographically concentrated and consequently were trivially assembled into teams where everyone knew how to work together (Self-organized athletics were a big part of our growing up. It not only taught us team-building and leadership skills, but allowed us to sort out who was appropriate for what roles).
Invalid Criticisms of Neighborhood Associations
In discussions of neighborhood associations, it is virtually inevitable that someone will declare opposition to the general concept based upon such-and-such particular neighborhood association not doing enough or doing something they disagree with. This often comes from people who have not displayed the slightest willingness to participate. Recognize that neighborhood associations are groups of volunteers and what they can do is largely dictated by the interests and capabilities of those volunteers. It is invalid to criticize a neighborhood association for not doing something if there aren't the volunteers to do it.
There are also pseudo neighborhood associations where an individual, or small group of individuals, have declared themselves to be representatives of the neighborhood without making any real attempt at outreach. Recognize that this happens only in the absence of any attempt by the residents to have an actual neighborhood association.
A. Terminology: Neighborhood/Residents Association vs. HomeOwners Association (HOA)
As their names are meant to convey, neighborhood/residents associations are for the residents of that neighborhood, be they homeowners or renters. There can be some overlap between neighborhood associations and homeowners associations. Some housing complexes with homeowners associations are large enough, and separate enough, to be treated as neighborhoods and consequently the homeowners association does double duty as the neighborhood association. For smaller complexes, the residents typically see themselves as part of the larger neighborhood.
One way to think about the difference is to recognize that homeowners associations are corporate bodies for condo complexes and similar developments tasked with managing shared assets (common rooms, landscaping, parking facilities?) and consequently are composed of the owners of those tangible assets. The assets that neighborhood associations attempt to manage tend to be intangibles, such as a "sense of community". In Palo Alto, neighborhood associations have no legal standing or legal powers. Whatever power they do have comes from the efforts and credibility of their volunteers and the willingness of neighborhood residents to support the association.
B. DUES and the Neighborhood Association as Venture Capitalist
Membership and dues seem to be an unavoidable part of any discussion on neighborhood associations, partly because there are always people who insist on conflating neighborhood associations with homeowners associations (and government). Palo Alto neighborhood associations have two basic models for defining membership, but for most residents, there is no practical difference. One model has all residents of the neighborhood as automatically members of the association, with dues/contributions being voluntary. This is to avoid causing residents to be reluctant to participate because they haven't paid dues ("aren't members"). The other model is that members are those who explicitly choose to join the association and pay modest dues (typically $5-20 annually), but virtually all activities are open to all residents. My neighborhood's association (Barron Park) is in the latter category and its primary members-only benefit is a hardcopy newsletter (the online version is free).
The terminology of "dues" creates conflicting expectations. It has the positive of encouraging a stronger sense of connection to the association than terms such as "contribution", but it has the negative that it can foster a sense that the resident has paid for a level of services far beyond what could reasonably expected for the amount.
An interesting alternative way to think of the Board (leadership) of a neighborhood association is as a venture capital firm, with dues and contributions as the funds to be invested in worthy neighborhood activities. People with ideas for an activity bring them to that Board, which evaluates the plan, helps them improve it, connects them with others with useful experience and skills? Often some of the members of the association's board join the leadership for the event (similar to a VC sitting on the board of a start-up). If an activity is successful, it can qualify for additional rounds of funding. Some activities are regarded as inherently needing funding from the associations, others are encouraged to become increasingly self-supporting (for example, selling refreshments or selling advertising of neighborhood business on programs for the event).
---- Footnotes ----
1. College Terrace association faces uncertain future, PA Weekly, 2015-02-08.
2. Palo Alto leaders propose neighborhood-liaison program: Council members say communication with residents could improve, PA Weekly, 2015-02-28.
3. One hears lots of positive comments about such meetings. But if one listens carefully, it seems to be a reaction to going from being nearly totally ignored to being simply largely ignored?which admittedly is a decided improvement.
4. For those interested in a "rawer", more contemporaneous version of these thoughts, these are articles relating to my tenure on the Barron Park Association (BPA) Board. I wrote two articles for the BPA Newsletter upon becoming President. The first addressed the general role of the BPA (Community Update, Spring 2002 issue). The second addressed participation by residents in the BPA (President's Message, Summer 2002 issue). These topics were revisited in a profile of me published after my resignation from the Board (Spring 2014 issue, pages 8-12, "Doug Moran and a history of evolution in the BPA"). An explanation of how the BPA interacted with other neighborhood associations was the subject of President's Message of Summer 2003 issue with a minor subsequent "Looking Back" (end of President's Update, Winter 2005).
5. One entry point for these discussions is the 2000 book "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community". You can do web search on the term "bowling alone" (with quotes) to find endless discussion. Or a search for that book on a site such as Amazon.com will also return a list of recommendations of other books on this topic.
6. The little formal research I have seen on this isn't helpful except to validate the problem: The researchers didn't have access to enough teams in enough situations to draw general conclusions. However, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence from those participating in these virtual teams about their experience experimenting to find what helped (and what didn't).
7. There is another interesting sub-community within neighborhoods: People who walk their dogs. They often don't know/remember each other's real names, but refer to them relative to the dog's name ("Fido's mom", "Spot's family/people"). You also see some of this among parents ("Jane's father").
8. "Reliable" is a crucial qualifier to "volunteer" for important events. Unreliable volunteers are a major reason that someone willing to take on a leadership for a repeating event resigns either before or just after the first one. It is not just people who over-estimate the amount of time they will be able to dedicate to the effort (good intentions, poor execution), but the screw-ups, those for whom it seems to be a point of honor to go against the advice of those with more experience? and my "favorite": people who take responsibility for a crucial function despite having plans to be unavailable (vacation?) during critical times. Information such as who is and isn't reliable usually requires a level of social connection and trust between the parties?something that is not created by a few mundane posts on a social networking site.
9. This is a lot of work if it is being done for each neighborhood in isolation. Fortunately, there is a lot of opportunity for sharing and collaboration to make this workload practical (via the Internet). Unfortunately, many of the people who could do this are adverse to this style of interaction.
10. Hyper-partisanship: There are people for whom theirs are the facts and everything else is denounced as biased advocacy. If you try to explain the various perspectives surrounding an issue, they will be upset at the inclusion of perspectives contrary to their own. One can even be attacked for a simple list of links to past PA Weekly articles on a subject should those articles not be favorable to their position.
11. This is an online version of interpersonal distances in face-to-face discussions. When I arrived at college, I was amazed at how many of the kids from Mediterranean cultures (especially those from New York City) were unaware of this concept and were persistently invading other's personal space, failing to pick up on obvious cues that they should take a step back. In online discussions, these cues are often missing: People offended by the conduct of others simply cease participation. In discussions about moderation policy, I find it helpful to pick two extreme stereotypes: a 25-year-old male with an advanced degree in high tech who has recently immigrated from Israel and a retired Scandinavian-American kindergarten teacher who has recently moved here from rural Minnesota to be with her grandchildren. Strong moderation/leadership is needed because there are more than a few whose response to being told of the negative reactions to their style reply "This is who I am. It is up to others to adapt to me."
12. Retail protection: During the Dot-Com bubble, there was the same conversion of first-floor retail spaces to offices that we are seeing today. And the same reluctance by City Hall to enforce zoning and to update zoning in response to the changing situation. Pressure from the neighborhood associations led to a belated moratorium. When the promised follow-up of policy changes failed to materialize, Palo Alto Neighborhoods (an umbrella group of neighborhood associations) organized A Forum on Retail Services in Palo Alto (2003-07-31) that restored attention to the issue. When Bern Beecham became Mayor in 2004, he established an ad hoc Committee on Retail that produced a useful set of priorities and recommendations that mostly died in the bureaucratic "tar pits" after he left office.
Disclosure: I was one of the organizers of that forum and served on the mayor's Retail committee.
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