Continuous Civic Engagement

Congratulations to everyone who participated in the successful civic-engagement action at the Lowell City Council last night, encouraging the councilors to study further refinements of the current design of Father Morissette Boulevard as opposed to removing bike lanes and parking meters. Kudos to the council as a whole for showing flexibility and open-mindedness in choosing the  option of additional study, observation, and testing of the traffic system on FMB. Stepping back from the process, however, I think one lesson in the episode is that citizens/voters need to engage representatives, in this case city councilors, on a continuous basis to ensure that councilors understand what their constituents value and expect. It was clear from the discussion around the agenda item last night that councilors, particularly the two who offered the motions to remove the bike lanes and meters, were surprised to learn of the depth of support for the changes instituted late last year. Despite the master plan process and vigorous public involvement in the visioning sessions that helped shape the plan, there was a comprehension gap about priorities in the plan, such as  sustainability in various forms, including reducing the city’s carbon footprint and promoting healthy living . The councilors received about 50 email messages in support of the bike lanes and redesign of FMB, followed by a large community presence at the meeting. They seemed genuinely surprised. It was encouraging that they responded to the advocates for the bike lanes and the more pedestrian-friendly and generally safer FMB. We cannot assume our representatives are on the same page as we are, so it makes sense to check in periodically to let them know what we think is going right or going wrong. The default setting on civic dialogue is public complaint. People tend to speak up when they have a problem or don’t like what they see. Less often, people tell their representatives what they like and what they see as working well. It takes extra effort to do this, but we should think about building it in to the way we transact civic business in the city. With email, it is easy to write to city councilors, even all at the same time. And continue to use social media outlets to express views. Tell them what is on your mind. It may be one way to avoid the kind of crisis session we were involved in last night.

4 Responses to Continuous Civic Engagement

  1. DickH says:

    Excellent points, Paul, about civic engagement needing to be continuous and not just in moments of crisis. On this issue, that extends to more than bicyclists. I don’t ride a bike, but I fully support the bike lanes on FMB and elsewhere because they along with other strategies help calm traffic. Most people today accept that urban design theories of the 1960s that envisioned everyone living in the suburbs and working downtown emphasized high speed auto routes into and out of the downtown and so we have the Lowell Connector, the Sampson Connector (Thorndike/Dutton) and FMB creating almost insurmountable obstacles to moving from the surrounding neighborhoods to downtown by any means other than automobile. Hopefully, the lessons learned by city planners on the downsizing of FMB – and there are certainly lessons to be learned from how that was done – can be applied to the two “Connectors” in the not too distant future so that downtown will be more accessible to all the city’s residents.

  2. Bob Forrant says:

    Way easier for the city council and mayor to prattle on and on and on about bike lanes, mayor’s portraits, putting a high school in a beautiful urban park, and make war on chickens than do the hard, hard job of running a city and looking out for all its residents. Creating straw people by saying “we’re from Lowell and for Lowell” is beyond dumb and a slap in the face of everyone who moves here.

    What does this, for instance do to immigrants eager to engage in the electoral process? What does this say to the growing numbers of smart young people going to UMass Lowell who might like to start a business and maybe could be the next big thing? Such insular thinking will drive lots of folks away, cause others to never settle here, and do nothing to enliven the city so many ‘outsiders’ care about and love. Here’s a suggestion Mayor Elliot – do a survey of businesses in the city and see how many are owned and operated by people who were born and brought up here and compare it to the numbers of businesses owned and operated by the folks you seemingly disparage at will.

  3. Gail says:

    I totally agree. It seems that councilors hear a comment/complaint from a supporter or two and are right on it. They have no idea how popular or unpopular something is through out the city unless they hear from more people. I was unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting, but am thankful for all who did. I do not ride a bicycle, and I do drive over Fr. Morissette Blvd. multiple times, daily. I appreciate the traffic calming affect that the fewer lanes, especially approaching the Howe Bridge from the east, has had, and I support bicycle lanes elsewhere in the city.