Boyce Swift, Economic Development Fellow, City of Hamilton, OH
1 March 2016
In the City of Hamilton, Ohio, we believe that our neighborhoods are the building blocks of community development. If we give our residents an avenue for communication and help to build their sense of identity within each neighborhood, we can rally individuals, groups and other organizations to take pride in their particular corner of our city, which can have innumerable benefits. This is the purpose of the 17 Strong Neighborhoods Initiative -- to encourage residents to think about their neighborhood’s future, their role in helping their community improve, and to help city officials better understand residents’ needs and aspirations.
The City of Hamilton’s Sense of Place Committee, established in 2011, is comprised of neighborhood leaders, city council members, and a variety of community stakeholders who collaborate within their communities to develop leadership and assist in executing community projects. The Sense of Place Committee began the 17 Strong Neighborhoods Initiative in 2013, named to represent the 17 unique neighborhoods in Hamilton, Ohio.
17 Strong recognizes 3 types of built environments in Hamilton neighborhoods:
Traditional Neighborhoods: Walkable, densely built pedestrian-scaled city units with public spaces, institutions and commercial spaces weaved within the fabric of the neighborhood. These neighborhoods are also built on a grid pattern and are mostly composed of structures built prior to 1950.
Urban Core Neighborhoods: Encompass characteristics of a Traditional Neighborhood, but differ in the fact that these neighborhoods define Hamilton’s historic and cultural identity, and are Hamilton’s City Center.
Suburban Neighborhoods: Single-use zoned, residential subdivisions that may be without public spaces, institutions, and commercial spaces within the area. These neighborhoods also tend to include land devoted to industrial parks, business parks and “big box” retail stores.
The 17 Strong Neighborhoods Survey
The 17 Strong Neighborhoods Initiative conducted a survey that was sent to every household in the city with their utility bill during the summer of 2015. Additionally, a link to a digital version of the survey was made available on social media and other digital communication vehicles. Respondents could have mailed in their survey, completed it online, or dropped it off at three locations around the city. The purpose of this survey was two-fold: First, to encourage residents to think about their neighborhood’s future and how they can participate. Second, to help city officials better understand residents’ needs and aspirations so that these can be facilitated when and where possible.
The 17 Strong Neighborhoods Survey had both quantitative and qualitative aspects. The quantitative components aimed to determine how the areas fared on the three elements that we think make great neighborhoods… great neighborhoods are safe, clean, and engaged. The perceptions of safety and cleanliness were fairly straightforward as we proposed the statement, “I feel safe in my neighborhood.” And asked them to select among a five-point scale from ‘Strongly Agree’ to ‘Strongly Disagree.’ Engagement is a little tougher to measure. We went forth with the assumption that most people know their immediate next-door neighbor, but not everyone knows those that are two doors down. We posed the question “Do you know your neighbor TWO DOORS down on both sides of your residence?” and provided the choices of ‘Yes,’ ‘Only on one side,’ or ‘No.’ These three questions gave us a great comparative baseline on where the neighborhoods were with respect to safety, cleanliness, and engagement.
The remaining questions were open-ended, which allowed them to address topics that mattered most to them. The qualitative questions in the survey asked residents to: identify their neighborhood, identify whether their neighborhood had a place where neighbors congregate (a “third place”), specify if there was anything that bothered them about their neighborhood, if they missed anything in their neighborhood, if there was anything they thought would improve their neighborhood, and what they perceived to be desirable goals to accomplish in the near future within their neighborhood. There were five broad categories by which we assessed survey responses: Neighborhood Engagement, Private Property Maintenance/Values, Economic Development, Public Infrastructure/Services, and Safety & Tranquility. During the data entry process, entries were distinctively coded to quantify the qualitative evaluation for respondents, assigning a “1” if they addressed a certain concern within the categories and a “0” otherwise.
Over 5% of Hamilton’s 24,600 households responded to the survey. We were very satisfied with the number of respondents, but it should be noted that not every neighborhood was represented equally in the results as participation in the survey varied greatly amongst neighborhoods. The results indicated that the needs and concerns clearly differed between Hamilton neighborhoods, and the City will adapt itself to these results when possible. City Council and City administration will use the results of the 17 Strong Neighborhoods Survey to allocate resources to address the needs and concerns of residents. It is the intent of the City to conduct the 17 Strong Neighborhoods Survey on a 2-3 year schedule to update the unique needs and concerns that exist within our neighborhoods.
Describe the community culture of Hamilton before the idea was implemented?
As a post-industrial, rust-belt community, Hamilton is seeking to combat apathy within itself. We are trying to assess how we orient our service delivery to meet the expectations of our residents, and how we prioritize those services to areas of the city that feel it most important. Not all of Hamilton’s neighborhoods are going to benefit from a uniform approach. Understanding how these neighborhoods differ in their concerns and aspirations is important.
Why was the idea needed?
Hamilton needed a framework for communication and a sense of identity to rally individuals to take pride in their particular corner of Hamilton. 17 Strong provides that. However, in order to grow participation in the 17 Strong initiative, we have to continue to look to provide value.
How did the idea develop? What are the goals? How have they changed?
The idea of the Sense of Place committee and its 17 Strong initiative is to build connections within and between Hamilton neighborhoods. Initially we thought we could just host a public meeting in each neighborhood and identify leaders and sources of pride to use as a platform. Unfortunately, it is not so easy. Getting neighbors to connect with one another to affect the outcomes they desire is a long play. What we are finding is that neighborhoods that have developed solid leadership that brings residents together on a regular basis offers incredible opportunities for more effective communication within and between neighborhoods and with their city government.
How have the ideas helped build more authentic community connections?
The 17 Strong Neighborhood survey allowed residents to express the topics that matter most. When the city is able to deliver on block-level concerns within neighborhoods, we get closer to opening up channels of communication and trust that may not have existed prior.
Any challenges? How did you overcome them?
The time intensive approach to the assessment of such robust qualitative input is a huge undertaking. We developed a guiding document to digest comments uniformly so that many people could input the data.
Any advice for other communities interested in adapting the concept?
Our advice would be to have a team of people prepared to work together on the project. Assign individuals to particular neighborhoods to become an organizational “expert” on that area of your community. Residents will give some incredible insights. It’s important to have dedicated people to digest and interpret the information.
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