Residents of large-scale housing complexes are often at odds with their landlords over their living conditions. But in the northwest suburb of Brooklyn Park, a partnership between community-based organization African Career Education and Resource (ACER) and environmental organization Metro Blooms has created a healthy working relationship between residents and the owner of one of the city’s largest apartment complexes.

ACER, Metro Blooms, and property owner Sherman Associates worked together to launch a participatory landscape planning project that reimagined the outdoor spaces around the complex, which spans four buildings across about three city blocks. The project involved hundreds of residents, offering them an opportunity to build leadership skills and co-create a shared vision for vibrant, healthy outdoor spaces.

A Unique Community Engagement Project

ACER isan advocacy and organizing group focused on equity issues for African immigrants. The organizationwas already deeply engaged with Autumn Ridge residents to preserve affordable units and address quality of life issues. Metro Blooms Community Engagement Coordinator Kim Carpenter attended a community housing forum hosted by ACER, where she heard residents voice environmental health concerns at Autumn Ridge. She saw an opportunity to build on ACER’s tenant leadership development and organizing work by incorporating a vision for environmental justice into the conversation.

ACER had laid the groundwork, and the conditions were ripe for the type of work Metro Blooms does,

Carpenter said.

We saw an opportunity to heal and protect the environment at Autumn Ridge in a way that was beneficial for the residents, the property owner, and the city.

Environmental Education Events Revealed Tenant Priorities

ACER and Metro Blooms hosted a series of 10community meetings over 18 months, which educated residents about why they should care about their outdoor environment—particularly when many had more immediate concerns about their indoor living conditions. Tenants learned about environmental justice, water quality, and how urban spaces can be designed to provide ecological benefits.

The conversations at these educational events helped ACER and Metro Blooms understand the residents’ concerns about outdoor access.Residents didn’t feel they had safe, welcoming spaces to be outside at Autumn Ridge.

They don’t have a backyard. They don’t have places to exercise. There is not an adequate space for children to play,

said ACER Executive Director Nelima Sitati Munene.

These revelations helped us envision quality-of-life improvements that could be implemented in an environmentally friendly way.

A series of design charrettes revealed three areas where improvement needed to be prioritized: safety and security, community spaces, and community well-being. Residents identified high-traffic outdoor areas and listed assets that would increase their opportunities to spend more time outdoors. Ideas included better playground equipment for children, basketball courts, more grills, a walking path, and a community garden.

Tenant Leadership Development Laid the Foundation for Change

ACER and Metro Blooms achieved excellent resident engagement by training a core group of community members as project stewards. A core group of tenants received additional leadership development training and committed significant time to building relationships with their neighbors. In a show of good faith, Sherman Associates provided funding to compensate the tenant organizers for their work.

Mike Shields was one of the tenants who took on project leadership. He said he already felt like a community leader, and saw the opportunity with ACER and Metro Blooms to make much-needed improvements at Autumn Ridge.

I know I’m not a very good follower, so that must mean I’m a good leader,

he laughed.

I care about where I live and I think if you’re passionate about something you can do something about it.

Mike and six other project stewards knocked on all 366 Autumn Ridge doors at least once, distributed flyers, and talked to tenants about why the participatory landscape project was important. They also served as hosts at community events, engaging residents in activities that surfaced community priorities and visualized site improvements. Shields said that residents got excited about the project when they realized they were empowered to create change.

One of the biggest issues we heard was that, as a community, no one felt included or significant,

He said.

When they realized they had a say in this project, it was the biggest turnout we’ve ever had at a community event.

 

With ACER’s support, the residents continue to meet, advocate for themselves, and plan for the future of Autumn Ridge. The resident leadership development was a pilot at Autumn Ridge and the city of Brooklyn Parkis considering investing in the model for other multi-family housing complexes in the city.

It gives the residents voice, and it also gives the city a channel through which to reach and engage with their constituents who are normally not included in most decision-making processes. It is a win for all,

said Sitati-Munene.

Residents created long-term vision for Autumn Ridge

The participatory landscape planning project resulted in a five-year plan to retrofit Autumn Ridge with stormwater management best practices and the new community assets desired by tenants. Sherman has already installed new grills, and brand-new playground equipment will be installed this summer.

The analysis of tenants’ walking routes showed that the routes between buildings and the central mailboxes experienced the highest daily traffic. Sherman has therefore prioritized beautification of these walking routes in 2018, and Metro Blooms will partner with the landlord to ensure these changes also improve the site’s ecological function.

Sherman has invested significant funding in the project, and government partners like the Hennepin County Natural Resources Department and the Shingle Creek Watershed Management Commission have also contributed.In total, partners have invested at least $75,000 and counting in the project. Denise Flood, Regional Property Manager for Sherman, said that this project is an example of how building owners and residents can work together.

We are proud of collaborations such as this with community partners. Sherman Associates always seeks to have a positive impact on our community and neighborhood,

She said.

As funds become available, the team will work together to ensure that residents are engaged in the installation of rain gardens and other landscape improvements.

We’re empowering residents by giving them the knowledge and tools to make a difference in their community,

Said Carpenter.

We want them to see that their individual and collective efforts are creating a healthier community at Autumn Ridge.