Learn How Austin Built an Award Winning Neighborhood Partnering Program

ARTICLE | Sep 13, 2016

On Tuesday, September 20 from 1:00-1:30pm, the Alliance and Austin will host a brief, in-depth webinar on the wildly successful Neighborhood Partnering Program, a TLG 2016 award winner are among its many accolades. Read below to find out the details of their program then register for their upcoming webinar as we take it a step further and offer a brief q&a.

The Neighborhood Partnering Program (NPP) has quickly developed into the City of Austin’s most innovative and popular program[s]. Likened to the local government version of Kickstarter, NPP provides a platform for neighborhood and community organizations to develop, resource, and execute small- to medium-sized improvement projects in the City’s right of way or on City-owned property. Through NPP, the City of Austin has modeled an effective way to engage its citizens to transform underutilized spaces into community-driven, small but meaningful projects – from sidewalks to cycle tracks, trails, community gardens, pocket parks, park improvements, mosaics and street art.

Background

Prior to 2009, the City of Austin did not have a funding mechanism to address small but meaningful community-initiated infrastructure requests that individually could not rise to the top during the City’s capital budget process. In 2009, City Council passed a resolution directing the City Manager to develop a neighborhood matching fund program to provide support for neighborhood improvement projects. Leveraging the Public Works Department’s in-house engineering services and field crews, the resulting Neighborhood Partnering Program created a streamlined process for community-initiated neighborhood projects to move from concept to construction in approximately 12 to 18 months.

How It Works

The Neighborhood Partnering Program provides a unique opportunity for community groups to pitch their innovative projects to the City government. From these pitches, the program then leverages City funding, in-house expertise and equipment to bring these community-initiated concepts to reality. The program was modelled off of Seattle’s Neighborhood Matching Fund Program. The cities of Atlanta, Charlotte, Denver, Durham, Kansas City, Madison, Orlando, Phoenix, Pittsburgh Portland, Raleigh, and San Antonio all have similar neighborhood matching fund grant programs. Yet what makes Austin’s Neighborhood Partnering Program unique is that while these other programs simply provide funding and put the implementation on the community group, the Neighborhood Partnering Program project manages the implementation of all projects from concept to construction. In this process we are able to utilize the City’s professional staff, general permits, contracts and rotation lists, and equipment on behalf of our community partners. Throughout the process, the community group remains at the center of the design and implementation process. To our knowledge we are the only program nationally that has innovated to this degree. We would be thrilled to share our model with other innovative cities interested in adopting a program in their communities. The program provides a collaborative space for City employees and community members to work hand-in-hand problem-solving, overcoming obstacles and celebrating successes together through the concept, design, permitting, and construction lifecycles of their projects.

Furthermore, the Neighborhood Partnering Program projects are seen as the cutting edge of Austin’s placemaking scene and a leader in building neighborhood scale green infrastructure. As an example, over the last few years, the program has built the City’s first community gardens on flood plain and right-of-way, a protected cycle track, and pocket parks. Currently in the design process is the City’s first green street that combines rain gardens, medians islands, sidewalks, and bicycle lanes in a coordinated effort to calm traffic, provide multi-modal connectivity, and improve water quality.

In addition to the projects themselves, it’s the process of building positive and collaborative relationships among neighbors that really makes the program special. Perhaps Sabrina Joplin, Chair of the Adelphi Acre Community Garden said it best in the midst of building her NPP project,

“This has such a rewarding process. At our meeting last week Justin made a keen observation that none of the steering members really knew each other before this project began. It had not dawned on me how many friends we've made through this effort. It has truly brought some excitement to our neighborhoods and we look forward to watching this develop out over time.”

Ingredients for Success – Collaborations

The primary initiators of the Neighborhood Partnering Program are neighborhood associations, homeowner associations, civic and community services associations, conservancies, and cultural organizations. To ensure the program is equitable and accessible to all Austinites, a coalition of strategic partners has been developed that spans the governmental, academic, private, and non-profit sectors. As an example, the Neighborhood Partnering Program has partnered with AmeriCorps VISTA, a federal national service program designed to fight poverty on a systemic level. Two full-time AmeriCorps VISTAs serve on staff to conduct outreach and provide assistance to low-income neighborhoods. A partnership with the University of Texas’ Longhorn Center for Civic Engagement provides neighborhoods with university level resources and students with real world service learning opportunities in classes as diverse as civil engineering, liberal arts, communications, and business. Similarly, the Neighborhood Partnering Program regularly partners with non-profits such as the Sustainable Food Center, Austin Parks Foundation, and Go Austin!/Vamos Austin! to provide expertise and outreach to potential project applicants.

As a cost-match program, the most significant obstacle encountered thus far by our program is making it accessible to all Austin residents, particularly those in low-income communities. The program has taken many steps to address this challenge. First, projects can be cost-matched with volunteer hours (currently valued at $24.66/ hour) and two years of maintenance (such as watering and landscaping) can count towards a community’s cost-match for their project.

Altogether, the City of Austin has contributed approximately $1.7 million in funding to Neighborhood Partnering Program projects. The City has been able to leverage this investment with a community contribution of $760k worth of cash, in kind materials, professional services, and volunteer hours. This investment is further leveraged by the fact that the community group becomes the steward of the project they co-created and is responsible for the project’s maintenance for the life of the project.

On September 20, 2016 the Alliance and Austin will host a brief informative webinar discussing this award-winning innovation and provide participants the opportunities to ask questions and learn what they can take back to their organization. Learn more here.

Need to Measure to Get Better

The program measures using a variety of metrics related to its five core values: quality of life improvement, community participation, cost sharing, incorporation of City initiatives, geographic equity. The following is some of the key data collected by the Neighborhood Partnering

Program:

1) GIS Equity Data – Using GIS software, the program tracks the location of its project and outreach efforts as it relates to the City’s 10 Council Districts and the median-family income of the project census tracts to ensure geographic and economic diversity.

2) Financial and Community Resources Data – Financial data is collected and analyzed looking at how the City leverages its resources with community resources

3) Before and After Pictures – Before and after pictures of our project areas enables us to judge and showcase the quality of our improvements.

4) Exit Interviews and Community Testimonials – Exit interviews and community letters of support the program provides a sense of our program’s customer service.

5) Project Timing – We also measure how long our process takes from the community’s first application submittal to the completion of project construction. Our timeframe is approximately 12 to 18 months, with a goal to tighten this to 9 to 12 months.

Over the past year, the Neighborhood Partnering Program has received a lot of positive attention. Nationally, the program won the 2015 Leadership in Sustainability Award from the American Planning Association and the Management Innovation Award from the American Public Works Association. Regionally, the program recently received the Texas Chapter of the American Public Works Association’s 2015 Sustainability Practices Award and Management Innovation Award. The program was also featured at SXSW Eco and the National Association of City Transportation Officials annual conference. 

The program was also selected for a 2016 Alliance Innovation Award and on September 20 from 1 - 1:30pm to go explain their enormous success and offer attendees the opportunity to share their own experiences and ask questions. Sign up today!

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