Why do some communities seem better able to handle challenges or rebound from disasters, both manmade and natural, more quickly and effectively than others?
That’s a question the National Civic League took up years ago when the organization was undergoing a period of soul-searching about its mission. Its historic role as an advocacy organization for local government reform, nonpartisan, professional management and model city charters seemed less pressing than it had been in 1894, when it was founded and cities were famously corrupt and inefficient.
After a brainstorming session and retreat in 1987, NCL’s friends and board members were asked to come up with some new ideas during the annual National Conference on Governance. One idea the organization came up with was a concept known as “civic infrastructure.”
Civic infrastructure is the sum of local capacities that communities have to come together around common goals and implement them—things like “levels of citizen participation,” “intergroup relations” and “charitable giving and volunteering.” Communities with health civic infrastructures tend to be the one that handle challenges and crises most effectively.
Next week, we will be holding our biggest event of the year, the annual All-America City Awards (AAC), a program that asks the question: ‘What’s working in American communities?’ When AAC was started in 1949, it was mostly an award for government reform and professional city management, but over the years it has become more about the less formal mechanisms that make community democracy work—civic infrastructure.
Dakota County, Nebraska, is one of 26 finalist communities for the 2011 All-America City Awards. (Counties, neighborhoods and metro regions are also eligible to for the award). In their application, Dakota County said their two most pressing challenges were a lack of affordable higher education opportunities (colleges and universities) and economic development.
These very common problems for rural towns on the high plains were exacerbated last year when the local meat packing plant closed its door, throwing about 1,450 workers into the ranks of the unemployed, many of whom were non-English speakers.
The county has responded by increasing its post secondary education programs a partnership between Northeast Community College, Wayne State College and South Sioux City to build a new College Center in South Sioux City. The community also built a new Industrial Park in the hopes of attracting new employers into the area. (You can read about these community projects and others by visiting the All-America City blog at www.allamericacityaward.com.
Last week we received an e-mail from the grants coordinator for the City of South Sioux City informing us that Dakota County, which is on the banks of the Missouri River, is facing a “500 year flooding event that is set to reach its peak on June 14-15, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.”
So the Dakota County delegation will not be attending the 2011 All-America City Awards, which will be held June 15-17 downriver in Kansas City, Missouri. They’ll be staying home to deal with a new crisis, which is exactly what they should be doing and wish them the best.
This has been a crazy year for weather—unimaginably destructive tornadoes in the South and Missouri, terrible flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. But communities that have strong civic infrastructures will be able to weather these crises and come back stronger than ever. I’m confident Dakota County will be one of those. I’m equally confident that they’ll be back for another shot at the All-America City Awards.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.