Beginning last fall, a webinar highlighting the New York City street ambassador program inspired Gabriela Barillas-Longoria, livability planner for Tucson, Arizona, to think up new ways to increase community engagement. “I started thinking of how we could scale it down for a pilot program,” she stated.
After coming up with a budget and proposal, the pilot program was approved and those interested were given two weeks to apply to become a street ambassador. In the 10 days the application process was open, approximately 50 residents applied for the positions. Throughout the months of February and March, an equity analysis was used to go through the applications and prioritize who would be chosen.
The city of Tucson was gearing up to begin in-person training in March when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and it was put on hold. Barillas-Longoria went back to the drawing board last month on how to reach out to the community digitally. “It’s all about meeting people where they were at,” she commented, but she also does not want to replace that in-person engagement.
“As the city of Tucson switches gears to virtual services in response to COVID-19, we’re continuing to engage the community around the Move Tucson long-range transportation master plan effort,” Barillas-Longoria explained. “Due to this new reality, the Move Tucson team will be temporarily focusing outreach efforts online, which means adjusting the street ambassador volunteer program from in-person activities to digital or online engagement.”
The top 10 applicants were sent a questionnaire to see if they would still be interested in the program. The virtual video chat training was developed from scratch by the city. The online training takes place via Microsoft Teams and was planned to last four weeks — between mid-April and May 30, though it may have been extended into June. The group will then hold weekly online team meetings.
As a pilot program, these 10 street ambassadors and one lead ambassador will focus on engaging with the public on the Move Tucson transportation initiative. The goal of the program as a whole, according to Barillas-Longoria, is “to not only reach but connect with those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of planning, policy and design decisions.” This includes residents who are low income, elderly, on disability, a minority or without a home.
These street ambassadors were chosen in part due to their connections with these high priority areas and their ability to connect with community members in these areas. “The power lays in the background of the team,” Barillas-Longoria said.
Ambassadors also speak a variety of languages, including English, Spanish, Tohono O’Odham and American Sign Language, so that is not a factor in communication. The ambassadors’ affinity for transportation and mobility issues, along with their connection to the neighborhood, allows them to offer direct insight into the community, which, in turn, makes the Move Tucson initiative more accessible and relatable.
These street ambassadors will be playing a crucial role in communicating what the Move Tucson initiative is and showing community members how to become more involved in the process while giving them an opportunity to voice comments and concerns. This will allow members of the community to share transportation challenges and opportunities with the city. The recently released mobile interactive map is one of the best ways for residents to do this.
“By directing people to the interactive public input map, they can identify the specific locations where opportunities exist to build connections, create more travel choices and improve the transportation system,” Barillas-Longoria explained. The transportation system includes roads, bus routes, sidewalks and bicycle lanes. Street ambassadors will be reaching out to members of the community through email, social media, phone and video calls.
When it comes to the Move Tucson initiative and interactions with the community, the street ambassadors will be asked to organize and co-host online discussion groups, encourage residents to take the online program survey, lead people to online resources, including the mobile interactive map, as well as come up with potential problems and solutions to problems. Ambassadors will collect stories about mobility challenges and opportunities throughout the community, assist residents with navigating the online interactive map and input surveys over the phone. The results from this will help to inform the development of the city’s transportation priorities over the next 20 years. Once the COVID-19 pandemic has been resolved, Barillas-Longoria mentioned that Tucson hopes to organize and hold a transportation summit to bring various cities together and share its experience with the street ambassador program. While currently Tucson is starting small and making a case with the pilot program, Barillas-Longoria resolved that the best-case scenario is that street ambassadors will become a city-funded program and a new way to do city business.