Brenton Holmes of the Australian Parliament’s Politics and Public Administration Section wrote in his seminal paper “Citizens’ Engagement in Policymaking and the Design of Public Services” that the citizen should be “at the centre of policymakers’ considerations, not just as target, but also as agent.” When discussing communities’ roles in determining and implementing appropriate courses of action for the transformation of their immediate surroundings, as in the case of the southeastern neighborhoods of Chicago and the proposed bike park slated for construction atop post-industrial Park No. 564 (colloquially known as Big Marsh), few words ring truer. Among all interested parties—land developers, environmental groups, government agencies, consultancy firms, and activity- or advocacy-centered organizations included—the people residing closest to the scope of a policy will not only experience the brunt of that policy’s impacts but also live with those impacts’ consequences (good and bad) on a daily basis. It stands to reason then that, of all the partnerships and coalitions organized around effecting sound, change-driven policy, the participatory engagement of communities, is perhaps the most essential.
Community input serves as a primary baseline of context about an area; through the historical, sociocultural, econo-political, environmental, and demographic background it provides, it informs relevant stakeholders about effectual and ineffectual means to an end and drives discussion about what that end can, cannot, should, and should not be. It establishes necessary precedents which in turn shape guiding principles, paradigms, and frameworks, and it ultimately builds the enthusiasm and trust necessary for the achievement and sustenance of any policy goal. In short, it puts the public in public policy—an ostensibly intuitive consideration, but one that is too often dismissed or neglected. After all, no policy, however distinguished, can succeed without the support and catalytic involvement of its constituent population(s); the most meticulously planned meat market in a hamlet of vegans would flop comically because it does not respond to the needs and preferences of its audience or take its audience’s concerns and priorities into consideration. At the end of the day, it takes a village to make a change.
The 2016 Calumet Quarter’s April 26 meeting with Eve Pytel of the Delta Institute, a Chicago-based think tank focused on supporting environmentally sustainable and economically sensible development through interdisciplinary analyses and stakeholder mobilization, provided an enlightening glimpse into the world of community-centric policymaking. Coalescing around a “triple bottom line” of operating “on the terms and for the improvement of the current inhabitants, want(ing) the best for the Great Lakes Region, and avoiding the helper/helpee dynamic,” the Delta Institute interfaces with partners of myriad natures on a variety of projects aimed at transforming the physical and attitudinal landscapes of contemporary green spaces in the urban Midwest. Delta’s current big initiative, the aforementioned Big Marsh bike park, has been a work in progress for several years in the making. Since its inception, the concept of galvanizing Chicago’s Southeast Side and connecting it to the rest of the city via eco-recreation has mushroomed into a tangled web of public- and private-sector groups with multiple—sometimes competing—interests, disparate roles, and a wide range of accessible capital. Such an intricate configuration of players, both big and small, sets up an ideal case study for evaluating the mechanics and issues associated with designing and implementing macroscopic agendas across all scales. The inherent tensions between grand visions and limited infrastructural capabilities (determined largely by budgetary constraints), capitalist tendencies to profit off available land and preservationist resistance to ecological alteration, and the conflicting desires of “outsider” authorities and skeptical local communities vastly complicate the process of enacting intentional, positive change, but highlight the fundamentality of equal collaboration. Perspectives from Big Marsh stakeholders, such as the Chicago Park District, the Nature Conservancy, and the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Calumet Stormwater Collaborative emphasize the necessities of meeting communities where they are, engaging them through grassroots efforts in every step of seeing an action plan through, and constantly monitoring progress through carefully chosen standards and thorough observation.
The ebullient participation of communities in the sculpting of consequential policy does not reflect the zenith of society, nor does it represent some lofty, unattainable ideal; rather, it is the incipient element of a functional republic, the foundational genesis of our government and politics, the dialogue of democracy.
- Holmes, Brenton. “Citizens’ Engagement in Policymaking and the Design of Public Services.” APH.gov.au. Parliament of Australia, 22 July 2011. Web. 13 May 2016.
- Friends of Big Marsh. “Friends of Big Marsh.” BigMarsh.org. Friends of Big Marsh, 2015. Web. 13 May 2016.
- McConnell, Allan. “Policy Success, Policy Failure and Grey Areas In-Between.” J. Pub. Pol. Journal of Public Policy 30.03 (2010): 345-62. Web. 13 May 2016.
- Pytel, Eve. Community Engagement Around Big Marsh. 26 Apr. 2016. PowerPoint Presentation. Delta Institute, Chicago, IL.