In its efforts to strategically reinvent Rockford and ensure its future, this nonprofit group is learning there’s an important dynamic that’s missing from our region today. Learn how community is the building block of something big.
Gary Anderson admires those “good old days,” when neighbors congregated on each others’ front porches and developed a rich culture in their community. That’s no longer a status quo in Rockford – but Anderson wonders why it couldn’t be.
“One of the great things about Haight Village is that I know my neighbors three blocks away,” says Anderson, who’s lived in the historic Rockford neighborhood for 38 years. “We need to bring back that fundamental, neighborly issue of knowing your neighbors and knowing that you can lean on, depend on, and be friends with them.”
He’s helping to do just that, as a member of Transform Rockford. In its mission to revitalize Rockford from within, Transform Rockford and its 12 “spokes,” or areas of focus, have spent the past year researching best practices and uncovering key data points.
Over the past year, the Families & Neighborhoods spoke team has concluded that strong families build strong neighborhoods, and vice versa. Perhaps not surprisingly, they’ve found that, where churches and schools thrive, where neighbors support each other, and where residents have access to basic amenities and institutions, there’s a strong sense of community.
“When you have neighborhoods that don’t have food, don’t have access to resources, where kids don’t have places to go, those are less-popular places to live,” says Mike Brown, spoke leader and President/CEO of YMCA Rock River Valley. “When you have active neighborhoods, they seem to be happier. Parks, playgrounds, food – those are intrinsic.”
In researching their subject, the Families & Neighborhoods team spent three months examining best practices, seeking insight from outside communities, and defining a quality neighborhood. Then, the team hit the streets, seeking data and perspective from those most engaged in Rockford’s neighborhoods. The team expects to reveal its research and action plans this May.
“We found a couple of examples of what defines quality neighborhoods,” says Brown. “There’s a form you can fill out to obtain national recognition for your neighborhood, and it has information that supports what we’re saying. Are there sidewalks, are there kids, are there neighborhood events, and do neighbors know each other?”
Brown’s work at the YMCA puts him in front of children and families every day, and he sees many opportunities for Rockford agencies to focus on children’s developmental assets.
He points to the Search Institute’s list of 40 Developmental Assets, all qualities a child needs to live a successful life. Assets include family support and parental involvement in school, serving others, accountability for one’s behavior, quality free-time activities, positive values/morals, and social competencies.
“We’re going to recommend doing some studies of developmental aspects of youth in our community,” says Brown. “Research suggests that the more assets a child has, the more likely that child is to succeed. Kids with 10 or more of these assets are the ones who are going to college and making successful careers.”
Also related to neighborhoods are property values, a subject which requires further consideration, says Anderson. As the principal at Gary W. Anderson Architects in Rockford, he’s seen the effect that eyesore properties have on their neighbors, and he’s also seen well-meaning property owners who struggle with the costs and benefits of renovations.
“If I need to make a bathroom improvement or a kitchen improvement, I might not be able to afford it because the house is only worth $30,000,” says Anderson. “I think we need to address how property values drive our neighborhoods.”
Once the Families & Neighborhoods spoke releases its action items and research, an independent “Red Team” will provide additional guidance. Even as the city buzzes about Transform Rockford, Anderson believes there’s a simple way to take action right now.
“It comes down to the people; it’s the individual leaders in that neighborhood,” he says. “It’s all from within. I can’t make you do it. Community leaders can’t dictate the terms. But, if we lead by example from within our neighborhoods, then others will say, ‘Something good is going on over there, and I want to know more.’”