How Love Your Block Shaped Citywide Governance in Lancaster
March 26, 2024
How Love Your Block Shaped Citywide Governance in Lancaster
March 26, 2024

The City of Lancaster’s block-by-block approach to improving resident quality of life – sparked by Love Your Block program participation – is now a model for innovation citywide.

By Colin Murphy, Senior Writer

Walk the streets of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and you’ll be met with the opportunity to view – or sit down and play – one of more than 20 brightly colored pianos dotting the city’s sidewalks.

The pianos spark joy and encourage playfulness for residents and visitors, according to John Gerdy, the longtime Lancaster resident who worked with Mayor Danene Sorace and city staff to bring the public art-music fusion project to life.

They’re also symbolic of the driving force behind the city government’s operations.

“The lines of communication between the city and its residents are open. There are no barriers,” Gerdy shared. “We were able to do [the piano project] because the city responds to what we ask for. It’s a testament to the collaborative, can-do mindset of our city government officials.”

Civic engagement is the priority

In Lancaster, an increasingly diverse city with approximately 60,000 residents, prioritizing civic engagement is an institutionalized approach to governance infused in every action taken at city hall.

“We’ve worked to create a more accessible and responsive city government,” Mayor Sorace told her audience at Community Engagement for Local Democracy, a panel discussion that chronicled Lancaster’s five-year journey from a city with a public trust challenge to a present-day inspiration for other global cities on how to institutionalize community engagement.

“We’re bringing more people into the process of shaping their city.”

Work started at the hyper-local level through Love Your Block

It wasn’t always this way. Lancaster’s initial spark to foster partnership between government and residents came in 2018 through Love Your Block, a program started by Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2009 and now operated by the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins. The program outfits U.S. cities with teams of dedicated community engagement personnel, provides training and technical support, and provides funding for mini-grants that cities in turn give to residents for home and neighborhood improvement projects. Love Your Block has supported 39 cities since 2009 and recently worked with neighborhood engagement teams in eight cities, and a new cohort of 16 cities is entering the program in 2024.

A 2021 study by the Urban Institute found that Love Your Block grows social capital between residents and city hall and creates reciprocal relationships between residents and government that helps build trust in cities.

Sorace recalled the city’s fledgling efforts beginning from a challenging point before entering the Love Your Block program.

“We faced a lot of barriers early on,” Sorace said. “There was a lot of distrust…We secured funding to launch the Love Your Block program, and our community engagement efforts really bloomed from there.”

Community engagement became the norm

Love Your Block laid bare a simple truth in Lancaster that is often felt in cities – given the opportunity, residents are willing to engage with their local government to better their communities.

It was while canvassing to support her bid for mayor that Sorace learned that residents sought more involvement with the city. They wanted more access to the city’s resources and services, and greater connection to each other.

In response to this need, Sorace and her team founded the Office of Neighborhood Engagement, establishing full-time civic engagement personnel whose job was to invest in and actively work with residents and their communities. The city pursued and achieved status as a Certified Welcoming City, a proud title ensuring residents feel a sense of belonging and have the support they need to thrive. The new office certified its Language Access Policy to guarantee communication regardless of language; the city offers translation to 25 different languages on its website. They developed a digital participation tool, Engage Lancaster, to source ideas and feedback from residents and encourage two-way dialogue and signal openness to their communities’ ideas.

Today, the city employs 13 full-time engagement specialists and two part-time engagement specialists in its Department of Neighborhood Engagement (DONE). Compared to many cities that may have one or two dedicated engagement representatives – or none at all – Lancaster’s institutionalized engagement per capita far exceeds what is commonly seen in local governments.

Sonia Lebron is a Health and Housing and Social Services Case Manager with the city government. As her long title suggests, her role is not confined to any one type of service – instead, she listens, remains open and adaptable to all perspectives, and works to mobilize resources to appropriately meet resident needs. 

“I think of my work as a continual trust-building process,” said LeBron, who estimated she interacts with 10 to 20 residents every day. “A lot of people don’t want to share what they’re really going through. In order for them to open up, they have to feel comfortable, and we at the city level have to develop that trust. That rapport is very, very important.”

Open data unlocked new opportunities to engage

With the city’s neighborhood engagement formalized and operating, Lancaster’s leaders needed a way to learn from and continually improve their engagement work. 

To do this, the city embarked on an open-data project in partnership with a Boston-based software company that operates in the data and housing space. A goal emerged: systematically pull data on public safety, housing, lighting, quality of streets, pedestrian safety, and socioeconomic information from multiple city departments into one score that offers insights to improve community engagement. Lancaster’s Block Strength Indicator (BSI) was born.

A street map of Lancaster shows yellow and green dots throughout neighborhoods.
Lancaster’s Block Strength Indicator (BSI) provides its leaders a real-time picture of resident engagement opportunities throughout the city.
Image generated by BuildingBlocks

“The BSI identifies blocks in the community with the greatest opportunity for engagement…that have issues affecting quality of life,” said DONE Director Milzy Carrasco. “What areas of the city are most in need? Where can we direct resources? Who should we be engaging with? The higher the score, the greater the opportunity for us to engage.”

In proactively visiting BSI-identified blocks, the city gets ahead of potential problems, signals to residents they’re available to help, and hears directly from the city’s people about what’s most important to them.

Through BSI data and the resulting outreach, the team has been able to do everything from raise and level deteriorating sidewalks to provide Love Your Block mini-grants to fund block parties. Proactive involvement with residents by the city has encouraged residents to form new neighborhood groups and connect with each other to improve their communities, leveraging grant funds for projects such as community gardens and public murals.

Through data-driven community engagement, residents have agency to steer the direction of their neighborhoods with help from the city.

“What we heard from the community was they wanted to be part of the process – and early on, not when the decisions were already made,” said Carrasco. “They wanted to be part of setting the agenda and actively work with the City of Lancaster as partners.”

Building trust helps sustain positive impacts

Now thriving as a city prioritizing civic engagement, Lancaster’s government has, in partnership with its residents, continued to grow and diversify its programming to meet a varied array of needs across its communities.

The city offers a Neighborhood Leaders Academy, a six-week training and grant program for community leaders that helps them learn more about how the city can support them as they imagine, develop, and test projects to positively impact their communities. The city also began a Trauma Informed Community Development program to equip the city and residents with skills and resources to build resilience and heal from trauma.

Though the city has sustained and expanded civic engagement since it was initially catalyzed through Love Your Block years ago, Lancaster’s leaders never view the work as having arrived at a final solution. Rather, they continue to apply, iterate, and grow the work of the city’s initial public innovation efforts.

Lancaster isn’t alone. Cities such as Phoenix, AZ; Hartford, CT; South Bend, IN; and Lansing, MI; to name just a few, have experienced similar transformations through Love Your Block since 2009 by growing and expanding civic engagement capacity to meet the needs of residents. Recent Love Your Block cohort cities such as Albany, New York; Jackson, Tennessee; and Salt Lake City, Utah all approved funding for continued full-time engagement employees and/or continued mini-grant programs to sustain the Love Your Block approach indefinitely and embed civic engagement into city operations. 

For Mayor Sorace, Love Your Block was more than just a better way forward; it returned the city’s government and people to their most fundamental relationship and the core promise of democratic society.

“Democracy at its most basic understanding is about people having a say in how their community operates,” said Sorace. “Community engagement builds trust between residents and their government. This is most apparent at the local level. Love Your Block helped Lancaster restore and expand this relationship…It doesn’t mean that we all agree or that everyone trusts us. It does mean that through repeated engagement efforts, trust builds. I have seen it over time. Our work has evolved, adapted, and become more strategic. By improving our processes for soliciting feedback and incorporating that feedback into our projects, we further build trust, increase transparency, drive innovations, and demonstrate how government can truly work for those it serves.”

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