How Cities Can Ruin Relationships in Five Steps

by Mar 27, 2019Governance, Society

Myung J. Lee

Myung J. Lee is Executive Director of Cities of Service, a nonprofit that helps mayors build stronger cities by changing the way local government and citizens work together. Learn more at or on Twitter @citiesofservice.

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It’s hard to make a relationship work, but it’s easy to ruin one. Particularly in the early stages before you really trust each other, forget too many birthdays or fail to communicate, things will fall apart in no time at all.

At Cities of Service, we often find ourselves playing the role of dating coach, cultivating budding romances between city governments and citizens in cities across the country. With trust in government at an all-time low all over the world, we have our work cut out for us.

Fortunately, working with a coalition of more than 260 cities to help them engage residents to solve problems, we’ve learned a few things about what makes these relationships work and what can wreck them. When they work, long-term relationships between city leaders and citizens are the foundation for the collaboration that creates strong, vibrant cities.

Here are five common ways that city leaders fall down when building relationships with their residents:


1. Lack of Commitment

Whether it was a business partnership, friendship, or romance, you’ve probably been in a relationship with someone who wasn’t totally invested. And you can almost always tell.

If the mayor or city manager does not actively support programs that engage residents, these initiatives often lack the necessary budget and staff support to succeed.

And citizens know when the city isn’t really committed.

In Gary, Indiana, on the other hand, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is deeply committed to her citizens and everyone knows it.

She regularly mows lawns of overgrown vacant properties herself and meets with residents in their own neighborhoods. Her staff knows that citizen concerns are a priority and acts quickly to address them. Residents know that she appreciates their input and insights. Consequently, Mayor Freeman-Wilson has been recognized around the country for her efforts to revitalize neighborhoods and build community with the people of Gary.


2. Ignoring Problems

In any relationship, it’s tempting to avoid talking about the challenges in your life to keep things pleasant. We’ve all done it. But a surefire way to sabotage any long-term relationship is to ignore your problems.

Citizens and city leaders want many of the same things: reliable city services, safe neighborhoods, resilience to disaster, and more. Without addressing the obstacles preventing the city from reaching these goals, the relationships you’ve formed with residents will wither.

That’s why we advise the cities we work with to choose a public problem – every city has at least one –  that both city leaders and residents are concerned about and focus their efforts on fixing it together.

In Anchorage, Alaska, for example, where about 90% of the city’s food supply arrives through the city’s aging port, developing sources of locally-grown food is important issue to the city and citizens. So when the mayor and AmeriCorps VISTA members, funded and supported with technical assistance by Cities of Service, began to engage residents about tackling this problem, they were eager to get involved. Before long, because of partnerships with residents and the community-based organizations, the city had new community gardens, greenhouses, and a school garden network fostering collaboration and a more resilient city.


3. Lack of Communication

Maybe this has happened to you: your partner or family member starts a home improvement project but doesn’t ask your opinion. Maybe they want to repaint the walls of the living room green or build an addition to the kitchen, but you don’t like green or you feel like you need to remodel the bathroom with the leaky shower first.

This is how city residents feel when city leaders embark on projects without explaining why or consulting them about what they feel is most pressing. If city leaders want to erode trust with citizens, then they should not bother communicating about city priorities and programs.

When city leaders deliberate with residents, however, they can test their assumptions, gain new insight, and prioritize the projects and problems that matter most to the community.

The AmeriCorps VISTA members we send to cities spend many hours attending community meetings, planning special events, and knocking on doors to connect with residents and gather their opinions.

Many of the mayors we work with also do this work themselves. Mayor Steve Williams of Huntington, West Virginia, a finalist for our 2018 Engaged Cities Award, regularly goes on walks to speak with citizens and ask them to identify problems and discuss solutions. Similarly, Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan meets with groups of residents in their homes to discuss their concerns and solve problems on the spot.

This is time consuming work, but it is essential. Just as a romantic relationship cannot be sustained through occasional text messages, city leaders cannot create or sustain relationships without connecting, in person on an ongoing basis, with citizens.


4. Laziness

There are always chores to be done: the bathroom needs to be cleaned, the dishes need to be washed, the closet needs to be reorganized. If nobody gets off the couch to deal with the problem, the chores pile up and create larger problems.

This is the easiest way for city governments to undermine their relationships with residents: Don’t bother to do the work.

With limited budgets and staff, city governments can’t do everything themselves or all at once, but, just as the chores get done more quickly when everyone pitches in, cities can amplify their efforts by collaborating with residents to accomplish their goals.

With our Love Your Block program, for example, cities provide mini-grants and complementary services, such as trash pickup and tools, to aid community groups as they clean up parks, remove graffiti, and engage in other volunteer-fueled revitalization efforts.

Many cities–from San Jose, California to Birmingham, Alabama–are cleaning up waterways, rejuvenating parks, and cleaning up hundreds of thousands of pounds of litter with the help of citizens. These are time consuming efforts that city staff would be unable to do without volunteer help and they are making a tangible impact on neighborhoods and relationships.


5. Forgetting to Celebrate Milestones

It’s a cliché, but it’s also true: forget too many anniversaries and your partner will begin to feel like your relationship and the things you’ve done together don’t really matter.

One more way to ruin long-term relationships with residents: don’t bother to measure the impact they have made together and celebrate the partnership between city government and citizens.

If city leaders want relationships with citizens to thrive, it’s essential to keep track of the results of their efforts. Citizens are busy, but they care about their neighborhoods and about their city. They want to know that the time they spend working together with city staff is changing their city for the better.

There are many ways to measure the real impact residents have had, from pounds of garbage removed to higher home values due to blight reduction.

When community members see that city leaders are invested enough to report back to them and then celebrate their success, they feel more invested and empowered to do more. They are more likely to maintain the public spaces in their neighborhood after the initial cleanup is completed and open to participating in other initiatives with the city.

We’ve seen this time and time again. Through the Love Your Block program in Richmond, California, community members transformed a dilapidated corner market into a community meeting point with a new mural. Afterward, hundreds of residents showed up to celebrate. Their work has led other citizens to create public art in the neighborhood, spurring a public art movement and a renewed sense of community pride.

Other cities like Lansing, Michigan and Boston, Massachusetts celebrate the ongoing volunteer efforts of city residents with annual celebrations. These are stronger cities because their citizens not only show up to help address public problems, but city leaders remind them again and again that their work truly makes a difference.

We know all of this sounds like hard work. And it is. It may be easier to organize one-day volunteer events and town halls, or create fancy websites. And those certainly have their place. But just like any relationship with a family member, a partner, or a friend, the kind of citizen engagement that creates real relationships and leads to stronger communities, powerful networks, and healthier cities, takes time and effort. It’s easy to ruin a relationship, but the work put in to these relationships will pay off, making residents’ lives better and cities stronger.


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  1. What City is in this picture above? Could someone get hold of me and let me know., I am doing a book
    on Sustainable Mega Cities and it could be good for us to link up and collaborate on that topic.
    Look forward to hearing from someone.

    • Google says it’s Indianapolis

  2. 6. Stealing Applause

    Another way cities can ruin relationships is when one person (staff or elected official) is in a hurry to grab attention and applause for themselves.

    Building trust between the city and citizens takes time and commitment. Trust is fragile.

    In Vancouver Canada, from 1993-2006, the City and over 100,000 citizens built strong relationships by together addressing shared challenges. NIMBY became YIMBY.

    In 2006, Vancouver’s Mayor, in an address to the World Urban Forum in Vancouver, announced his program to increase density. Citizens wondered what happened to their neighborhood plans. Residents pushed back and YIMBY once again became NIMBY. While the Mayor was not re-elected the trust between citizens and the city was lost.


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