From the Start: Neighborhood Civics in Action

Evolving over the years, the neighborhood program has held onto one core element: helping residents improve their community.

Recent graduates of the neighborhood leadership program - Photo: Ian Christmann

Most every city resident has something that he or she wants to see improved. Be it a playground, an overgrown lot or a needed service that is unavailable, the best ideas for making the city a better place often come from local residents. Unfortunately, not everyone has the resources to take action. Twenty-seven years ago, The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven launched its neighborhood program to address this very problem.

The program began with a mission to identify, build, and connect with people in their neighborhoods. The goal: Discover the gifts and talents of individuals and help them improve their community in productive and inclusive ways. Funding was made available for youth and adults to take their ideas — like improving a playground or starting an afterschool homework club — and make them reality.
Vacant lots were transformed into community vegetable gardens and pocket parks with wildflowers and mulched walkways. Residents turned out to install planters on corners and to plant trees, shrubs, and flower beds to beautify streets.

The projects have cut across generations and bridged economic and cultural differences to unite neighborhoods in positive action. In 1998, the program contributed to the National Civic League recognizing New Haven as an All-America City.

As part of its neighborhood work, The Foundation has invested more than $2 million in community gardens and greenspaces, achieving success through collaboration with two well-established organizations: The New Haven Land Trust and Urban Resources Initiative (URI) of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The two organizations provided technical experience, supplies and equipment.

The New Haven Land Trust maintains more than 40 community gardens in New Haven where local students and residents meet each other, and learn about and produce nutritious food. Over the past two decades, URI has completed more than 310 urban greenspace restoration projects with an annual participation of about 1,000 New Haven residents. After restoration projects, residents report heightened membership in civic and voluntary organizations, rejuvenated feelings of neighborhood ownership, and lasting visible improvements in their daily environment.

The neighborhood program has evolved and expanded over the years. It now includes residents from West Haven, East Haven and Hamden. And community leadership training is central to the program. Each participant is involved in imagining, developing, testing and realizing projects that build community and provide positive outcomes. At the completion of the program, participants can apply for a grant to support their project and make Greater New Haven the kind of place where we all want to live.

This article is part of a series of stories celebrating The Community Foundation's 90th Anniversary.