Community engagement brings a spark to city revitalization efforts

Three volunteers go door to door to distribute welcome bags to new renters.Revitalizing a community is a big task to take on, and it’s one that the Oakland Planning and Development Corp (OPDC) knows works best when everyone in the community is involved in the process. Neglected properties, over-occupied homes, and public safety concerns were a few of the issues residents of the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pa., wanted to address.

These conditions were enough for OPDC to initiate a master plan for their neighborhood, aiming for an entirely renewed Oakland by 2025. As a community-based development corporation, community engagement is a fundamental component of the services they provide. Engaging local residents in shaping the master plan was no exception.

In 2011, after a year-long effort of dialogues with residents and plan development, OPDC hosted an action forum with over 200 people from the Oakland community, including local residents, students, business owners, and others to debrief from their conversations and move forward with action steps for their neighborhood.

Having everyone come together from different sectors of the community brought a lot of energy to the plan. “We knew the power of this model but it was very illuminating for members of the community to see and experience first-hand that people are really interested in being engaged in what’s going on in the community,” explained Wanda Wilson, Executive Director of OPDC. “It actually gets people engaged in the community,” commented one of the dialogue facilitators. “This system works to help people figure out together what needs changed.”

Wilson said there are many groups in the neighborhood taking on various issues, but too often volunteers get burnt out or feel isolated. By bringing the community together in the planning process, it was clear that there was a significant amount of interest and dedicated people working to creating positive change.

In just a few short years, the community of Oakland, Pa., has made significant progress toward revitalizing the neighborhood.

Some of the top issues participants identified through the dialogue efforts were housing issues, pedestrian and transit safety, and greening efforts. Wilson said the dialogues helped to begin a “planning while doing” process in which the residents could start taking action while the rest of the master plan was finished.

Two action teams were formed following the community dialogues, and they continue to make strong progress today.

The police cheif talks to a group of residentsOne team, Oakwatch: The Oakwatch Code Enforcement Project, meets monthly and has created several successful campaigns to improve public safety and address property and housing issues. One of these campaigns was a marketing initiative to educate and encourage residents to utilize existing resources such as 911 and 311. The 311 Response Center is a service run by the City of Pittsburgh which residents can call to report neglected properties and other non-emergency issues.

Through Oakwatch’s efforts, residents now utilize the lines more than they ever have. Police have increased enforcement and are working with OPDC to utilize the city’s disruptive properties ordinance, which holds landlords accountable for nuisance behavior at their properties.

In addition, OPDC has made a lot of progress in their work with landlords through their bi-monthly landlord roundtable meetings. Residents have reported better working relationships with landlords who are cleaning up their properties and working with tenants to address disruptive behavior.

Hanson Kappelman, an Oakland resident who co-chairs Oakwatch, described the action team as something different than he has ever experienced. “The way that it engages both residents and people who work in Oakland, city officials, university officials, and pretty much anybody who can help the life of the neighborhood…in terms of the breadth of people involved and how we address these issues we deal with, it’s pretty unique,” Kappelman said.

A large group of people sitting in a room listening to a presentation.The Oakland Green Team was the second action group formed in response to the community dialogues. The Green Team focuses on bettering the community’s environment and pedestrian/bicyclist safety. According to Wilson, the Green Team has completed many greening projects so far such as cleaning up abandoned areas, hillside beautification, street tree planting, and public art projects in which they identified community sites and found artists to revamp them.

“Because there is a lot of overlap in people’s interests and some of the similar concerns, the Green Team has started to also incorporate bike and pedestrian safety issues into part of its work,” Wilson added, “So we’re working with partner organizations to have regular discussions about additional bike infrastructure, there’s a bike share program here now, and a lot of stuff like that that’s been going on.”

A woman sits on the porch of her houseOne future project in the mix for the Oakland community involves work to increase home-ownership, rather than investment-owners and renters, by rehabilitating older living spaces and selling them as homes.

“Maintaining affordable options in the neighborhood is a priority and we’re looking on both rental and for sale options,” said Wilson. OPDC already owns and maintains a portfolio of rental properties for low-income populations, seniors, and people with special needs.

In the next couple months, they anticipate another round of dialogues to map out the housing strategy of the master plan, specifically focusing on the idea of implementing a land trust.

A land trust would allow the community to retain ownership of the land, while homeowners retain ownership of the building for a long period of time. In an urban neighborhood like Oakland, the goal is to preserve affordable home ownership options for people with low and moderate incomes. It also keeps homes in the hands of community members who are living in the area and invested in the neighborhood, instead of absentee property owners who are just looking to get rental income.

Wilson says there is still a lot of work to do to achieve Oakland 2025, but that the community is well on its way.



October 30, 2015

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