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Civic Engagement? See These Great Examples

Compiled by Kim Cekola

Photo Credit: Broadway


City Recreation Department Kept Alive
with Volunteers

Ypsilanti; population: 19,435

The city eliminated its Recreation Department due to severe financial stress—but it was able to keep park maintenance and programming alive through the effort of the Recreation Commission and numerous volunteer groups, and staff from multiple departments. The city has four major recreational facilities, each with an associated volunteer “Friends” group: the Freighthouse, the Rutherford Pool, the Senior Center, and the Parkridge Community Center. The Friends of the Freighthouse, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt non-profit, raised money through grants and private donations to perform repairs. The other Friends groups manage the daily operations of the respective recreation facilities, including fundraising to pay facility staff. Volunteers make park improvements and run recreation programs. Neighborhood and school groups maintain community gardens at two middle schools with local non-profit Growing Hope. The Ypsilanti Disc Golf Club provided equipment and assisted with the installation of a disc golf course. The Ypsilanti Health Coalition and various community partners were awarded grant money to make capital improvements to basketball courts and other park facilities, as well as coordinating a Health Festival to promote park use. (source:

Citizens Raise Taxes to Keep Services
Huntington Woods; population: 6,238
The city created a committee open to any resident or business-person willing to make a one-year commitment to a comprehensive financial study. Committee members tackled issues in these four sub-committees: library/recreation; public safety; administration/ finance/legal/regulatory; and revenue. Each sub-committee studied departmental operations, budgets, and revenue sources and interviewed departmental directors, employees, and advisory boards. Each developed formal recommendations, the most significant being a uniquely structured “Headlee Override” property tax increase to restore the city’s charter limit of 20 mills; and to add a new provision to the city charter limiting the maximum increase in the annual operating millage rate to no more than ½ of 1 mil. The recommendation represented a major compromise among the diverse positions of the committee members. The millage was passed by 78 percent of voters. Committee members were vocal advocates for the issue; they attended numerous public forums to explain their findings and recommendations.

Walkers and Cyclists Get Legislation Passed
East Lansing; population: 48,579
In East Lansing, walkability advocates spent an entire summer going door-to-door, informing and energizing the public about the need to make the city safer and more accessible for all forms of transportation. Before they started, a cyclist or walker was getting hit by a car somewhere in the city every three days. Thanks to a driving force of more than 5,000 petitioners, East Lansing became the first city in the state to enact a Complete Streets ordinance. And it didn’t stop there. Today, Michigan leads the country in the number of communities with Complete Streets ordinances in place.

PARK(ing) Day
Lansing, Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Traverse City
The Let’s Save Michigan campaign helped coordinate the state’s involvement in the international PARK(ing) Day event on September 17, 2010. The event highlights the need for more livable, vibrant spaces in our cities. PARK(ing) Day is a quirky, annual, worldwide event where folks use their creativity to transform metered city parking spots into temporary parks for the public good for an hour or two. It’s easy to forget about the public spaces that make our cities so great. We often forget how they host our festivals, our work lunches, or family picnics—and play the underappreciated role of creating the vibrant cities that will help turn Michigan around. The Let’s Save Michigan campaign had events in Lansing, Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Traverse City. About 700 parks were created in more than 140 cities in 21 countries on six continents for PARK(ing) Day 2009. The photo to the right is from the PARK(ing) Day 2010 event. “We want to encourage people to think creatively about the possibilities for using space in Lansing,” said Sean Mann of Let’s Save Michigan. “Gardens, parks and playgrounds are so important to healthy, thriving urban communities. This is an opportunity to initiate a public conversation about how we develop as a city.” For details, go to

Volunteers Operate Community Resale Shop
Grass Lake; population: 1,173
The Copper Nail Resale Shop is a community non-profit organization operated completely by volunteers. It provides financial support to nonprofit organizations in the Grass Lake area to assist them in meeting their group goals. The store offers a “fund day” one Saturday each month where a local group engages in volunteering at the store then receives the net receipts for the day along with a match from the store. Effectively, the store has furnished thousands of dollars in support for local community non-profit groups including the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, soccer leagues, summer baseball leagues, and a multitude of other deserving non-profit, church, and school supported organizations. The Copper Nail has given more than $67,000 back to the Grass Lake community—made possible through fantastic volunteers and a supportive and wonderful community! (source:;


Electronic Platforms for Receiving and Implementing Public Input
Manor, Texas; population: 5,037
“Manor Labs” is a citizen collaboration platform that allows residents to submit technology ideas for the city and rate the ideas of others. The dedicated website awards “Innobucks points” when someone submits an idea, comments on another's idea, or votes for an idea. Once an idea has attracted enough comments and receives approval from a committee, it is then evaluated by city officials who decide whether to implement it. To encourage participation, Innobucks can be turned in for tangible prizes like “Mayor for the Day,” a ride-along with the police chief, and meals from a local restaurant.

The initiative relies on inexpensive, readily available software tools and has engaged more than a third of the city’s population. Five of the more than 80 ideas submitted have been adopted by the city, including a free, automated guided tour for visitors, who use their cell phones to scan pictographic bar codes posted on historic sites around the city.
In 2010, Manor was conferred the “Visionary Award” by the Center for Digital Government's Best of Texas, and the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University selected Manor Labs for its “Bright Ideas” program. (source: National League of Cities, City Practice Brief)

Neighborhood City Halls
Wichita, Kansas; population: 382,368
The city of Wichita maintains four Neighborhood City Halls spread throughout the city that provide access to various city and social services and to city councilmembers. Two of these are located in elementary schools to allow working parents increased access to city resources. With limited variation among them, the neighborhood city halls provide free community education classes, computer and printing services, bill pay services, and meeting space where neighborhood associations and boards gather. In addition to offering city services, other organizations use the same building space, including a free notary public, police, and a health services center. (source: National League of Cities, City Practice Brief)


TimeBanking Helps Curb Teen Anti-Social Behavior
Bettws, South Wales, United Kingdom,
population: 8,278
In the small community of Bettws, South Wales, police were faced with the highest levels of youth anti-social behavior in the county. The police recognized the need to engage positively with young people and brought together local organizations to establish the Time for Young People (T4YP) TimeBank.

Young people from the village earn time credits by giving their time to community-based projects facilitated by the Boys and Girls Club, community groups and the school. These include anti-bullying and environmental projects, supporting local community groups with activities, helping to run children and youth activities at the Boys and Girls Club, attending training by the police, and making decisions with local community police.

The young people use their time credits to attend classes at the youth club like first aid courses, health and beauty sessions, judo, cheerleading, and carpentry courses. Improved relationships between police, service providers, community members, and young people have resulted in 17 percent lower crime rates (mostly anti-social behavior), increased community trust, and community awareness.

(See The Review, July/August 2010, for an article on Lathrup Village Michigan’s TimeBank, winner of the 2009 League’s Community Excellence Award Cup. The concept of TimeBanking is catching on and spreading throughout Michigan and the world.)(source: MI Alliance of TimeBanks September 2011 Newsletter)

Kim Cekola is research associate/publications editor for the League. You may reach her at 734-669-6321 or



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