Building a Better St. Louis? They’re Making a Toolbox for That

How does a community inspire its residents to take a more active role in shaping the new retail developments, apartment towers and grocery stores in the development pipeline? How do neighborhood organizations attract more residents to their meetings? And how can government planning agencies increase public participation when they are debating new commercial developments?

It’s about using the right tools.

And community organizations throughout the St. Louis region are striving now to provide residents with these tools.

A coalition of organizations throughout the St. Louis region has launched an online toolbox, which went live earlier this year, designed to help connect residents with community development resources. The goal is to make it easier for residents to give their say on everything from new commercial projects to policing strategies and beautification efforts.

Led by Invest STL, an organization dedicated to strengthening St. Louis neighborhoods and reducing inequity in the region, the Neighborhood Toolbox launched with two initial tools, the St. Louis Community LAB and the St. Louis Neighborhood Organization Map. The tool provides residents with the ability to access community development resources and workshops online and, by using the organization map, find associations and groups that serve their neighborhoods.

“We are a community rich with individuals committed to shaping a bold, thriving St. Louis to the benefit of all,” said Dara Eskridge, executive director of Invest STL, in a statement. “The resources available in the growing online toolbox seek to lift up and leverage the skills and connections of even more neighborhood leaders in organizing and aligning their actions towards a just, powerful future.”

Claire Rippel, community engagement specialist with the University of Missouri Extension in St. Louis City, has played a key role in the Neighborhood Toolbox, focusing on the St. Louis Community LAB portion of the project. Her goal is to see community participation in development, safety and other neighborhood issues rise thanks to the toolbox.

Rippel describes the STL Community LAB serves as an online gathering place for courses, workshops and seminars from around the St. Louis region that support community development.

“Our goal is to make the information necessary for community improvement and building accessible to residents and community members,” Rippel said. “We want to make sure they know where to go to seek support and learn how to become more engaged in their communities.”

Creating the Community LAB was a long process. Rippel said that its designers worked on it for nearly a year before launching the site this February.

Today, the site includes more than 50 courses for the public. This includes the Neighborhood Leadership Academy, a 10-week course focused on giving residents the information they need to create anything from a youth chess club to a community garden.

“We want to give them the tools to create anything that makes a neighborhood stronger and more connected,” Rippel said.

The site also includes courses on real estate, community organizing and grant writing. Commercial property owners can find courses outlining the legal obligations they have when working with tenants.

There’s also information on the Neighborhood Leadership Fellows program, a leadership training program created to encourage North St. Louis City and County residents to become leaders in their communities and play active roles in city community development efforts.

The need for the Community LAB is not new. As Rippel says, St. Louis residents often struggle to find the right government agency or individual to ask about community development questions. That leads to frustration, which leads to residents who are less engaged.

Part of the challenge? There are so many government agencies serving St. Louis and the surrounding community, it can be exhausting for residents to figure out which body can solve their problems.

“Sometimes it’s hard for residents to know what direction to even start in,” Rippel said.

Rippel uses this example: Say a resident who lives in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood has a question about a commercial development planned for the area. That resident might consider attending a neighborhood association or community development meeting to learn more about the project or provide input. But which association serves the resident’s neighborhood and when does it meet? Which government agency will first address the development? Residents need to decipher this, often on their own.

And that same resident not only lives in a neighborhood, he or she lives in a ward, too. The resident, then, might also consider talking to an alderman about the development. The problem is, the Old St. Louis North neighborhood is split into two wards, so the resident would have to first find the right alderman.

Or maybe residents are struggling with a public safety issue. They’d first have to figure out the police district in which they live. There are six of those. 

“There are so many districts and boundaries, it can be very overwhelming for people to get a handle on where they are and who is in charge,” Rippel said.

By taking courses from the Community LAB — maybe the LAB’s Local Government 101 courses or courses on community organizing, community engagement or real estate development — the resident might discover how to wade through the often-complicated array of government bodies and neighborhood associations serving the community. This resident would then be far more likely to participate in community building efforts, Rippel said.

“The strongest communities have engaged and organized residents,” Rippel said. “The people who know the neighborhoods best are the people who live in them. We want St. Louis to become a strong and equitable region. We don’t want people’s life outcomes to be dictated by their zip codes. The more people involved in the community, the better.”

Dana Malkus, attorney and associate clinical professor at the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at the St. Louis University of Law, is coordinating the map of neighborhood organizations, a key focus of the initiative.

By using the map St. Louis residents can click on their neighborhood and get a linked list of associations and organizations serving their area. This makes it far easier for residents to contact these organizations, volunteer for them or attend their meetings.

Malkus said that organizing this information in one spot is a crucial factor in boosting community participation throughout St. Louis.

“Community-based organizations are really foundational to everything else,” Malkus said. “They are important in empowering neighborhoods and in building good neighborhoods. When we talk about crime, development and quality of life, much of this can be traced back to the groups serving the neighborhood and the leadership they provide.”

Malkus said that in St. Louis, neighborhoods with well-organized neighborhood associations tend to have lower levels of crime.

Before the map, the only way residents could discover the neighborhood organizations serving their communities was by asking their friends, family members, coworkers and neighbors. There was no central depository listing these organizations and their contact information.

“That’s what led to the creation of the map,” Malkus said. “Let’s get a better understanding of what groups are out there and what neighborhoods they serve.”

This will prevent unnecessary work, too. Say you’re a resident concerned with crime in your neighborhood or one who wants to have more of a say in what type of commercial developments rise in your community. You might decide to start your own community group.

But if a group already exists of which you aren’t aware, one that is focused on the same neighborhood and the same issues? You’ve just created an overlapping group that isn’t really needed. A better solution would have been to find the existing group and work with it.

“We would have a stronger ecosystem if people are working together rather than creating their own groups,” Malkus said.

Rippel said that she has seen strong demand from residents for courses and information on community development. This makes sense: Residents want to know what their neighborhoods will look like in the future. They want to know if new retailers have targeted their areas or if developers are planning apartment towers in their communities.

A lack of engagement has been more of an issue in some neighborhoods. This includes North St. Louis. A smaller number of residents from this community serve on boards and government agencies. Fewer are involved in neighborhood associations.

That’s unfortunate, because active residents can do a lot to bring more investment and opportunities to neighborhoods that have long been underserved, Rippel said.

“St. Louis, like a lot of other metro regions, is heavily segregated,” Rippel said. “Often, people get involved in boards and commissions because of who they know. That is how they get involved and engaged. We want to use the Community LAB to create more connections and networks across the region. We don’t want these walls to exist between communities.”

Say the residents of a particular neighborhood want a grocery store in their community. If these residents attend public meetings, organize through their neighborhood associations and contact their elected officials, they’ll greatly increase their odds of landing that new grocery store.

Organizations participating in the Neighborhood Toolbox are Invest STL, St. Louis University School of Law, St. Louis Vacancy Collaborative and two University of Missouri St. Louis organizations, Creating Whole Communities and the Community Innovation and Action Center.

Other organizations participating include the Urban Land Institute, St. Louis; St. Louis Economic Development Partnership; City of St. Louis Planning Urban Deign Agency; Thread STL; STL Regional Data Alliance; University of Missouri Extension; Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis; WEPOWER; and Community Engagement Action Group.

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