Assessment and Action
By Fred Gillette
When Melanie was on her way to shop for jewelry with a friend one spring evening in Zion, Illinois, one of the most remote ideas from her conscious consideration was neighborhood infrastructure. She had bought a prom dress earlier in the day and now it was time to accessorize. One of the common attributes of incidents that suddenly and radically change our lives is that we seldom see them coming. An abrupt encounter with a pot hole sent their car on a dead-on trajectory into a huge tree. The car was totaled, its front end grotesquely mangled. Melanie and her friend were extremely fortunate to escape serious injury. But a run-in with the results of a poorly maintained street just two minutes from her home sent Melanie and companion hurling toward a close brush with tragedy.
Recently, stories of deteriorating infrastructure have been elevated from mundane technical ponderings to serious concerns about their potential for calamity. At the very least, these issues have caught the attention of ordinary citizens to a greater degree than has been common in the recent past. Even when it is not a matter of you or your loved ones being in harm’s way, the soundness of the physical foundations of our everyday surroundings can still have notable effects upon our quality of life: the over-taxed storm drain that forces us to wade to our car, the cracks and bumps in the streets or sidewalks that make a stroll or bike ride an experience requiring heightened vigilance, long-blown-out street lamps, inadequate capacities of trash collection boxes in the park, poorly marked traffic direction signs. All of these considerations are relevant to the quality of our lives both out in the world at large and in the intimacy of our neighborhood.
Unrepaired sidewalk cracks pose a clear hazard.
There are, however, a number of people and jobs within our society that are focused on getting and keeping infrastructure up to par. Helping these individuals and agencies become alerted to problems and attain more effective solutions can become the job of most any self-appointed citizen or neighbor. Often a neighborhood organization assumes, as one of its responsibilities, such duties. Sometimes the accumulated vigilance and willingness to take action by an individual neighbor can make all the difference. Whatever our basis of action may be or the organizational structure from which we operate, there are a few simple steps to follow that can increase the odds of our neighborhood’s infrastructure getting needed, periodic tune-ups.
The job begins with identifying what it is you want in terms as precise as possible. Many neighborhood organizations have taken it upon themselves to devise a “neighborhood plan”, a detailed, documented vision of neighborhood needs, goals and objectives … often very long-term. These plans sometimes include infrastructure issues, especially as they relate to motoring or pedestrian safety. They can often include recreation facility creation and maintenance. They sometimes also include action plans and identified resources for dealing with particular problems. But even if we or our neighborhood organization are not working from an existing plan, infrastructure goals are among the easiest to formulate. It usually comes down to stating our hopes for achieving and maintaining safety, convenience, comfort and enhancement of community life. As the case will eventually have to be put forth to those who can provide the necessary infrastructure-maintenance services, it is always more effective if these concerns are coming from the efforts of a group of neighbors who have formulated and researched the problem. Furthermore, that group should be able to provide credible assurance that they represent the feelings of a majority of the neighborhood.
Following is a partial list of the kinds of problem areas that many neighborhoods have identified and addressed. It is not intended to be comprehensive, but merely a suggestion of the kinds of things that you might consider for your list.
Street and sidewalk
pavement conditions including street surface markings, curb and gutter maintenance
Signage for cars and pedestrians, to increase safety and provide useful information
Pedestrian considerations such as crosswalk visibility
Utility issues such as utility pole deterioration, wires encountering obstacles, and street lighting
Traffic control, including adequacy of speed and routing controls
Public building maintenance, including aesthetic issues
Park and green space creation and maintenance, including mini-parks or green strips
Public trash receptacles, placement and adequacy of size and servicing schedule
An obscured sign could contribute to a fender bender...or worse.
Poorly designed gutters, as evidenced by the scraped pavement, present motoring hazards.
Next comes the documentation of the current conditions and either stated or implied fixes. You can then put together a check list, grab your camera and hit the streets, literally visiting the sites of problems that have been recorded or brought to your attention. Following is an example of such a check list.
Problem: Define the problem, indicating who is affected by the problem.
Location: List precise location(s) of the noted problem.
Background: Perhaps note what has been done (or neglected) in the past regarding this infrastructure feature.
Fixes: Suggest the kinds of fixes that you believe appropriate. Since, in most cases, this will be presented to specialists, your interests are best served if you express them in general terms, leaving them room to do their jobs, applying their imaginations and expertise to problem solutions. It is almost always a good idea to include preferred time lines.
Contact: Who could be contacted to get further information about this problem? It’s best to include as many contact options as possible, including hours most likely to be available when mentioning phone numbers.
Notes: Include footnote references, where further information is available that can’t be included in the table, for example, an online location of photos of the identified problem areas or notation of the existence of written or recorded testimony of neighbors who have made personal statements about the issue.
Reporting and Action
Now you are ready to proceed with information reporting, disseminating that information and bringing about the desired changes.
The report of your findings may simply be something like the above table, or a similar summary accompanied by supporting information. It is almost always good to provide photo documentation and quotes from a variety of real people who substantiate and support your findings and give a more human tone to the report. The results of a neighborhood survey could also be quite effective. It would probably be good to have a printed report, with an electronic version readily available for emailing. If your neighborhood organization has a web site, the report should also, of course, appear there. If there are neighborhood organizations or newsletters, those would also be logical dissemination media … anything that makes the report as accessible as possible to neighbors. It’s probably best to circulate it to neighbors first, giving them an opportunity to point out any errors or misrepresentations that may have been made inadvertently. Then you are ready for wider distribution.
It’s best to then break out the individual elements of the report, making mini-reports for the agencies or persons most likely able to respond to your concerns. You can usually identify these agencies through your city’s or region’s web site. Most typically, areas of civic authority and responsibility are identified along with contact information.
It should be noted that there are areas of infrastructure maintenance that can be handled without going beyond the resources of a neighborhood. Having participated in creek clean-ups, I can assure you that such highly localized activities can often be carried out with a degree of timeliness that may even surpass that of a city agency. What’s more, there is much to be gained in the satisfaction of working directly with neighbors to better the environment for all. Of course, most of us lack pavement repair equipment or spare utility poles, so the engagement of a well equipped agency of city government is usually both appropriate and desirable.
Since you’ve, hopefully, specified time lines, it is easy to report to the whole neighborhood on the progress toward fixing the problems. Should the larger community seem unresponsive to your appeals for help, this allows an opportunity for neighbors to offer alternate solutions. Sometimes, if you seem to be getting nowhere with your appeals for help, city and local governmental structural issues may need to be addressed. Then you may wish to add the following infrastructure items to your list:
Zoning, as it affects a community’s ability to adequately accommodate particular densities
Public policy, as it affects community members’ abilities to have an impact on infrastructure issues
Representation – those individuals representing the neighborhood’s interests beyond the neighborhood.
As it turns out, most all the agencies that have been established by the larger community to address infrastructure issues came into being because people of good faith and intention saw the potential problems and set in place the best structure they could devise at the time to deal with the needs of the community. If you are able to learn how these agencies function and the best forms of effective communication with them, you will often be rewarded with satisfactory results. Your current city government representatives and their staffs can often give you a quick tutorial in how to most successfully get your needs stated and responded to … how to “speak the language”. There are always people out there who want to give you their best. The trick is first finding them and then learning how to best communicate with them.
Finally, it would be best if your plan includes a way of perpetuating the process. Not only should you have a stated objective to periodically re-assess your neighborhood and involve as many as possible in the process, you would also likely find it quite satisfying to share your experiences with members of other local neighborhoods. Send some other neighborhood organizations a copy of your report … and invite them to share with you their experiences in this area. Who knows, you may not only have a more comfortable trip through your own neighborhood, but you may also be able to more safely journey across town.
Neighborhood Life depends on your financial support.