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Topics: Community

Birmingham Participation

In the early 1970s, following a decade of racial strife and the mobilization of black neighborhoods, the city of Birmingham, Alabama, developed a formal system of Neighborhood Associations. Today there are 95 of them, organized in various Community Advisory Committees and an effective bi-racial Citizens Advisory Board that is mandated to meet with the mayor and city council at least once each quarter. They focus primarily on community development projects, such as housing rehabilitation and commercial development, and many of the low income neighborhoods have worked with local ministries and community organizers to provide ongoing leadership development. Case study plus.

Prepared by Ken Thomson as part of the Citizen Participation Project at the Lincoln Filene Center at Tufts University, funded by the Ford Foundation, 1988.


A. Beginnings and Authorization
B. Neighborhood Structures
C. Citywide Citizen Structures

D. Outreach to Citizens
E. Major Program Components
F. Overall Perspective of the City on Participation

A. Beginnings and AuthorizationBorn: October 15, 1974

Place: In City Council Resolution formally adopting the Citizen Participation Plan

The Birmingham participation system grew out of an extremely tense racial atmosphere following a decade of racial strife. In 1972 a Community Development Department was created, the first in a city with a tradition of among the lowest levels of per capita public expenditures in the country. At this time, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development was promulgating strict guidelines for participation in a number of cities with past records of racial discrimination, one of which was Birmingham. The regional director for HUD outlined minimum requirements for involvement of the poor to Birmingham's mayor in July, 1973.

In response to HUD's requirements, the Community Development Department proposed its first version of a participation plan in October, 1973 and shortly thereafter a Community Resources Division was set up which apparently began to implement the plan in several North Birmingham neighborhoods early the next year. The plan drew major protest from black leaders, particularly over its dependence upon a private organization, Operation New Birmingham, as the primary organizer of the neighborhood structure. This protest culminated with 500 people at a public hearing on the plan in the municipal auditorium on April 1, 1974. The official record notes that "almost all speakers expressed opposition to aspects of the initial plan." Staff listened to tapes from the hearing, conducted a workshop for more than 130 participants, and developed a revised plan which received final Council approval in October. The new plan omitted Operation New Birmingham from its provisions, and was generally well received.

At this point the program was off and running at full speed: an election of Neighborhood Citizens Committees was held in November, 1974 to fill 258 positions, and neighborhood committees and advisory groups were subsequently formed. A major effort to inform the public about these groups was taken through flyers and posters, churches, community schools, radio and television announcements, and special events. The first meeting of the citywide Citizens Advisory Board was held a few months later in February, 1975. The CAB specifically decided to adopt a citywide perspective, avoid partisan politics, and work cooperatively with city officials. Disposition of the $5 million CDBG grant was the major CAB issue during this year. And it was important for this biracial, grassroots group of people simply to meet on a regular basis with the Mayor and City Council members.

B. Neighborhood Structures

1. Neighborhood Associations and Community Advisory Committees

At the heart of the Birmingham system are its 95 Neighborhood Associations. Like Dayton, but unlike Portland, the entire city is divided into defined neighborhoods. Except for newly annexed areas, the number and definition have remained fairly constant (up from 84 neighborhoods when the system began in 1974). Neighborhood population range: from 180 to 8,200. The median neighborhood population is 2,740.

Two to six neighborhoods are grouped together into a community. A total of 22 communities exist. The membership of the Community Advisory Committee are the officers of the neighborhoods involved. They elect their own officers and representatives to the CAB. In practice, the CAB representation is the primary function of this community structure, although the CACs are required to meet at least bimonthly.

One representative from each of the 22 communities makes up the Citizens Advisory Board. It is designed to present the opinions and feelings of the neighborhoods to city hall. (See below under citywide structures, C1, for further description of the CAB).

The rules of operation for the neighborhoods and higher level structures are contained in the Citizen Participation Plan, which was in existence since the system's beginning. The provisions of this plan formally supersede any CAB, community, or neighborhood bylaws. Part of the agreement with citizens was that this plan would be reviewed and revised as necessary every two years. Major revisions did, in fact, occur on three occasions: October 12, 1976, July 5, 1978, and August 26, 1980. Elections for neighborhood officers changed from an annual to a biannual basis after 1976. The 1980 changes included combining the Community Resources Division and the Planning Division of the Community Development Department.

Voting membership in the neighborhood associations is open to any resident 16 years of age or older. Property owners, businesses, and other organizations may NOT be voting members.

The Citizen Participation Plan specifically states that neighborhood associations may go to the Community Development Department, the CAC, the CAB, or directly to other city departments and personnel. In practice, the Community Development Department has—at some stages in its historydiscouraged neighborhoods from "circumventing" its control, insisting that all Community Resource Officers take issues through the central office of the Community Resource Division, not to other city departments directly.

The CP Plan also calls for Neighborhood Advisory Groups to be chosen by the neighborhood president, representing local organizations and specially disadvantaged groups. We found no evidence that these groups currently take an active role in the Birmingham system.

2. Elections

A key link between citizens and the city in Birmingham are the elections for officers of the neighborhood associations (called "selections" because of state law complications). The president, vice president, and secretary of each neighborhood must be chosen every two years at the polls in a September/October election held separately from municipal elections. Any Birmingham resident age 16 or over may vote, and any resident age 18 or over who has lived in the neighborhood for 90 days and attended at least two neighborhood meetings is eligible to run for office (by completing a declaration of candidacy). Any ties are resolved at the next neighborhood meeting. The elections are run by the Community Resources Division.

A typical turnout citywide is from 7,500 to 8,500 voters remaining fairly constant over the last four elections. The highest turnout was in the second year of operation, 1975, with 11,654 voters. In some neighbor-hoods turnout may run as high as 70%. More typically, turnout in a heavily contested election will run 10% to 15% of the voting age population. Uncontested elections may draw only 1 to 3% In 1986, there were at least 309 candidates running for these offices.

3. Drawing Neighborhood Boundaries

At least half of the first year of the Birmingham CP system was devoted to identifying neighborhood and community boundaries. A team of city staff literally started at one end of the city, working its way to the other end, knocking on doors and asking people how they perceived their own neighborhood. Charles Lewis, locally known as "Mr. Citizen Participation," argues strongly that this process was critical in acceptance of the CP system: "When the program began, feeling by some citizens' groups for city officials included misunderstanding, antagonism, and distrust. When the new map was prepared which...changed the boundaries in accordance with citizens' recommendations, an important step was taken in establishing a trust relationship and two-way communication between citizens and city officials."

Like the Participation Plan itself, the boundaries were specifically left open for revision every two years. Few changes have been made, however, except to add neighborhoods from newly annexed areas.

4. CP Administrative Funding

No direct administrative funds are given to neighborhood associations (but see under the Neighborhood Allocation Process below for the large amounts of development money that have been spent on projects designated by the associations).

The administrative budget for the system is allocated primarily to the Community Resources Division of the Community Development Department. Up until 1987 almost all of the funds for the participation system apparently came from the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) from the federal government. We do not yet have complete figures, but approximately $500,000 is spent for the citizen participation system from this grant, including $94,000 for neighborhood communications. In addition, $158,000 was allocated directly to Neighborhood Services, Inc., an independent citizen group working in some of the lowest income neighborhoods in the city.

5. Offices and Staffing

There are no neighborhood offices. Staffing for the Birmingham participation system is provided in its entirety by the Community Resources Officers who work out of the city hall office of the Community Resources Division. There were 9 full time officers in 1987, including the Principal Community Resource Officer, who serves as staff director for the system. There had been as many as 13 full-time staff in recent years, and as few as six or seven when the program began.

6.Neighborhood Activities

The neighborhood officers tend to be like ward healers for their neighborhood, taking the lead in many community events from housing rehabilitation to halloween parties. And like ward healers, they have an important material incentive to disperse—-not patronage, but community projects. Large sums of development money, which have been as much $70,000 a year for a neighborhood of 5,000 people, are allocated by the neighbor-hood organizations. Determination of how this money would be spent was a major factor which early organizers of the project felt would make citizens willing to commit the time and energy to participate.

Some individual neighborhood officers spend huge amounts of time on major neighborhood projects—-from the housing rehabilitation corporation of North Pratt to the commercial development activities of Five Point South. The neighborhoods seem to be taking a more and more active role in zoning and land use kinds of decisions through the early warning they get of them. We witnessed neighborhood meetings with prospective developers which made it clear that developers realize they have a real stake in talking to the appropriate neighborhood associations before attempting to get zoning variances or other special agreements from the city.

Another major effort of neighborhoods has been the work to develop a community identity through a number of self-help projects and festivals. Tool- lending libraries have often been part of this. These have been very important in establishing a sense of community in many areas where no grassroots organizations had ever existed before.

C. Citywide Citizen Structures

1. Citizens Advisory Board

Taking the opposite approach from Portland's multiple channels of participation, Birmingham has one central body which channels policy proposals from neighborhoods into city hall: the Citizens Advisory Board. This body maintains contact with the mayor and the city council, as well as other departments when necessary. Its formal representative structure, derived from the neighborhood associations, gives it the potential to articulate policy positions as the voice of the neighborhoods.

The CAB meets monthly, and at least one meeting each quarter is mandated to be with the Mayor and with the City Council. CAB committees have been developed which largely parallel the City Council committees. In 1986-87, for the first time, the three officers of the CAB were all Black, a fact which caused a degree of concern among some of the white neighborhood officers. The CAB itself holds strongly to its effective operation as a biracial body. In fact, other observers have noted that is was only the second such body associated with local government in the history of the city (the first was the board of the local poverty program). A major question exists, however, about the impact of the CAB. It has no staff other than that of the Community Resources Division. It initially served a vitally important role of simply establishing contact, on a biracial basis, between people in the neighborhoods and the highest levels of government. Now that contact is an accomplished fact, however, the policy role of the CAB is unclear. They can and do offer advice, but it is not clear who listens under what circumstances, or what procedures exist for translating that advice into policy. The CAB seldom seems to take positions on major policy issues facing the city, and seldom seems to win when it does.

D. Outreach to Citizens

1. Monthly Neighborhood Newsletters

One of the most impressive and distinctive features of the Birmingham CP system is that the Community Resources Division mails out city and neighborhood information packets every month to every household in the city. Each neighborhood association can include whatever material it wishes in the mailing. The material typically includes meeting notices, new program descriptions, and information about other events or services of the city or neighborhood. This is a crucial method of making citizens aware of the role of the participation system and of their opportunity to participate.

2. Neighborhood Surveys

According to the city's description of program history produced in 1984, "Approximately 20 neighborhoods have completed or are in the process of completing systematic door-to-door surveys to identify neighborhood needs and problems". This information was to be used for neighborhood plans. We have found no evidence, however, that full population surveys have been used in policy decisions by either administrators or neighborhood leaders.

3. 'Cross Town Newsletter

A publication called 'CROSS TOWN was an important source of communica- tion between and about neighborhoods for several years. It was typically a four-page newsletter that provided information about ongoing city programs, reported events important for the citizen participation system, and described recent activities of selected neighborhoods. The publication was discontinued in 1987 because of budget cuts.

E. Major Program Components

1. Neighborhood Allocation Process

The most direct policy input within the Birmingham participation system is the ability of neighborhood association to determine how their allocation of capital development funds will be spent. This policy began in the first years of the system, when a formula was developed that allocated to each neighborhood a specific percentage of the CDBG funds coming to the city. The formula is based on population and neighborhood need. In 1987 and 1988, however, as increasing amounts have been cut out of this budget, each neighborhood was given a flat minimum amount. While in the early years, between $6,000 and $70,000 was allocated to each neighborhood, in 1988 the allocation was down to a little over $3,000.

Each neighborhood allocation is made each year, even if no active neighborhood association exists at that time. During the year each active neighborhood association votes to determine how this allocation will be spent. When a new association is formed it has access to all the funds allocated during the inactive period. While neighborhoods clearly can spend for innovative projects they have developed, the city also becomes quite involved, in practice. What seems to happen sometimes is that the city will say to a neighborhood, "We have this new project ready to go in your area, do you want to spend your neighborhood allocation on this project?" Apparently most of the neighborhood allocations are spent on tasks performed either by city employees or contractors going through the usual city contract process.

2. Neighborhood Training Sessions

The Division of Community Resources provides orientation sessions for neighborhood officers after each election. In recent years, these have become opportunities for each new officer to get to know some of the heads of city agencies, and how to go about making requests for basic services or policy changes.

Neighborhood Services, Inc. also provides leadership training for the neighborhood organizations within its area. There are 32 neighborhoods in some way connected with them, but only five or six seem to be involved in the core of their work.

3. Operation New Birmingham

One of the first organizations assigned to work on citizen participation in Birmingham was Operation New Birmingham. This group was a coalition of business and religious leaders that helped to promote more racially open economic an governmental processes in some of the hottest periods of the civil rights movement. They were given a contract in February, 1974, apparently to implement the citizen participation plan, but their involvement was eliminated with the defeat of the original plan.

ONB is now the primary contract agency for the city assigned to manage downtown development. This practice is unusual compared to the operations of most cities we have examined—in general, economic development issues and downtown development are an important role of line departments of the city, and are not assigned in as high a degree as we found in Birmingham to a nongovernmental body. In addition to this economic development role, ONB continues to be an important forum for interaction black and white residents on questions of race relations and improving community life.

4. Neighborhood Services, Inc.

In 1979 a coalition of low-income groups organized by Greater Birmingham Ministries sued the city for failing to give low income neighborhoods their fair share of CDBG funds. At issue was the city's "triage" system of rating neighborhoods which left out the most needy areas that were judged to be lacking in leadership or resources necessary to make good use of the funds. Through this suit the coalition succeeded in obtaining an agreement from the city to allocate a substantially larger share of these funds to the lowest income neighborhoods.

As a consequence of this action, 32 neighborhoods formed a coalition called Neighborhood Services, Inc. As of 1983 they had 8 full-time staff people. They have continued to work on a number of development projects, from new housing to development of a community-based supermarket. They also maintain a continuing leadership development training program to help residents of these low income neighborhoods to recognize and articulate their community's needs and take effective action to address those needs.

5. Neighborhood Information

The Division of Community Resources has the primary role of informing neighborhood presidents about events and decisions in city government which are relevant to their neighborhoods. A major part of this task is accomplished through a biweekly mailing which includes information on such issues as:
  • Requests for liquor licenses, pool table, and dance permits.
  • Proposed zoning changes, and corresponding public hearing dates.
  • Community development projects undertaken by the city that will affect their neighborhood.
  • Notification of responses by the city to requests made by neighborhood officers.
  • Citywide notices including City Council agenda, public hearing notices, notification of board and staff vacancies to be filled by the City Council, agenda of the Planning commission, Subdivision Committee, Zoning Advisory Committee, and the Zoning Board of Adjustments, and agendas and minutes of the CAB.
The Division also has the responsibility to maintain the "official map of neighborhoods", the "official copy of the officers names and addresses", and the schedule of regular meetings times and locations for neighborhood association meetings. The telephone number given in all city publications for contact with the neighborhoods and the participation system is the Division of Community Resources number.

6. Other Projects and Events

  • An important effort of the Birmingham system: they have sent dozens of neighborhood association officers to meetings of Neighborhoods, USA and other neighborhood-based conferences to find out how other neighborhoods worked around the country. They have done this in a larger scale than any other city, as far as we know.
  • A major program supervised by several neighborhoods is the house-painting program which takes unemployed youth in the summer months and matches them with private homes whose owners cannot afford to pay for repainting on their own. The neighborhood associations determine which homes are the highest priority, and assign supervisory volunteers to get the job done.

F. Overall Perspective of the City on Participation

The Birmingham participation system was designed to create a sense of community in a shattered city. For the first time, it brought blacks and whites together in a common vision for the future. Its focus was on physical development that had been badly neglected in years past. The Citizen Participation Plan represented the city's recognition of "the need and desirability of involving its citizens more directly and continuously in its community development efforts". Personal contact between city hall and average citizens of all colors and incomes was a cherished goal.

The Participation Plan has already accomplished many of its objectives. But it retains the focus upon central control with which it began: offices, staff, elections, and communications all emanate from city hall. Increasing ties between citizens and officials, not establishing independent citizen operations, has been the central focus. Unlike Portland, for example, there is much more of a sense of a single channel for participation and a single source of support for it. This makes for a more coherent participation system, but also a more restricted one.

The system was also set up with a great concern for equal access, and the detailed electoral structure and formal representation through the CAB have performed this function well from the very beginning. Similarly a lack of information for citizens had been a critical problem, again solved quickly and surely with the Birmingham system of monthly mailings to every household.

The biggest question which remains, now that these initial concerns have been met, is whether the system can coexist with a more pluralistic political system and gain a financial commitment from the city's general fund in the face of severe cutbacks in federal monies that had been the mainstay of the participation effort.

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