Citizen engagement with elected officials used to be limited to large public meeting halls where the most vociferous voices were often the only opinions heard. The advent of chat rooms and blogs has given citizens a new tool, but few of these platforms have managed to extend their audiences beyond the average citizen to target those officials with decision-making power. Aaron Napartsek, the founder of Streetsblog, has created one of these few platforms. Recently, he sat down with the Local Leaders Council at Smart Growth America (SGA) to discuss the success of Streetsblog. His is one of many emerging stories of how social media platforms can be utilized to engage an informed constituency at the grassroots level of city policy and connect those ideas to city and regional leaders to create meaningful change in transport policy.
Finding the right platform
Napartsek, now a visiting scholar at the Massachusets Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, first started Streetsblog in the spring of 2006. Napartsek’s goal was to reorient New York City’s transport policy, which for eighty years was dedicated towards accommodating the private automobile. Napartsek wanted to harness citizens’ agitation and discontent with the transport options of the city into one collaborative platform. At the time, ideas like protected bicycle lanes and a people-oriented Times Square sounded politically impossible.
From the gridlock of cars in 2006…
to the construction and lawn chairs of 2009…
to the pedestrian plaza of today, the readers and writers of Streetsblog – together with elected officials, city planners, and a wide array of other dedicated citizens – have shown that change is possible.
What’s more, Napartsek’s blog shows the power not simply of change, but of collective action towards achieving this change. Napartsek admits that “a blogger can represent a politician’s worst nightmare – a journalist, and an engaged citizen that cares about their issue.” But if elected officials are willing to listen, Streetsblog is a forum that promotes informed discussion and actionable ideas that can become an official’s greatest asset, rather than an impediment.
Napartsek sees Streetsblog as simply the starting point towards making people more involved in transport decisions at the city, regional, and nationwide level. For bloggers in other countries, Streetblog stands as both inspiration and model for starting a nationwide discussion on transport policy and urban development. In India, this discussion takes the form of TheCityFix India and Smart City Kochi. In Brazil, discussion stems from TheCityFix Brasil and the SSPP Blog, an offshoot of the journal Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy. In South Africa, Future Cape Town brings meaningful discussion to transport policy. There are many emerging discussions around the world, but there are still several places which have no online platforms for intelligent discussion on issues of city development and transport policy.
Watch Napartsek’s entire interview below to learn more about the change Streetsblog has made to the transport policies of cities across the country—but watch out, you might get inspired to make some positive change of your own!