As an organizer of Better Bike, a local advocacy organization dedicated to promoting the health and environmental benefits of active transportation, I’ve had the opportunity over the past year to contact numerous city departments and officials. My urban planning training and research into local government probably makes me as equipped as anyone to navigate the corridors of City Hall, and consequently I anticipated rapid progress on the low-dollar improvements that I suggested—bike racks, safety education, signage and lanes—to enhance cyclist safety and encourage more folks to bike.
My efforts were rewarded with frustration, though, and that for me was an object lesson in the opportunities lost due to poor stakeholder communication practices. Governance 101!
I’ve been asked to contribute to Patch because my efforts provided me with a grassroots perspective on how local government works, and how sometimes it doesn't. I hope my occasional posts will help spark a public conversation about how stakeholders and officials could work together to solve problems, while highlighting reasons why often we can’t seem to actually make it happen.
I welcome your feedback on this first post about my efforts to make some change literally right in my backyard.
Communication Breakdown: The Case of the Leaf Blower
I first contacted the city to complain about that most prosaic of urban annoyances: the gas-powered leaf blower. These machines are a fact of life on the Westside, but living in a multifamily district means that, on average, two or three would crank up every weekday to serve the many small lots that surround our modest apartment building.
In the close confines of R-4 (medium density) residential, lawnmowers, hedge trimmers, edgers, trash collectors each contribute to the cacophony, but only one is prohibited for health reasons: the gas-powered leaf blower.
Now, if you suffer from pulmonary disease (as does someone close to me) the health impacts of leaf-blowers come into sharp relief. They inhibit breathing and exacerbate conditions like asthma. The shower of particulates they generate hang in the air, settle in the furniture, and penetrate the lungs. When they’re used on asphalt lots and alleys—which is to say all of the time—they kick up even more debris.
Regardless of the law, I’ve had a heck of a time putting these gas-powered dust devils out of business. Early on, I expected that my reports to code enforcement would summon an enforcer to issue a warning or write a ticket. It never happened. Despite report after report, it seemed impossible to clamp down on them, and months went by without progress.
I then took to calling Code Enforcement on a regular basis. “It’s that same address next door,” I said. Yet my calls continued with little success. So I then began tracking reports in a spreadsheet and saw my tally grow to 100 then 200 reports. Finally I had a means to track repeat offenders by day and by time. I began to record license plates of gardeners.
Subsequently I engaged code enforcement management in several passionate calls. “Why can’t this stop? What can we do about it? Why aren’t they getting the message?” My concerns were heard; my calls were returned; but the problem never abated.
Between my persistence and my tracking, my efforts slowly paid off as, one by one, the buildings nearest to me brought out the rakes. (The classic rake never goes out of style.) Over time we have seen a modest decrease in gas-powered blowers (thanks Nestor!) But the limit became clear: no matter how often I called or how the enforcement people tried to whack these moles, they often reappeared. These machines are the zombies of lawn care!
Through persistence I learned that the city’s hands were somewhat tied. Code Enforcement is understaffed and, understandably, they have other fish to fry. Property owners have no incentive to change practices because the gardeners were exposed to fines. And the gardeners themselves rotated in and out of the picture. And the city wasn’t even handing out many fines anyway.
The constraints were clear but the larger lesson emerged too: the city just wasn’t getting the message out to the public about leaf blowers. Whatever measures I suggested to address the problem gained little traction too. Insert an advisory into city utility bills, I said. (The city declined.) Put a notice in the In Focus newsletter, I said. (Many months later the city did.) But few of my neighbors knew of the law and the city made no apparent effort to alert the gardeners themselves.
So my reports continued: 400, then 500, and now close to 600 reports. I’ve reported the worst offenders more than a dozen times each. If you’ve read this far, you probably surmise that it stopped being about the leaf blowers a long time ago. My initial campaign morphed into an ongoing effort simply to make my city respond to my concerns.
After all, I refined my tools and tried to make my reports as helpful as possible. Why didn’t the city take a more proactive approach? We’re on the same team, aren’t we? The problem all along was communication. We never seemed to come together around a practical way to address the root causes of the problem.
Through cooperation we can solve problems as globally insignificant as leaf blowers and establish a template for the harder challenges to come. But only if we work as a team, officials and stakeholders together, instead of at cross purposes. And that begins with effective communication.