Norwood is betting that intentional neighboring and empowering people to work together — on everything from park clean-ups to economic development — will steer the city toward a brighter future.
Residents feel good about their chances. They have already created a 10-year plan for the city.
The Norwood Community Agreement, unveiled in February, lays out a framework around the common vision that emerged from more than a year’s worth of community interviews and meetings. Supported by LISC of Greater Cincinnati, residents volunteered more than 800 hours to identify key issues and opportunities, brainstorm and plan strategic projects, and prioritize the work necessary to achieve their vision.
And, thanks to new partnerships made along the way, some of the work — building a network of block captains, establishing ward councils, organizing a citywide clean-up, the creation of a historic walking route — is already underway.
“It’s really so much of what I think we need across our country, to be engaged in our communities and to be there for one another,” says U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH Second District).
An enclave of Cincinnati, Norwood is a city in financial crisis, its streets riddled with massive potholes and its parks in disrepair. But Norwood also has a strong housing market, a central location, and an energized population.
In November 2017, a group of residents wanting to make positive change in the city started the process — known as a Quality of Life assessment and plan — that culminated Feb. 9 with the launch of the Norwood Community Agreement. Other developing communities across Greater Cincinnati, including Madisonville and Newport, Ky., have done Quality of Life plans, and funding organizations have confidence in the process.
“The residents are the engaged change agents,” says Mary Francis, Senior Program Officer for Interact for Health, which has and will continue to support Norwood’s efforts.
“(In Norwood), residents and stakeholders had positive energy and shared realistic statements about problems to be addressed,” Francis adds. “While the course of action may take time, it appears the Norwood community shares responsibility in outcomes.”
That shared responsibility comes from a feeling of connectedness and ownership that grew throughout the process, according to organizers Angela Pancella and Mary C. Miller. New partnerships and friendships were formed while people brainstormed in the local high school cafeteria during community workshops or planned for action in people’s dining rooms.
“The more involved a person got … the more connected they felt,” says Pancella, director of Woven Oak Initiative, which acted as an organizing agency. “The fostering of relationships is what this whole process is about, at heart. Relationships — not just living next to each other — are what make community.”
Quality of Life assessments begin with interviews of community leaders: both traditional leaders, such as council members and pastors, and informal leaders like the neighbor who always organizes gatherings. In Norwood, a core group of about a dozen volunteers interviewed 70 people across the city.
From those interviews, a common vision for Norwood’s future emerged. Residents wanted to make Norwood a diverse and thriving community that:
- provides spaces and activities to support and welcome all residents and encourage people to connect with their neighbors;
- maintains roads, parks and other community assets through innovation and collaboration; and
- encourages entrepreneurs and the revitalization of Montgomery Road as the central business corridor.
A community meeting last spring introduced this vision and invited those interested to help create a plan to get there. Dozens of people spent their evenings at community workshops, working alongside residents and stakeholders, including HCDC; Community Building Institute of Xavier University; Wasson Way, a biking and walking trail that will connect to Norwood; and Off Pike Market, a nonprofit that hopes to encourage entrepreneurs in the city. To achieve the community vision, together they identified projects — and the resources to make them happen — in six priority areas: community engagement, community perception, economic development, housing, infrastructure, and inclusion.
“The process created a sense of accomplishment and faith in our ability to truly make a difference,” Miller says. “It gave residents hope for the future as well as the confidence that their hopes and dreams for Norwood can become a reality.”
As residents’ enthusiasm grew, City Council and administration members took notice. Mayor Tom Williams attended the Community Agreement presentation. Several City Council and staff members attended the community workshops and continue to provide support for projects in the Community Agreement. City Council member Leslie Stevenson, for example, is helping to organize community councils, and the City Council parks committee is helping with the community clean-up events this spring.
Despite these accomplishments, the work of the Norwood Community Agreement is just beginning. The resident action teams meet again in March to consider how the group will be structured and how funding will be used to continue implementing the plan. Whatever the details, organizers said they are confident the community’s vision will become a reality.
“There’s this really vibrant, energetic team of people who have come together, supporting each other’s passion projects and inviting others to join in,” Pancella says. “My big dream is that we will establish a solid foundation on which many folks who care about the common good will be able to build.”
The series, Community Stories, is supported by LISC Greater Cincinnati. Learn more at lisc.org/greatercincinnati.
LISC supports contributing journalist, Hillary Copsey. Read more stories about community development from Hillary here.