How volunteers can help prepare a city for crisis — block by block

Cities of Service’s Love Your Block program teams city leaders with citizens to tackle blight and clean up neglected areas.

By Myung J. Lee, Executive Director, Cities of Service

Mayors have to know how to deal with crises. That’s because, whether it’s a large-scale natural disaster or a horrific school shooting, another tragedy seems to hit our communities every day. But the strength of city leaders’ responses to these emergencies isn’t rooted only in their ability to act quickly, compassionately, and decisively. It also depends on their effort to build, nurture, and learn to depend on partnerships with fellow citizens and business leaders.

That’s the focus of Cities of Service’s Love Your Block program, a neighborhood revitalization strategy that teams city leaders with citizens to tackle blight, clean up neglected areas, and create community gathering spaces — block, by block, by block.

And now, thanks to a recent study from the Urban Institute, it’s a strategy that we know is working on multiple fronts — not only cleaning up neighborhoods and building more parks but also building the kind of community cohesion and resiliency that will make all the difference if and when the worst happens.

On the face of it, Love Your Block is pretty simple. City officials use grant funding to support community groups in identifying priority projects and then developing volunteer-fueled solutions. Whether it’s turning vacant lots into community gardens, removing graffiti, or helping elderly neighbors with home repairs, these volunteers are “loving their blocks” and making them — and their cities — better places to live.

But the impacts are much broader than only on the block, as one community leader in Phoenix (one of the three cities Urban Institute examined), explained: “The project was a chance to bring together young and old people…and new and longtime neighbors. It was an opportunity for people to get to know each other, paint a mural, and do work — not just chit chat. And I think that’s a really strong way to come together.”

This effect is compounded by the way the program connects citizens with city leaders. Residents reported that the Love Your Block mini grants that they received from city leaders empowered them in ways they hadn’t previously thought possible. And city leaders said the program helped the mayor’s office build an indispensable “bridge to the communities.”

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At Cities of Service, we’ve seen firsthand how this connection helps in times of crisis. City leaders in Orlando, Fla., activated an existing network of volunteers to respond to the Pulse nightclub shooting. Those in Lansing, Mich., leveraged an existing volunteer network to strengthen the city’s efforts after a recent flood. And in San José, Calif., which was hit by a 100-year flood in 2017, city leaders said their established network of 2,000-plus volunteers put their neighbors back in their homes four weeks earlier than expected.

Meanwhile, city leaders in Austin, Texas, were able to mobilize their volunteers to pack and transport supplies in support of Houstonians after last year’s devastating Hurricane Harvey.

In truth, Love Your Block and programs like it weren’t designed for emergency response. They’re meant to build relationships and networks that can work together to find common-sense solutions to some of communities’ most pressing every-day challenges. But as we see every day, and as the Urban Institute now attests, solving the problems right in front of you can go a long way to preparing you for those that you hope you — or your city — never have to face.

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program. bloombergcities.org

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