Where do residents learn about their community? Furthermore, where do residents go to become informed about local issues AND take action?
I moved to Redwood City last July. As a new-ish resident, I think a lot about the above questions, particularly because of CATA. I launched CATA with the Redwood City Parks and Arts Foundation last January to raise awareness of community issues using street art.
Our first phase of CATA involved understanding the scope of local issues. Thus, I embarked upon a journey of learning about Redwood City, the challenges we face, and how I can make a difference.
Information about Redwood City is not hard to find. The city maintains a great website with details about public services, this year’s strategic plan and community events. The city even has a robust public GIS site to find specific information about your parcel/building. Through numerous Google searches, white paper PDFs and some GIS perusing, we were able to piece together research summaries on a few Redwood City challenges for the CATA site.
It was hard to find dialogue around community issues and how residents were taking action.
Granted, at 75,000 residents Redwood City is not huge. It’s not surprising that forums of dialogue aren’t as visible or plentiful as in larger, denser cities such as San Francisco. Perhaps Redwood City is better understood in the context of the Bay Area, where professionals commute between cities for work and residents frequently move between contiguous towns.
Still, where do the 75,000 Redwood City residents go to talk about community, whether within Redwood City or the Bay Area at large? And where do they go to move beyond conversation and begin contributing to public projects? With the influx of millennials to the Bay Area for high-paying tech jobs, I find it imperative that obvious forums exist for new residents to engage at a local level.
I’ve found some virtual spaces that seem promising. Redwood City Residents Say: “What?” is a Facebook group where “residents can say what they think and what they feel about the experience of living here.” With 2,600 members, the group’s posts vary greatly in subject matter. My general opinion is that the group serves as an unmoderated safe space for complaints and frustration — valuable, but mostly a pressure valve for localized discontent.
Nextdoor is a popular social network specifically for neighborhoods. My particular neighborhood thread consists mostly of free and for-sale posts. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see the City of Redwood City actively posting in Nextdoor about events and upcoming public meetings.
It was through one such Nextdoor post that I discovered Redwood City’s Medium account. Their most recent Medium post included updates on the city’s social media progress, summaries of community engagement opportunities and suggestions on how residents could offer input to the upcoming fiscal budget approval.
I’m impressed with Redwood City’s Medium blog. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to have much social interaction in terms of likes or shares, but it was only launched a few months ago. Local government isn’t a very flashy or viral subject, so I’ll give it some time before casting judgment.
So in terms of organic community engagement, it seems that Facebook and Nextdoor dominate. Yet posts in these sites are seldom strung together into cohesive conversations, much less operationalized into fruitful projects. I wonder how we can integrate the city outreach through Medium with online forums like Nextdoor to promote action and, ultimately, higher civic engagement.
OpenSMC is one example of an informal local group working towards facilitating community action. A new Meetup/Code-for-America group focused on open data, OpenSMC is developing web applications for improved government transparency and accountability.
What I love most about OpenSMC is that it serves as a group for residents to come together to create around local issues. Yet OpenSMC, like many groups within the Bay Area, is almost narrowly dedicated to creation — not utilization. The ideology of innovation in the Bay Area creates the impression that when you create spaces for conversation and design the right tools, people are empowered to take action.
I see the empowerment; I don’t always see the action. I still sense a gap, a need for better ways for individuals to become informed, find the right tools and act.
The City of Redwood City has volunteer committees for this latter purpose, but from my experience they are seldomly structured to support the asynchronous contributions and independent agency that attract millennials and the new tech-savvy populace of the Bay Area.
While I don’t believe the solution is purely a virtual one, I envision an open source platform where individuals can see the needs of the community and immediately “join a project” to offer their expertise. Like Craigslist meets Meetup meets City Government, this solution could help both new and old residents learn about pressing local issues and immediately work towards their resolution.
Maybe I’m just dreaming of a more dynamic local government website. I acknowledge that often virtual solutions exclude populations like non-English speakers, the non-tech-savvy, and some disabled groups, but perhaps in conjunction with existing public spaces like community centers and government committees, my dream platform could promote more robust campaigns of community action. Even better, it could help us create a stronger culture of civic engagement, hopefully for even the most transient of Bay Area millennials — like myself.
Photo credit: throgers.