Erica picks up litter as she walks her dog around the neighborhood. She lives in a duplex a couple of blocks off of Main Street and she always keeps her front flowerbeds maintained. She makes an extra effort to patronize local businesses whenever possible. Erica attends council meetings when contentious issues come up. She volunteers for a couple of area non-profits and can always be counted on to donate to local causes. Erica supports her community and gets so much back from her community in return.
Erica is the ideal citizen because she is civic-minded. She understands the relationship between herself and her community is just like any other relationship. If she aims to get something out of it, she has to put something in. Relationships are always a two-way street, and a person’s relationship with their community is no different. The general population today has a poor relationship with their community, because they don’t even realize it exists, and they certainly don’t contribute any effort to make it better.
Erica wasn’t born into this world civic-minded. She didn’t ache to attend council meetings when the other kids were playing kickball. Her parents didn’t have a particularly strong commitment to the community in which they raised her either- so no one taught her the importance of being a civic-minded citizen. Unfortunately, few parents pass these lessons down today.
About five years ago, while Erica was walking with her son, they had a close call with a car at an intersection a few blocks from their house. This was a route they walked all the time and it scared her immensely. Later in the day, she walked back to the intersection to see if she could sort out what happened.
It didn’t take long for her to spot the problem. The crosswalk paint was faded, the signage was partially obscured and with the intersection being towards the top of a hill, it made it a difficult angle for drivers and pedestrians to spot one another. She realized the crosswalk was poorly designed and needed some attention to make it safe.
Erica knew the issue needed to be addressed, but she wasn’t completely sure what she needed to do. She figured the best place to go was City Hall. She called the main phone number listed on the website and by the third ring, was greeted by someone from the city asking her how they could help. The gentleman answering the phones was courteous, he listened to Erica’s situation and connected her with someone at the Street Department. Her transferred call was picked up promptly and she was asked to explain her concern. Upon doing this, she was told someone would be back in touch with her within the day.
Before 5pm, the head of the Streets Department called Erica and asked her to explain the incident, including any relevant details. Upon gathering all the information about the event and her contact details, he said he would be back in touch with her within the week. Two days later, Erica received a callback and the head of the department. He explained he had been to the site with another Streets Department employee to review her concerns and they found it was warranted. They agreed that the intersection was unsafe and needed to be addressed before an accident occurred.
Over the coming months, the issue worked its way through the various channels and the funds were set aside to upgrade the crosswalk. Within 6 months, the crosswalk was re-striped, and a flashing sign was installed that pedestrians could activate. Erica’s issue was addressed and she felt safe walking with her son again.
Does this sound like fiction to you? If so, then you fully understand why people have a terrible relationship with their community. The idea that a concerned citizen would reach out to their municipal officials and actually have their concern addressed should not seem outlandish. In fact, it should seem quite routine. After all, isn’t it supposed to work that way?
As our story of fiction continues, Erica became a model citizen because her valid concern was treated in return, with concern. She was treated with respect and people followed through on what they told her they were going to do. She was taught a valuable lesson, that her city cares about her as a citizen. Erica’s municipality won her over forever, simply by treating her like a valued customer. Which as a tax-paying resident, she most certainly is.
The goal of every municipality should be to cultivate civic-minded individuals. Cities flourish when people begin to care about them. Municipal leaders must realize that they have a relationship with their residents. Just as a bank has a relationship with its account holders and a grocery store has a relationship with its shoppers, the municipality will do better to try and make this relationship a healthy one. By making the account holder, or shopper, or resident feel valued, they are creating a healthier relationship and a bond.
Cities need to understand that residents are their most valued customers. Tourists will not be picking up trash on the sidewalk for the same reason no one washes a rental car. The national chain lured in by economic development incentives is not interested in attending council meetings are how safe the crosswalks are.
Local government once again must embrace the notion that they have a relationship with residents and one that must be tended to. This relationship will determine whether people take care of their yard or pick up trash on the sidewalk. It will determine whether people will show up to council to speak up for what they believe is best. It determines whether or not they will speak proudly of their city on social media and patronize local businesses. It is up to local government to remind people that they are in a relationship with their community. It is their job to make it a healthy one.
Erica’s story should not be special, or fictional. Nothing extraordinary occurred. She called City Hall with a concern and the concern was addressed. This is what we should expect from every entity we interact with. It could have been the case that her city was not able to fix the crosswalk issue, yet she still would have been a fan as she was treated with respect and concern throughout the process. Erica became civic-minded because her city treated her with civility. They treated her like she was important because as a taxpayer, she is.
Cities need more Ericas. The goal must be to cultivate more civic-minded individuals. Focusing too much on business and tourism has left the most important people, the citizens, out in the cold. Imagine, if a city was 5% Ericas. Yes- just 5%! Civic-minded individuals that understood the importance of the relationship they had with their place. That city would be unstoppable.
We need a real effort from municipal officials to cultivate civic-minded residents. We need cities to take the lead in repairing this damaged relationship. The health of a city is almost entirely dependent upon how residents feel about it. If residents love their town and feel attached to it, that city will have every opportunity to be successful. If residents have a sour relationship with their community, it has nearly no chance to thrive.