What if the next big thing in blight elimination is to think small?
Staff at the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC) think that just might be the case.
They have even coined a new term to describe their strategy: asset-based micro-planning. “We made the term up,” said YNDC Executive Director Ian Beniston about micro-planning.
YNDC came up with the strategy “because there are large areas of the city that are very distressed but we still wanted to have a starting place for some concrete revitalization.”
It’s common for cities to develop revitalization plans that leverage major anchor institutions, like hospitals or universities, as the locus from which reinvestment radiates out. These “eds and meds” attract large numbers of people and significant capital to a community and can be powerful, natural partners for neighborhood planning.
But many neighborhoods—and some entire cities—lack traditional anchors. With asset-based micro-plans, the idea is that even in neighborhoods with very weak markets, large numbers of vacant properties, and no traditional anchor institutions, there are nonetheless small, hyper-local assets. These assets act, if not as full-fledged anchors, then as mini-anchors that help to keep the block from drifting toward further destabilization. These assets can, Beniston argues, be leveraged to encourage small-scale revitalization.
Neighborhood mini-anchors could be gardens, small churches, community centers, or public libraries. In YNDC’s first micro-plan, the asset is the Taft Elementary school.
“When thinking about the condition of the overall neighborhood, it can be overwhelming,” said Beniston. “This provides a starting point.”
Rather than working on the neighborhood level, a micro-plan only looks at the two-to-three block radius around the community asset. This hyper-small scale encourages goal-setting that is realistic and timely. “Instead of making a pie-in-the-sky plan that we don’t have the resources for,” said Beniston, “starting with a micro-plan provides a building block that we can incrementally chip away at to make progress.” With the Taft Elementary School, YNDC has done just that.
Taft Elementary School: The mini-anchor
Taft Elementary School is located in the Lansingville neighborhood on Youngstown’s south side. Like much of Youngstown, the area around Taft Elementary School has seen massive disinvestment and population decline over the past 50 years. Between 1990-2011, poverty in the area increased threefold, and housing vacancy increased five-fold. One in five houses in the area is vacant, a rate roughly equal to that of the city as a whole.
According to a neighborhood Market Value Analysis of the micro-asset zone, the area to the West of the elementary school is extremely weak, with very high vacancy rates, and some of the highest crime rates in the city. The area to the East of the school, however, is identified as constrained, a stronger but still very weak market designation, and has somewhat lower crime and vacancy rates.
Generally in a constrained area, housing rehab is a prioritized strategy, whereas in weak and extremely weak areas, board ups, demolitions, and code enforcement are the priorities. Because the micro-plan is so small however, market conditions don’t change much from one side of the area to the other. In other words, the micro-asset straddles the “stronger” edge of a very weak market and the “weaker” edge of the stronger constrained market. So, strategies are more or less the same throughout the whole micro-plan area.
That being said, a significant majority of the prioritized board-ups and demolitions are taking place in a section that is labeled extremely weak.
The start (and middle and end) of YNDC’s micro-planning process is strong community engagement. “We did initial surveys and meetings, and just asked people what they thought the major problems in the community were,” said Tricia D’Avignon, an Americorps VISTA working on this project for YNDC.
Since the school is the mini-anchor in this community, YNDC wanted to closely engage with everyone connected to the institution to determine the best path forward. YNDC surveyed the students, and has worked closely with the principal and the PTA.
“We want to be present in the neighborhood,” said Beniston, “and we try to meet people where they are.”
At one community meeting in March 2014, residents were asked to tell YNDC “one thing they needed to know” about the neighborhood. Residents resoundingly responded that blight was a top priority for them. One resident said, “Help us prevent our neighborhood from being just another blight-ridden place – we are a sustainable neighborhood! Let’s keep it that way.”
Three priorities arose based on the community’s responses: housing and property issues, infrastructure repair and maintenance, and crime and safety concerns.
With these goals in mind, YNDC set off to collect the data it needed in order to strategically tackle the community’s needs.
Gathering the Data
“We collected a lot of data,” said Tricia D’Avignon.
In order to make informed decisions, YNDC needed to have complete information about the area in question. Throughout the spring and summer of 2014, they looked at data on housing and other property issues, as well as code violations. They conducted a full field survey, taking pictures of every property in the area.
The community residents had identified poor infrastructure as a major concern, and so YNDC also surveyed the whole area to assess issues like sidewalk condition and unused posts without signage.
Eventually, YNDC was able to put together a map detailing the condition of each property, and, from that, a map that detailed the strategy needed for individual properties. That’s right: at the micro-plan level, there’s a strategy for every single property.
With the data in hand, YNDC was able to set realistic five-year benchmarks. “The micro-plans do a good job of not being too utopian,” said Beniston, but at such a manageable scale, there’s a chance to make a real impact. For example, housing benchmarks for the area include: bringing 10 housing units into code compliance, demolishing 13 blighted structures, and boarding 8 vacant and formerly blighted properties.
Prioritization is Key
Because YNDC has limited resources, though, prioritization is key to the success of the micro-plan. Through their research, YNDC identified 20 priority properties, 10 of which are slated for demolition, and the other 10 for board-up.
When picking priority properties, YNDC sought those that were closest to the school and in the worst condition. That way, the school’s influence as a neighborhood mini-anchor will no longer be encumbered by blighted properties. Students won’t have to walk past vacant, dilapidated structures.
YNDC also took crime into account. Some properties were hotspots for criminal activity, the worst of which was the site of 19 crimes between 2011 and 2013. By targeting addresses like these for code enforcement sweeps and working with the police department to conduct door-to-door community policing efforts, where officers are having meaningful engagement with community members, YNDC can make progress toward the community’s goal of safer streets.
YNDC is always looking for new partnerships and new ways engage the community. “We’re building our overall capacity by bringing more partners into the fold,” said Beniston. The City of Youngstown has been a strong partner to YNDC throughout the process, funding much of the board-up and clean-up work and helping with implementation. YNDC has also engaged with community groups, students, and parents to clean and secure vacant properties during a day of service, and has partnered with the local 4H Club to plant community gardens on vacant lots.
YNDC, however, is also thinking outside the box. In July 2015, YNDC, working with the City, began a partnership with the local 910th Airlift Wing, US Air Force Reserve to conduct training exercises to demolish vacant properties. To the best of Community Progress’ knowledge, this is the first partnership of its kind, though other cities are interested in following suit. The reservists plan to demolish twelve vacant properties in Youngstown. While some residents may be hesitant to embrace this type of intervention, the partnership offers a unique chance for neighborhoods to get rid of eyesores that may have been vacant for years. A recent news report quoted Master Sgt. Brian Phillips saying, “This gives us a great opportunity to actually work in the community, get hands-on training and real world experience.” It’s an innovative partnership that pays dividends for both parties.
The micro-plan also recommended utilizing Safe Routes to School, a national model that advocates for making walking and biking to school a safe and attractive choice for students. This is particularly important for Taft Elementary because over 90% of its students bike or walk to school. So, in the months after the micro-plan was completed in October 2014, as YNDC began to work on implementation, they partnered with the Taft Elementary School and the local health department to apply for a grant through Safe Routes to School.
In November 2014, YNDC conducted a survey of students and parents to determine what routes children were taking to get to school, and then collected data on the infrastructure and presence of vacant properties along those routes through walk audits.
By July 2015, YNDC received news that their Safe Routes to School grant application for infrastructure upgrades in the Taft School area was approved for $200,000!
Additionally, the success of the Taft plan has recently prompted the local United Way to adopt the school and greater neighborhood as its first Promise Neighborhood, which will bring more resources and partners to the table to help further revitalization efforts started by the micro-plan.
Micro-Planning Going Big?
While micro-planning may be small by definition, there are big plans for it in Youngstown.
“YNDC and the City of Youngstown will continue to use asset-based micro-planning and implementation to begin the process of neighborhood improvement in many of the city’s weak and extremely weak neighborhoods,” said Beniston. In fact, work is already underway on several new plans.
In addition to the Taft Elementary School plan, YNDC finished and began implementing a micro-plan this past January, centering on the MLK Elementary School in the northeast corner of the city. In the spring, residents, volunteers, and the YNDC came together to clean up and secure 19 homes the micro-plan prioritized. Work continued throughout the rest of the year and has now been wrapped up.
YNDC also finished surveying for two more plans earlier this year, centering on a high school and a park, respectively, and have started work on the latter, which centers around Wick Park just to the north of the University.
While YNDC wants to remain sharply focused on the mini-anchors at first, it also hopes that each micro-plan can begin expand in its scope as it meets success. “The starting point is the micro target area,” said Beniston, “but as we are successful making progress in the micro target area we will update the plan to a larger area.”
The implications of this work don’t end at the Youngstown city limits. Cities all across the country that are dealing with extreme disinvestment and abandonment can take a cue from YNDC.
“I believe this is an emerging, common-sense model for communities across the country to consider when beginning work in very distressed neighborhoods,” said Beniston.