By Hannah Gary
Many cities struggle to meaningfully and effectively engage their residents in planning and decision making. Although Brooklyn Park is far ahead of some of its peer cities in this regard, the growing diversity of the community is forcing staff to rethink public outreach and engagement for the twenty-first century.
To help the City brainstorm strategies and tools for better outreach, RCP enlisted four teams of graduate students in Dr. Kathy Quick’s “Civic Participation in Public Affairs” course in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The students analyzed the challenges and opportunities for more effective public engagement related to four community initiatives: the City's upcoming comprehensive planning process; outreach to residents in rental homes; civic involvement of residents aged 50 and older; and a master planning process for the Eidem Farmstead.
“Community engagement for Brooklyn Park right now is going to be kind of the underpinning of everything we do,” explained Pat Busch, program supervisor for the Brooklyn Park Recreation and Parks Department and staff lead for the Eidem Farmstead and senior engagement projects. “We need to understand other people. And we don’t know the answers. So until we reach out, and really take the time to build relationships and understanding, I don’t know that we can go forward with business as usual.”
Every 10 years, cities in the seven-county metropolitan area are required by state statute to update their comprehensive plans, which establish a vision and goals for community development over the next 20 years. Brooklyn Park is just beginning this process, and staff want to include more resident input about the city's future in that process. The comprehensive plan update coincides with a city strategic planning effort called Brooklyn Park 2025. To engage residents in that process, Brooklyn Park staff held a series of cafe-style engagement events, and encouraged residents to voice their input through an online platform. Through these outreach initiatives, the City hoped to discover broad themes to lay the groundwork for the comprehensive plan.
However, staff have been challenged by how best to incorporate resident input into the upcoming comp planning process. This is where Quick’s students come in. After assessing Brooklyn Park's current outreach efforts, the team of Robin Brooksbank, Kevin Karner, Alex Kleppin, Shengnan Lou, and Eric King provided the City with tools and recommendations to increase participation from business owners, encourage more creative and long-term visioning, and help prevent burnout among residents from ongoing engagement efforts.
“Recognizing that there is no silver bullet to capture diversity in public engagement, we recommended Brooklyn Park create a [Public Action Committee] that would serve as a standing committee throughout the comprehensive plan outreach process,” explained Kleppin, a master of urban and regional planning student. “The committee would be made up of members of the community that Brooklyn Park hoped to reach—local business owners, millennials, renters, people of color, immigrants... These parties could give staff meaningful insight and feedback on current and future outreach efforts, recognizing from their own lived experience and local knowledge what methods might work best.”
Because residents who rent an apartment or house tend to be more transient and harder to reach through traditional communication channels than residents who own their homes, renters are often left out of engagement efforts and are disconnected from civic life in the city. Brooklyn Park has encountered obstacles in reaching renters and disseminating information to them, and was interested in fresh ideas for how to better connect with renters, invite their participation in planning the future of the city, and deliver timely information about community services and events.
“Brooklyn Park decided to focus on renters for this RCP project because renters comprise a significant portion of the city’s population, and yet this demographic group has been relatively less engaged and less connected to community resources, issues, and opportunities for active involvement,” noted Lidiya Girma, neighborhood relations specialist for the City of Brooklyn Park and staff lead for this project. “As a City, we have a direct interest in making sure that all of our community members have equitable access to information and essential resources, and are empowered to actively participate in improving the quality of life in their neighborhoods.”
A trio of students in Quick's class examined barriers to renter participation and information dissemination, and suggested creative ways for Brooklyn Park to overcome those obstacles. The students discovered that trust in the political system and language barriers were two of the most significant factors keeping many renters from participating in City activities.
For Brooklyn Park, one of the most interesting findings from the project was the students’ discovery that many of the printed mailings that are sent to residents never make it into renters’ mailboxes in the city's many apartment complexes. These materials usually arrive as bulk mail and must be distributed by the complex’s management, who don't have direct access to mailboxes. Often the flyers, postcards, or newsletter simply end up in the trash.
Engaging Senior Residents
Another segment of the population Brooklyn Park staff have focused on reaching out to is senior residents and those over the age of 50. To jump-start the process, the city established an Aging Task Force that met over several years and provided the city council and staff with numerous recommendations for how to better meet the needs of aging residents in the community.
Pat Busch, who works with seniors in her capacity as recreation and parks program supervisor, noted that the aging baby boomer generation is more educated and has more leadership experience than any previous generation. However, now that the Aging Task Force has been sunsetted, keeping task force participants and other seniors involved going forward is proving to be a challenge.
Two master of urban and regional planning students, Jacquelyn Kramer and Joe Lampe, worked on developing a strategy to keep older residents engaged in civic life. Through their research, the students discovered that the City did not have a way to track or maintain contact with senior groups in Brooklyn Park or with seniors who had previously participated in city government in some capacity. To provide more avenues for engagement, Kramer and Lampe recommended that Brooklyn Park develop a database of senior groups and where they meet.
Addressing the needs of an aging population is critical for cities as they plan for the future. “Most cities in the United States are facing changing demographics, including aging populations,” said Kramer. “This will have huge implications for city policy and budget setting, as aging baby boomers require different public services. I believe direct citizen participation will be crucial in updating city policies to meet these changing needs.” Through this project, Lampe learned more about the nuances of public engagement. “It has become more clear to me how important it is and how in-depth you can get,” Lampe said about his experience.
The team of Kevin Priestly, Ben Pflughoeft, Sarah Arnold, and Robbie Latta focused on the historical roots of Brooklyn Park through a project focused on developing engagement strategies for the city's historic Eidem Homestead and Farm. Dating from the 1890–1910 time period, the homestead and farm were once the site of a thriving potato-growing operation, at a time when Brooklyn Park was the top potato-producer in the nation.
Today, the property (including the original house, and several barns and outbuildings) has been restored to its historical period and hosts seasonal and family events, school field trips, and one of the city's community garden plots. This summer, Brooklyn Park Recreation and Parks Department staff will launch a master planning process for Eidem Farm, a process in which they would like to engage residents to help develop a framework for the future of the farmstead.
Given the growing diversity of the community, making Eidem Farm relevant for residents who are recent immigrants to the United States and unfamiliar with the city's agricultural history is a particular challenge. As the project lead for both the senior engagement and Eidem Farm projects, Busch views the two endeavors as similar. Both projects are ultimately about learning from different generations and cultural perspectives.
The opportunity to interact with another generation through the RCP partnership was very valuable for Busch. “I loved working with [the students]. It truly was rewarding for me,” Busch commented. “It was such great value to be able to connect with the young people who are starting out in their careers. Because understanding [this generation’s perspectives], to me, is just so beneficial, that even if we never got any more out of this, that would be enough.”
Final reports for all four projects can be found on the RCP–Brooklyn Park projects page.
Hannah Gary is a dual-degree graduate student in the University of Minnesota's Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Master of Public Health program in the School of Public Health.