The Parks and Rec Effect

I’m quoted in this AOL Government article on citizen participation. The story makes the point that you can have a much bigger impact in your community than at the federal level.

I’ve seen that in DC (the city, not the metaphor), where local issues are frequently debated to death. For example, the ten-year long struggle over the redevelopment of the Wisconsin Avenue Giant. The plan to upgrade this grocery store was so contentious that it claimed the job of one local planning director and caused her successor to steer clear of the whole mess.

Which is why I’ve been so impressed by the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), as I mentioned in the article. They put a bike lane down the center of Pennsylvania Avenue, a project that benefits bikers (like me) and is a powerful example of including bikes in transportation plans. They also put in a protected bike lane down 15th St, a block from where I live. This was done in a matter of months, compared to morasses like the Wisconsin Avenue Giant.

Pennsylvania Av bike lane
A gorgeous bike lane through the center of Washington.

And DDOT will respond to you via Twitter, within minutes. It’s a little thing but getting a timely reply about a pothole is pretty remarkable, especially from a city government that, at best, can be described as bureaucratic.

(Full disclosure: I worked for nearly a year as a contractor on the DC.gov web site. In addition to being a DC citizen myself, I’ve responded to resident requests, which is why I’m so sympathetic to local government officials.)

Whoever runs the @DDOTDC account must possess remarkable patience to deal with constant complaints about DC roads, delivered quite personally by drivers suffering from broken shocks. Despite the abuse, they respond quickly to complaints.

Parks and Rec does an excellent job at capturing the intensity of an engaged local citizenry. The time capsule episode of the NBC series is one of my favorites:

Leslie tries to encourage civic pride through a time capsule, but it descends into chaos as Pawnee citizens argue over what to include.

Leslie’s efforts to bring the community together tear it apart, as residents argue over what should be in the time capsule, including, among other things, dead pets and copies of the Twilight books. Leslie comes up with a brilliant compromise – the time capsule will include only a video of their discussion, thus showing future generations the town’s “passion”.

If you are going to work in local government, you must have the equanimity of Leslie Knope.

Unlike on the federal side, hidden away in inaccessible buildings thousands of miles from constituents, local government is up close and personal. It’s your friends and neighbors, people who care about the community as much as you do – but frequently have very different ideas about how the place should be run.

Accountability to local citizens can be immediate. The reformer Mayor Adrian Fenty, who pushed for a better-performing government, was bounced out of office by a citizenry more comfortable with the soft corruption of Vincent Grey.

And the DDOT Director who brought a bike lane down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue – Gabe Klein is gone too, scooped up by the more enlightened city of Chicago.

In local government, you can achieve immediate results – and suffer immediate consequences. It’s the Parks and Rec effect.

Author: Joe Flood

Joe Flood is a writer, photographer and web person from Washington, DC. The author of several novels, Joe won the City Paper Fiction Competition in 2020. In his free time, he enjoys wandering about the city taking photos.

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