At the outset of the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge, City leaders proposed tackling this problem with data. Their idea was to collect, analyze, and share the results of a community census through a publicly accessible dashboard, empowering city leaders with localized, actionable data on hotspots of inequality to help deploy health, housing, and other resources where they are most needed.
But as they tested their idea, they learned more about the problem the city was facing – and refined their solution to increase its impact.
In March, just a few weeks into the testing phase, a City commission was set to consider zoning changes aimed at boosting the City's housing supply. As part of the testing process, the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge team, led by Director of Customer Service Becky Jo Glover, built an online data dashboard with maps and visualizations to show where the new policy would give developers a green light to build. They wanted to see if making the data accessible would inspire public participation, so they presented the dashboard back to residents for their feedback.
They were shocked by the impact of the test: Residents responded in large numbers – and used the data to inform their feedback. A standing-room only crowd came out in opposition, some of them citing maps from the data dashboard in their arguments. The good news was that it seemed clear that data could empower citizens. "We'd never had so many people come to talk about a city ordinance before," Glover said. "We knew that people think the City doesn't listen to them, but what we didn't realize was how intense that feeling was."
Glover's team partnered with a local design firm to hold a series of "co-creation sessions" 1 with different stakeholder groups (including neighborhood associations, developers, city planners, and others) to gather input on the substance of the zoning proposals. The team heard first-hand from longtime residents that many felt totally powerless against the forces pushing them out of their neighborhoods.
The process of multiple parties working together to design a new product or service. Co-creation is a way to draw on diverse forms of knowledge and expertise in order to develop better solutions to a defined problem. In the context of the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge, co-creation takes place between City Hall staff, residents, and other community stakeholders.
Building on what they learned in these sessions, the City partnered with a neighborhood association called the Westside Collaborative to develop a shared-ownership housing model. The idea is to give even longtime renters an affordable way to take an equity stake in the community. This would give them the tools to stay put in their neighborhood despite development pressure – and to share in the gains of rising housing prices.
It's a bold idea aimed at changing the economics of gentrification. As Glover sees it, the new plan is proof that Grand Rapids is learning how to use data to work in collaboration with citizens – and harness their expertise to develop more effective ideas.