Citizens have a multitude of ways that they can get involved in their communities. Technology has created many new ways to help people stay connected with their neighbors and the greater community. Yet, people often feel disconnected from laws and policy decisions that affect them. Governments, especially local governments, don't always have the capacity or the financial resources to address all the economic, social and political needs of their communities.
Nonprofit and charitable organizations usually fill some of the gaps. Where there is still need, we can learn from other citizen engagement examples. Citizens can engage in small or large ways and not even recognize an activity as citizen engagement. Have you ever called 9-1-1 to report witnessing a car accident? Have you ever called your town or village office to report that a traffic light was out, that you had found a large pothole in the road, or that a particular intersection was unsafe? Those are all examples of civic engagement. Citizens have also been known to organize larger civic projects, such as a neighborhood community watch or taking up collections for a family whose house caught on fire.
Civic engagement presents opportunities for communities to address social challenges that are specific to their communities with the goal of transforming them. As private citizens, people have the option to become part of the social fabric of their community or merely be spectators who sit on the sidelines.
Strong Civic Engagement Examples
Examples of civic engagement can be practical solutions that improve safety or enhance educational opportunities. Other projects improve transportation or entice residents and tourists to patronize local businesses. Leisure, recreation and community art projects are also big ways that bring people out into the community for networking and socializing. Here are seven innovative ways that local citizens have pulled together that other municipalities can follow as examples of civic engagement:
- Hike Lake County Challenge. Lake County Forest Preserves in Illinois developed a way for local citizens to stay fit all year long with the Hike Lake County Challenge. Each forest preserve displays the Hike Lake County logo at the trailhead to place hikers on a route where they can enjoy all that nature has to offer. Hikers fill out a travel log for each qualifying hike. Hikers who complete seven hikes during the fall season get a zipper pull or a commemorative shield for their walking stick. Canines can join in the fun and get a commemorative dog tag.
- Memphis Bike Sharing. The city of Memphis acknowledges that some of their poorest communities lack availability of transportation. Explore Bike Share partnered with Advance Memphis to bring 600 bicycles to over 60 bike-docking stations. Local citizens offered to help. The project required $3 million in fundraising and took three years to complete. Completion of the project will give hundreds of residents an affordable way to get to work and to run errands.
- Colorful Crosswalks. Several cities have caught on to the advantages of having bold, colorful crosswalks. They're easier for motorists to see and safer and more delightful for pedestrians to use. Seattle and Santa Monica provide good examples of colorful crosswalks. Several other communities used the same concept to show support for the LGBT community, including Atlanta, West Hollywood and Long Beach.
- The Murals of La Jolla. While many communities enjoy having art and it tends to bring tourists into the community, the bureaucracy in getting an art project approved for placement on municipal property can be daunting, if not impossible, to navigate. Citizens in La Jolla, California, developed a workaround for the red tape. They formed the La Jolla Community Foundation, which joined area mural artists with private funders to install murals around the city. People can enjoy the fruits of their labor around the clock. Each mural is on display for two years.
- If murals are eye-catching during the day, they can be even more attention-grabbing at night, as two innovative Philadelphia artists discovered. The pair pitched a proposal to the Knight Foundation to 'fight crime with art.' They won and partnered with the Mural Arts program to create a neon mural. The mural brightens up a dangerous South Philadelphia block in the most attractive way. The mural draws out photographers and tourists at night, and the presence of people helps to deter crime.
- Swing Sets for Adults. The city of Montréal devised a playful solution to provide adults with an outlet for stress. The project is called 21 Swings or 21 Balançoires in French. The installation consists of 21 swings that produce varying tones by themselves or in conjunction with others when someone sits on the swing and sets it in motion. The swings are fun, relaxing and interactive. This civic engagement project sends the message that we can do more together than we can separately.
- Strong Starts for Children. Educational advocates in New Mexico were concerned about poverty and isolation and the effect on child education and development. In 2010, a national organization called Everyday Democracy partnered with several local civic organizations to launch Strong Starts for Children. Advocates worked with parents and other concerned citizens in Albuquerque and Sante Fe to reach common ground about the type of environment that helps children learn and develop. The group evaluated their resources and proposed solutions accordingly. This is one of the civic engagement examples that ultimately became a driving force for the Early Childhood Care and Education Act.
Civic engagement examples from all around the country clearly demonstrate that where there is a need, citizens can start programs on their own or partner with other organizations to bring creative, innovative programs to life. Citizens who are passionate about a need provide a starting point to get others in the community excited about a project and willing to help. iCompass' Transparency Portal provides an online space where citizens can actively engage with their local governments to collaborate directly on a project or help to get the word out about what they want to accomplish and what they need to get it done.
The seven civic engagement examples listed here are merely a small sampling of ideas that will inspire and empower large and small communities alike to voice their ideas and to collaborate with others to transform and improve their communities for the better.