Service-Learning Faculty Fellow Links Community Voices to Neighborhood Needs

Professor Mary Lutz presents the results of the West Harlem community needs assessment project.

Professor Mary Lutz presents the results of the West Harlem community needs assessment project to members of Community Board 9. Photo: Genéa Stewart

By Mary Lutz and Jonathan Bennett

How do you find out what New York City communities need? You stop people on the street and ask them.

This simple and ingenious technique for assessing community needs has been tested successfully in two of New York City’s 59 Community Districts and is the subject of a 43-page report released this month by CCNY’s Center for Worker Education Professor Mary Lutz, a service-learning faculty fellow and public scholar with the Colin Powell Center.

“It’s easy to imagine that this method, in combination with local political action, could be an important step to bring creative small-town democratic decision making into big city life,” says Professor Lutz. “It is a promising alternative to the top-down decision making that is currently favored by the Bloomberg administration.”


Randomly Chosen Pedestrians

Lutz’s report, “Community Needs Assessment: A Pedestrian Survey of West Harlem,” is based on interviews with 1,117 randomly chosen pedestrians in the West Harlem district represented by Community Board 9. A dozen adult college students, working in pairs, were trained to approach adult pedestrians and ask them if they had ten minutes for an interview about the needs of their community. Cooperation rates were very high, ranging from 50 to 90 percent.

The interviews, which were conducted in either English or Spanish, included both multiple-choice questions and open-ended questions such as, “If you could improve one thing in this community right now, what would it be?” The pedestrians’ response to that question showed a striking uniformity in all 21 of Community Board 9’s census tracts. In every census tract, unemployment and lack of adequate, affordable, housing were the top two concerns.

Restoring Integrity
“The simplicity of this approach could easily be replicated in all of the city’s 59 Community Districts, says Lutz. “Next year’s election of a new mayor will create an opportunity for the City Council and the Community Boards to restore their integrity and reclaim their original charter responsibilities, especially to initiate their own plans for the growth and well being of their communities.”

Currently, decisions about the allocation of local resources are almost entirely based on a top-down process. Voters choose representatives who run on a particular platform and that platform is perceived as being what the community desires. Or an organization chooses to lobby for or against a particular issue. But neither method provides an understanding of what community members themselves feel are its most pressing needs.
Pedestrian polling provides a detailed understanding of exactly what is perceived as the most pressing needs by residents and workers in a given community. When mapped against the existing community resources, pedestrian polling can pinpoint which census tracts are best targets for new or improved social, educational, health, anti-crime and other programs.

The first pedestrian survey was conducted by Lutz in north Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 2009. The experience gained from the first survey was used to make the second survey more efficient and informative. In the first two tests of pedestrian polling, the data was collected the old-fashioned way, with interviewers recording answers on paper, but Lutz hopes that it will be possible in subsequent studies to use hand-held devices to generate an electronic record of the interview responses, making it possible to summarize and analyze the data almost immediately.

Geo-located Data
The street locations of the interviews were chosen to obtain the views of pedestrians in each of the 21 US Census tracts within Community District 9. The responses were entered into a database from which an analysis and profile of perceived community needs can be built. Because the information is geo-located by census tract, it is possible to provide various opinion profiles, from the US Census tracts, which cover a few city blocks, to neighborhoods within a Community District, to the District as a whole. The detailed geographic breakdown promotes a more accurate and nuanced understanding of perceived needs.

Each of the people interviewed was asked for the reason they were in the neighborhood that day. Nearly two-thirds lived nearby. One in eight worked in the area. One in ten was there to attend school or to accompany a child.

A Mechanism to Voice Opinions
“We are living through a period of major social changes, which force people to reassess their priorities,” says Lutz. “But even though many people may have very similar hopes, fears and desires, they lack a mechanism to give voice to their opinions. This survey technique gives neighbors, in a very local way, a method to communicate to city officials their concerns that might otherwise go unheard.”

“Using this polling technique it is possible, for perhaps the first time, to scientifically understand how a community views its own needs,” Lutz adds. “The expression of these needs, as articulated by the people who live, shop, and work in a particular community, when presented in a concentrated and easily understandable form, can become a key element in insuring our elected representatives’ accountability.”

Read more about Mary Lutz and our other contributors here.

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