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Monday, May 27, 2024
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public spaces in columbia heights

Local nonprofit strengthens connections with DC residents

How addressing underlying issues can help improve public space in Columbia Heights

District Bridges, a D.C.-based nonprofit, is addressing the inadequate maintenance, substance use and housing insecurity in the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza by connecting residents with resources.  

The plaza was introduced in 2009 to serve as a connective and vibrant public space that benefited all community members, but it quickly fell into disrepair due to heavy use and inadequate physical maintenance.

District Bridges is studying the plaza’s physical space, bounded by Park Road, Kenyon Street and 14th Street. It is building connections with residents who spend time there and mapping out resources dedicated to the area to better understand the complexities of the plaza’s deterioration — an approach known as community ecosystem development. 

The organization launched its Columbia Heights Civic Plaza For All program in 2021 to create more community engagement with organized events in the plaza. However, it quickly realized it needed a holistic approach to address the challenges that residents who use the space face. 

“It was sort of this bigger mission of enlivening Columbia Heights,” Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau said in an interview with The Eagle. 

District Bridges received funding from Nadeau in 2022 — a grant of over $2.2 million — to build on its work from the previous year, allowing it to hire two full-time community navigators for Columbia Heights. 

The community navigators are experts who have a consistent physical presence in the neighborhood and build trusting relationships with those who are experiencing substance-use disorder, behavioral health issues, housing insecurity and more. Community navigators will then connect residents to existing legal, medical and housing services. 

The organization’s case notes list that the navigators have reached over 170 residents in the plaza since March 2022, which is the most updated data. Of these, 41 have obtained identification cards, 67 have entered withdrawal management and 24 have entered in-patient rehabilitation services. 

“This navigation model is local, targeted, consistent, linguistically and culturally accessible, and is based on meeting people where they are, both physically and emotionally,” the program’s pilot report said.

The community navigators speak both English and Spanish, breaking a language barrier that exists when helping residents access social services since a majority of people who consistently spend time in the Plaza are of Latin American descent — as cited in the pilot report.

The community ecosystem development model deviates from traditional approaches to solving issues in public spaces. Nadeau said that before the community navigator program, community members could either call 911 or the Department of Behavioral Health’s crisis response team to help someone struggling with substance abuse or housing insecurity. 

Nadeau deemed both as ineffective — the department only staffs 40 workers citywide who are there for people in crisis. The police and emergency medical services, “tend to lose patience with folks that they get called out for frequently,” according to Nadeau.

District Bridges’ approach targets the root causes of the issues by connecting people to social services.

“Public spaces reflect the areas around them,” said Kathryn Howell, the director of the National Center for Smart Growth — a research center that specializes in community development and urban management. “The larger issue is that we have a significant substance abuse problem and it's just very visible — public spaces are where things happen in our cities.” 

Howell said that the District Bridges approach is consistent with her and other experts’ research because it is human-centric, considering people’s needs rather than resorting to law enforcement. 

“Policing is harmful … it just moves people around and makes them less stable,” she said. 

Along with connective social services, District Bridges is working to coordinate the physical maintenance of the Plaza. Without collective ownership of the space, multiple agencies are responsible for small parts of it. For example, the Department of Parks and Recreation is responsible for the Plaza’s fountain when it’s turned on or off at the wrong time. At the same time, the Department of General Services is responsible for any of its malfunctions. 

Through establishing relationships with over 60 stakeholders — including Livable City Group, General Services, the District Department of Transportation’s Urban Forestry Division, and the Department of Health — progress has been made by mulching and trimming hedges, planting trees and removing rats. Other requests are also in progress, such as frequent power washing, fountain and splash pad repairs, lighting and electrical work and repair of the irrigation system. 

The fiscal year 2024 budget has devoted $750,000 to repairs and maintenance of the fountain and splash pad at the plaza and the 14th and Girard Street Park, according to Nadeau. General Services is currently preparing to secure a vendor. 

District Bridges also runs a Stewardship Program where it hires three residents who occupy the plaza to help with the physical upkeep of the space — including trash clean-up — during weekly community events. 

“The Plaza Stewards have been connected with a housing outreach worker, and legal and medical services, have received passports and DC IDs, and are receiving support in resume building and job searching skills,” according to the District Bridges website.

A key aspect of District Bridges’ approach is activating the public space and creating more opportunities for use and connection among residents. It hosts salsa dancing lessons, community meals and clothing distributions to create a welcoming and vibrant plaza environment. 

“They’re trying to make people claim that space,” Howell said. “If you come in and use it, it’s yours.” 

Columbia Heights residents, such as Daniel Petrucci, have responded positively to community engagement efforts. 

“Physical improvements are great, but I think activating the space is almost more important,” Petrucci said. “Making it feel more welcoming … and like it’s a place where we're supposed to be, allowed to be, and want to be.”

Aside from District Bridges’ extensive work to revamp the Civic Plaza, Councilmember Nadeau is funding other efforts for the space. 

After Mayor Muriel Bowser opened the District’s first stabilization center in NoMa earlier last year, a second one will open in the old fire station on Park Road — just minutes from the Civic Plaza. The sobering center will offer a safe place for residents experiencing substance use disorder to seek help and get clean. Nadeau said the stabilization center is expected to open in the second quarter of fiscal year 2025. The Department of Behavioral Health plans to convene community meetings next month to discuss the program.

Nadeau said Throne Labs plans to open a new public restroom in the Plaza this spring. Throne Labs will maintain the bathroom and monitor its usage. The councilmember emphasized the importance of having access to clean, safe restrooms in public spaces. 

“The goal is to ensure Columbia Heights remains vibrant and safe, and that public spaces are accessible to all,” Nadeau said. 

This article was edited by Abigail Hatting, Abigail Turner and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis and Ariana Kavoossi. 

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