This spotlight article is part of a short series featuring some of our past Best Urban BMP in the Bay Award (BUBBA) winners. The installment takes us to the City Harrisburg, PA, to highlight Capital Region Water (CRW), a particular role model in community engagement, and look at a few strategies in their recipe for participatory success.
The 21st century finds Capital Region Water (CRW), Harrisburg’s water, wastewater and stormwater authority, faced with the monumental task of addressing it’s aging infrastructure. The practices established in the neighborhood of Summit Terrace, which took second place for the Ultra-urban BMP category this year, were the first in an expansive network of city infrastructure enhancements included in the City Beautiful H2O Program (CBH2O). Spearheaded by CRW, the stormwater improvements in this plan double as community beautification. Apart from the neighborhood’s handsome BMPs, which are seamlessly integrated into the urban residential landscape, the BUBBAs jurors were especially impressed with Capital Region Water’s community engagement process. CRW displays a resourceful and inspired ethos for community-led projects. Rather than using citizen participation to justify decisions made without the community’s involvement, CRW demonstrates what’s possible when time, effort, money and staff are invested in centering the community’s needs and ideas.
Steven Early, CRW’s Community Relations Manager, sees it as his role to be the “face” of CRW, “the person that the community knows they have a connection with”. He educates the community about CRW’s projects and ensures adequate communication with residents. Steve explains that when it comes to engagement, “there is no substitute for making in-person connections”. This means the position requires constant flexibility; it can’t be a nine to five job. Residents may not be able or willing to meet in the office and during business hours, so in order to reach as many people as possible, CRW organizes around the community. Steve encourages having an enthusiastic open door policy, and being open to house-call type meetings with property owners during times that are convenient for them. Steve and his team, along with Community Outreach Specialist Liz Gonzalez, embody the concept of showing rather than telling their commitment, and if that means picking up his phone to talk to constituents in the evening hours, he is happy to do so. He points out, “Sometimes you think of something in the middle of the night watching tv that you didn’t think of in the meeting– give us a call! We’ll come down any time of day, any time of night”.
One of the core engagement strategies Capital Region Water employs is their Community Ambassador Program, which proves to be a highly effective way to not only make the community feel empowered, but give them an active role in the planning process. The program expands the reach of CRW by educating interested neighborhood representatives on stormwater issues and encouraging them to share their knowledge with and gather feedback from their neighbors. Ambassadors toured their local sewer and water facilities, and even took field trips to Lancaster and Philadelphia to see how Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) can beautify communities and improve stormwater management. They act as advocates for their neighborhoods, human links connecting the community to their utility. Steve meets with them monthly to discuss issues and receive feedback. “We try to involve our ambassadors in everything,” he adds, “They’re a huge component in our decision making.”
In the recipe for effective and meaningful engagement, it is essential to address typical barriers to participation, such as language and financial needs, as this is where community engagement often fails. To accommodate diverse work schedules and childcare needs, Claire and Steve recommend attending and holding a variety of meetings at different times of day. As with the block party format, Claire also points out that having activities for children allows their adults to participate, and feel welcome bringing the whole family.
“[Financially] supporting their involvement is important because people can’t show up and make time unless they have the resources to do so”, Claire explains. As a member of the Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange, she expresses support for programs that utilize grants from philanthropic entities to subsidize residents for their participation, compensating them for their time.
It’s also important to ensure that resources and events are accessible to people of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and with different language needs. CRW made sure to provide translation services and hold all-Spanish events as well, to accommodate the large Latin American community in the targeted neighborhoods.
These communities are living examples of GSI seamlessly incorporated into urban residential spaces, with results that allow us to ask the question, “what would it look like if more public works entities took this approach with the communities they serve?”. When asked if he had any advice for municipalities beginning their own work of updating failing infrastructure with community-led GSI, Steve says, “Do your research. Don’t worry about reinventing the wheel”. With many municipalities working towards the same goals, there are so many opportunities to learn from each other, and such fantastic potential in collaboration. Steve expresses a warm interest in sharing ideas and strategies with other organizations. He makes it clear that CRW’s open door policy extends beyond their own constituents, to other public works utilities and organizations at large, remarking, “The best resources we have are each other. We’re always a phone call away, and we have brilliant minds here.”