In Dinkytown, a neighborhood near the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, a developer is proposing to build a large complex that would include both residential units and street-facing storefronts. It would replace an ugly one-story building and a lot of parking lots. The proposal seemed like such an obvious slam-dunk that the owner of the one-story building ended her tenants’ leases and announced the closing of her own store…and then, in a surprise decision, the city’s zoning and planning committee voting against the rezoning that would be needed for the development to move forward. The full city council could override the committee’s decision, but that’s looking unlikely—the parking lots and ugly building are going to stay.
The committee’s decision was heavily influenced by a vociferous, well-organized “Save Dinkytown” group that’s been campaigning hard to stop the development, saying it would destroy the neighborhood’s trademark “dinky” character. The group seems to have succeeded, which has dumbfounded observers including Slate’s Matthew Yglesias, who has been expounding the Twin Cities’ virtues but now writes, “Minneapolis NIMBYs Threatening What Makes the City Great.” On Facebook, Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition leader Ethan Fawley writes, “Seriously? Do I live in a city? Surface parking lots and 1-story buildings are more in line with City goals for an activity center than a well-designed project to bring hundreds of new residents to the city? I think not.”
Now that the decision has (probably) been made, a wide range of Minneapolis residents are reacting to it. But in the pre-decision debate, whose voices were heard by the city council? The ones that seem to have been heard most loudly are those of the entrenched neighborhood residents on one side, and of the wealthy developer on the other. This decision will affect tens of thousands of students, renters, and locals who regularly visit Dinkytown. Where were their voices?
America is continuing to become more and more urban, as people move from rural and suburban areas into urban cores. Members of Gen Y want more accessibility and diversity in their lives, and they’re okay with having less space and fewer cars—the American dream is, increasingly, looking more urban than suburban. Young people have a huge stake in the future of our cities—and so do new city residents of all ages, including immigrants. If our cities are going to develop in a healthy, inclusive way, we have to expand the conversation about local development beyond the usual suspects.
What are the barriers to participation in the local political process? Well, for starters, there’s an information barrier. I can tell you who I’m supporting for President, governor, and the senate—and why—but I can’t tell you who my city council representative is, who’s running for that seat, and what the issues of dispute are.
Call me lazy if you will, but the fact is that it would take a fair bit of research to get up to speed on my neighborhood politics; whereas national politics are being discussed everywhere, all the time. It’s easy, if only through osmosis, to get a sense of what separates Obama and Romney. Further, like many renters, I move a lot: over the past six years, I’ve lived in five different neighborhoods. How much research am I going to do to acquaint myself with neighborhood politics every time I move?
Access to information should be getting better in the online era, but when it comes to neighborhood issues, in some important ways it’s getting worse. 20 years ago, my neighborhood was more thoroughly covered by the daily Minneapolis newspaper as well as by a neighborhood newspaper—and people read those newspapers, because that was the way they got news. Now, the daily paper covers less neighborhood news than it used to, and the neighborhood paper just shut down for lack of advertising support. The neighborhood paper is moving online, but not very effectively. For-profit enterprises like Patch are struggling; neighborhood listservs can be a valuable tool, but they can also be dominated by exactly the cranky NIMBYs Yglesias is talking about.
The philanthropic sector should step up and fund nonprofit organizations dedicating to informing people, succinctly and accessibly, about local politics. There could be online election guides, with opportunities for residents to up-vote and down-vote candidates a la Reddit, commenting on their reasons for doing so. Twitter feeds could tell you what you need to know about your neighborhood politics, up to the minute—and when you moved, you’d just follow your new neighborhood’s account. The guides could be accessible in multiple languages, with reporting on and representation from immigrant communities.
The tone might be something like Streets.mn, a blog I’ve recently become addicted to because it provides an accessible point of entry for topics related to public infrastructure—an area that sounds deadly boring, but is actually enormously relevant to my life, and yours. For example, do we really need all those ugly newsboxes cluttering sidewalks? Why aren’t there any bus lines running between suburbs, instead of just going from each suburb to downtown? Would we be better off if the government provided our electricity, instead of a private utility doing so? If young people understood the issues underlying those debates, they could have informed positions to communicate to elected representatives.
That brings us to the next step: the structure of civic participation itself. Young people know how to vote—they turned out in pretty good numbers to elect Obama. Why, then, don’t they take the time to make their voices heard about local issues that matter to them—like whether there’s a bike lane on the nearby artery, or whether Buffalo Wild Wings will be allowed to set up shop in the old video store building?
There are barriers to participation in local politics that probably don’t need to be there. Much of local politics revolves around meetings—what if we found the resources to put those meetings online, to post transcripts and live-tweets? What if there was opportunity for real-time online comment? That wouldn’t be free, but think about the rewards that investment might reap in terms of increased participation.
Young people and newcomers know they can participate in local politics, but they sometimes get mixed messages about that. For example, my colleague Sheila Regan recently tried to caucus for the first time, and found the process inaccessible and frustrating. That was true for her, and it was true for the dozen East African immigrants who arrived late and were subject to a debate over whether they should be allowed in. Responses to Sheila’s column about the subject told her to be part of the solution and get involved—but what if she doesn’t have time to be an organizer? What if she just wanted to make her voice heard in the political process? Accessibility should be a base-level priority for our political system.
Of course, not everyone agrees with me about that: there’s a school of thought that says that civic participation should be hard, that you should have to show a photo ID and wait in line and go to city council meetings and take time to educate yourself if you want the privilege of having a voice in our democracy. If that’s how you feel, then just ignore everything above: if you want a local political system that presents serious barriers to participation by people who aren’t the usual suspects (that is, disproportionately wealthy, older, and white), then congratulations, you already have it.