Community engagement, also called public or civic engagement, is a term often used, but can be difficult to define.
Depending on who you ask, you might receive several different answers. Community engagement might mean mailing out letters to notify property owners of a project that will affect them and their land. It might mean holding a series of meetings at a space within walking distance of a majority of neighbors. Or, it could mean any range of activities involving all parties that could be affected by your project. While a worthy goal, community engagement can also prove difficult to achieve.
Part of what makes our ongoing project in Walnut Park so successful is the community. The neighbors of Walnut Park sought assistance from Restore Oregon a little over a year ago when the threat of demolition hung over the Ocobock Mansion, a landmark within the neighborhood. Staff from Restore Oregon attended meetings and rallies held by the neighborhood to lend support to their cause. Following their success, concerned neighbors continued conversations with Restore Oregon, which ultimately led to our current documentation project.
In May of this year, we were invited to a meeting with a small, core group of neighbors that hoped to continue the initiative sparked by the success of saving the Ocobock Mansion. These neighbors wanted to learn more about the options available to them and how to move forward with understanding their history and significance. While they all agreed they wanted to document their neighborhood, the consensus among this group was to first hold a larger community meeting in order to gauge the wider neighborhood’s opinion on any kind of project.
To prep for this larger meeting, we helped design a flyer to pass to all neighbors that would be included in the study area boundaries. While we passed out these flyers, we made sure to chat with anyone we saw on the street or sidewalk in order to start that initial dialogue on the project and how it could affect the neighborhood. The responses we received that afternoon were positive, with neighbors saying they hoped the project could prevent a future Ocobock-like threat.
At our larger meeting, we wanted to ensure that neighbors received as much information as possible so that they could make an informed decision on whether or not the project would move forward. A neighborhood spokesperson introduced Historic Walnut Park, an update on the Ocobock Mansion was given so neighbors would know the progress made on the landmark they collectively saved, and Restore Oregon explained what documentation would entail as well as what the results would mean for the neighborhood’s future. We then opened up the floor to any questions or concerns neighbors might have before ending the night by asking them to vote using a sticker system.
While our meeting produced a consensus among attendees, we still wanted to allow more Walnut Park residents to provide us with input before fully getting started on documenting. With the help of neighbors, we sent out an email that allowed people to answer a brief survey and submit any questions. Again, we welcomed the unanimous response and moved forward with the project.
Neighborhood volunteers have attended training sessions and presentations in order to learn how to conduct historic documentation. We have gathered in living rooms and coffee shops to discuss the types of information needed to complete neighborhood documentation and to work together to learn what’s in Walnut Park. While the data is still coming in, already neighbors are learning the architectural styles and historic significance of their neighborhood within Northeast Portland.
Our hope is that even after the summer project comes to a close, neighbors will continue to research their houses and previous homeowners, talk to their neighbors about their experiences in the neighborhood, and work together to preserve the neighborhood’s character and history into the future. We also hope that other neighborhoods see this project as an example of how to start the documentation process in their own communities.