How to Energize Residents in Neighborhood Activities

Last night I attended the city sponsored “Strategic Plan Focus Group Meeting” at the University of Maryland. Typically, in theses meetings, the City asks the residents a bunch of questions on various  neighborhood issues such as traffic, neighborhood, environment, economic development etc. The City wants to know what the residents want to see happening in the city in these areas in the next 3 years or so.

I personally like this kind of civic engagements from the city,even though I know some may feel skeptical about the ultimate implementation of such wish lists from our residents. At the minimum such community meetings can do, is to keep our citizens’ ‘hope’ alive – this is at least better than doing nothing at all.

There seem to be some renewed interests among the residents on this topic of “energizing the community” thing. In the past NCPCA candidate’s forum, candidates were asked the same question on how to energize residents in community activities. Kudos to John, our NCPCA VP / moderator for crafting such a smart question.

In my opinion, there are a few things we can do to get residents more involved and energized in community activities.

(1) The first first idea that comes to my mind is to make our neighborhood association stronger. It’s a pity that we have some 5000 residents living in our district, yet we only have some 100 paid members. Being the Secretary of NCPCA, I tried to get many involved in the asociation, and from that I know personal contacts do help. The key thing is to make the residents understand the benefits of getting involved in such activities. Members at the monthly meeting not only get a chance to meet each other, but also they get chances to voice their opinions in various important matters.

(2) Neighborhood watch program can be another vehicle that can keep the residents stay connected and energized. Programs such as these make residents feel safer and comfortable about their neighborhood and the fellow residents.

(3) Neighborhood events such as neighborhood cleanup, snow shoveling program, traffic awareness program, tree planting event can also be great ways to energize the residents. For the past several years, I’ve been intimately involved in such activities and I know the residents find such activities rewarding and uplifting.

(4) The city and the  neighborhood associations can probably introduce recognition program for the residents to get them energized. I know many work selfishly to make the neighborhood a better place to live, at the end it’s the responsibility of the community at large to recognize their efforts.

Bridging the Gap Between the UM Students and the Residents

It’s a no secret that there is a certain degree of mistrust between the University of Maryland students living in the neighborhood and other residents – homeowner included.

UMLogoWhile campaigning, I’ve seen some neighbors expressing this concern that the UMD students living in the community may be the cause of not-so-quiet nature of the neighborhood. I’ve met at least a few residents, who went as far as saying students love to party all night in the weekends – and something needs to be done about that.

Other residents aren’t so concerned. Some even acknowledge that “we live in a university town – so some student activities in the neighborhood are probably expected and thus acceptable”.

Students living in the neighborhood have their own concerns too. Their main concerns include a hostile attitude from the residents – the one I’ve just described above. They also think the city should do more for a better rent control – to keep their monthly rental payment low.

On the topic of rents, residents even have their own gripes over their fellow residents. The other day I met a resident who said to me: “the city should make it compulsory for landlords to hire landscaping companies when they rent their houses to students and others. The landlords don’t live in the neighborhood and have no ideas on how their houses are being kept. They only care about the rent checks”. This resident was referring to the abysmal condition of lawns with grasses growing too big – inviting bugs and mosquitoes to the neighborhood.

Years ago, I used to live in a university town, just like ours. The university I went to was another UM – the University of Manchester, UK, where I did my graduate studies. Having lived in a university town for many years, I’ve seen and experienced the kind of atmosphere and culture, we’re currently experiencing here in our neighborhood.

I think the root cause of such concerns from both sides lie in the fact that the students and residents in the neighbors live too far apart; even though they may be next door neighbors. These two groups need to come closer – a lot closer. They need to start talking more to find common solutions that concern them both.

The concerns I just described have nothing to do with the nature of any particular group. The issues such as rent control, noise control, landscaping are very much governed by the city code – these codes don’t discriminate against a particular group – UM students in this case.

The first start to break this relational ice can be the formation of a focus group, with members taken from both sides – students and residents. The members of this focus group can identify the concerns they have – and the city can certainly play a role to mediate such forums and help find solutions.

The UM students living in our neighborhood can be positive forces in building our community. They’ve energies and have the innovative ideas on how to make our neighborhood a better place to live. After all, before they moved to our neighborhood as students, they grew up and lived in another neighborhood, most likely, very similar to ours.

Our students can thus be the partner in our community development – and not necessarily the target of our problems. But to make that happen, we must break the existing barriers between them and our residents.

Public Safety – Without a Tax Hike

Public safety is still a big issue for our residents.

One in four of our residents still think that our city is not a safe place to live. Though there is slight drop in the county wide crime count, I’d assume that the public safety is still a huge concern among many of the residents.

While campaigning yesterday, I met a neighbor (name and location withheld), who was assaulted twice in front of her own house over the past two years  – the most recent one happening this summer. She also accuses the suspect with attempted rape.

Two days ago, I met another neighbor, living near the Route 1. This neighbor and others living in the area complained to me about frequent, very high noise from 3 hotels,  late in the night. This they think because of gangs fighting each other. They also complained to me that gang members and prostitutes chased by the police often enter the neighborhood. Residents living adjacent to the area feel extremely uncomfortable for being possible suspects in these incidents.

I live in the east Hollywood area of the North College Park. The Greenbelt metro is not very far off from my house. There have been quite a few incidents on assault on my neighbors coming from the metro after dark – none of my neighbors feel safe walking in the neighborhood after dark.

To address the public safety, our city mainly depends on the contract police. The city currently has 3 full time and 3 part time contract police. We pay them 1 million dollar per year from our tax dollars.

Speaking with the neighbors, I’ve this feeling that more should be done in the area of public safety in our area.

First and foremost, I think we should strengthen our neighborhood watch program. Community policing programs such as this not only improve public safety, but this also brings neighbors together, increasing the trust and confidence among the neighbors. More importantly, programs such as this are inexpensive, especially when we cannot afford to raise our tax dollars in this hard economic time. Our neighborhood Watch coordinator Kim Lugo, I think is trying to do her best, but she is one person, she needs a lot of help from the community. Kim and I met and talked last week on how to have more block captains in the entire neighborhood.

Speaking of the police presence in the neighborhood, I think we need to go beyond the contract policing program. The neighbor I spoke about first, called the police after she was assaulted. The contract police did come but 40 minutes after the assault happened. By this time, she could be dead.

Contract police may be the best program for the time being, but I think it’s about time to have long term goal of having our own police department. If many other small cities in the country have their own police force, why cannot we have our own? Many residents I spoke to, think having our own police will make them feel safer. There is a big difference in seeing two police cars, one with and and the other without the name of our city on them – there is certainly a psychological component in it.

Financing our own police force can be a challenging one. One thing I’m definitely opposed to, from the beginning – this shouldn’t happen at the expense of a tax hike from our residents. If I can remember correctly, we need about 3 million to start our own police force – remember we’re already spending 1 million for the contract policing program. The additional fund can come from other sources, such as the local and state grants. I’m sure the local businesses will have a vested interest in raising funds too. Once we have our own police force, members of our police department will generate additional revenues by contracting themselves out to other local events. We can also start a national online campaign to generate addition funds to help start our own police force; this will certainly set an example on the national front in starting community based policing.

I know these are all preliminary thoughts. There must be more comprehensive studies. We can do our own studies, and certainly need to take a look at the policing program in our neighboring cities, such as Greenbelt and Laurel, along with other similar studies done in other small cities in the country. It may take several years, but if we do not start now, it will never happen in future.

It's Tough, But Hey, It's Fun

Campaigning is surely a tough thing to do!!

Think about this. You got to reach some 3500 residents in the neighborhood, knock their doors, spend time in talking to them on the issues that matter them the most. Then there are other issues you ought to take care of – posting lawn signs, giving interviews to the local papers.

Getting in touch with the neighbors can be a challenging job. If you knock some 100 doors, you’ll most likely get only 10 neighbors talking, depending on what time of the day you knock the doors. You’ll be luckier if you try over the weekends, but forget to get anyone talking to you if you try to knock before 5pm on the good days. The good thing is, like everybody else on the council, I’ve a full time day job to worry about, so I don’t worry my missing productivity during the day on this front.

Sure my choice of word ‘challenging’ may translate into ‘frustrating’ to many of you, but hey look at the bright side of this.

Through this campaign, I had this opportunity to meet so many of my neighbors, who I never met before. Sure, many of them I met at the NCPCA and the city/county meetings, but didn’t quite know where they actually live.

Then there comes the discussion part. As part of the campaign, I’ve had my own ideas on the neighborhood issues, have done quite a bit of studies on them, have read numerous newspaper and online articles and commentaries, but never had this opportunity to listen to the unique perspective of these issues from the neighbors. I think that is awesome.

The bottom line? Knocking doors may seem to be a painful thing to do, but surely it’s a rewarding job – its fun.

A Blog About This Blog

After much thought, I decided to start this blog!!

But before I go into the hardcore neighborhood issues, I thought, I should write a little on the content of the blogs I’ll be posting in the coming days and weeks.

This blog will entirely be on the neighborhood I live – the North College Park.

I think it should be fair to say that I’ve this passion to make our neighborhood better place to live. Those of you who know me, either by personal contacts, or through the NCPCA activities,   already know what I’m talking about.

You’ll find me discussing many issues that matter us most in the neighborhood – issues such as public safety, Route 1 sector plan development, school overcrowding at the Hollywood Elementary, rent / noise control, business development, foreclosures and many others.

I’ll really appreciate if you can all please have your ideas known to me. Your issues may include those you might not see me covering in this blogosphere. The idea is to have an interactive and open discussion among us.

Please stay tuned!!