Improving a neighbourhood together with residents: how do you make this happen?
As a municipality, how do you increase neighbourhoods’ livability in conjunction with people who live and work there? The municipality of The Hague wanted to benefit from the experiences of residents and professionals when it came to area-specific approaches. What is the impact on residents, how do municipality and residents collaborate, what is going well, and what can be improved? The Hague University of Applied Sciences, Platform31, and Movisie conducted research on this. In this article, we offer three insights on working in neighbourhoods that are relevant for every municipality. We will illustrate with three casus.
1. Be open to diverse perspectives on the issue
Residents are bothered by their grey, stone neighbourhood. They want more greenery. This was their number one priority in the neighbourhood improvement plan. They developed the plan in collaboration with the municipality, With results: an additional flower bed. Subsequently, other residents speak up: “Why did our bench have to make way for green? This was an important spot for us!”
A good starting point is to ask, what would you like to leave as-is, and what do you want to improve? Residents have different perspectives on what “the problem” is in their neighbourhood. Litter, feeling unsafe in the streets, not enough parking spots, or just too many, Interests often clash: what some consider an improvement can be a decline in the eyes of others. An example is increased police presence in the neighbourhood. Some residents are pleased with this, as they feel safer. Meanwhile, young people feel there’s no place for them in the neighbourhood. In their experience, when they’re standing around in a group, others consider this a nuisance.
Therefore, it is important to solicit opinions from various sources in beginning, to balance interests, and to thoroughly justify why certain things will, or will not be done.
2. Let residents decide on their own whether and how they wish to participate
A few years ago, the municipality spoke with residents of a neighbourhood about plans for the future. Since then, a new approach for this neighbourhood has been mapped out. In this case as well, part of the approach is drawing up a perspective for the near future. To avoid bothering residents again, the municipality has not asked them for input this time. City officials will be using the information that was gathered earlier to prepare a plan. Residents feel they haven’t been heard, and don’t see their own ideas reflected.
Sometimes, officials assume that residents aren’t interested, or tired of being asked to participate. Therefore, they aren’t asked from the outset. Our research shows that it’s better to ask residents one time too many than not often enough. Don’t just ask them whether they want to participate, but also how. A neighbourhood meeting where you end up debating others is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s not just a matter of wanting to participate, but also of being able to participate. For this reason, it’s important to offer different means of participation. Ensure that participating is fun, and a valuable experience. As part of our research, we organized a group chat with pizza night together with a youth worker. This enabled young people to enjoy a meal and give their opinion on various statements.
Subsequently, avoid that participation by residents becomes a “black box” - a process where it is unclear what is going on within the municipal authority. Explain the process, and provide regular feedback. If there’s no decision yet what will be done with residents’ suggestions, explain why. Nothing is as demoralizing as sharing your experiences and never hearing back.
3. Continuity is key
The district manager in a neighbourhood is widely praised. She works for the municipality and is a key liaison between residents, professionals, and the municipality. She is aligned with residents and their preferences and ideas, and sets up a meeting point with them for the neighbourhood. Stakeholders in the neighbourhood see quite a bit of turnover in the municipal offices. This concerns them. “Why don’t you hold on to your dedicated employees a bit longer,” says one of them.
Continuity is an important factor, as the success of a neighbourhood plan of approach often depends on people. As Radboud Engbersen and colleagues concluded earlier: it’s about the secret of long-term relationships. Whenever there are changes in district managers, community workers, youth workers, and neighbourhood police, an orderly transition is crucial. Not just for insight in the current approach, but also approaches tried in the past. Residents have broad knowledge of their neighbourhood, while civil servants and professionals tend to be transient. Appreciate and benefit from this knowledge, and align yourself with what they’re passionate about.
A comprehensive vision on past, present, and future can’t be restricted to a neighbourhood; it needs to encompass the municipality. It helps if the municipality determines how they look at working on neighbourhoods, and what its own position within it is. What kind of municipality do we want to be, and what does this require of us? To this end, Platform31 developed a sliding exercise to coordinate a neighbourhood-focused approach for municipalities.
So: close to daily life
Applying these three insights requires knowledge of how different groups of residents use and perceive their environment. Often, data are available at neighbourhood and area level, but residents don’t think in terms of geographical divisions. For them, their immediate environment ― street, building, or square ― is what matters. They see litter in front of their door when they want to park their bikes, or a sidewalk with cracks when they go shopping with their stroller. Stats in a quality-of-life barometer need to be calibrated through a form of “streetwise monitoring:” periodically gathering information that reflects daily life for residents and professionals. in our research, we present various proposals on how municipalities can carry this out in collaboration with stakeholders.
About the research
In our research, we focus on two area-specific programs in The Hague: Priority Area Approach and Neighbourhood Agendas The purpose of these programs is to increase the quality of life of neighbourhoods and areas. In our report, we list 12 lessons learned, from which we share three in this article. The municipality of The Hague is using the insights and recommendations to further develop the two programs.
You can download the report here: Van Bochove, M., I. Abaaziz, J. Dermaux, R. Engbersen, F. Lustenhouwer, K. Rusinovic, S. Verweij & M. Wassenaar (2022) Municipal approach priority areas and Neighbourhood Agendas Lessons Learned and recommendations for qualitative monitoring. The Hague: The Hague University of Applied Sciences, Platform31 & Movisie