Columbia Heights Civic Plaza For All

In 2021, District Bridges launched a pilot program called the “Civic Plaza For All” to address the unique challenges facing the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza. In the last three years, the pilot has worked to address maintenance of the public space, public programming, and providing connective services to some of our most vulnerable residents who frequent the plaza. This report covers our lessons learned, key findings & recommendations that have and will shape the future expansion of this program.

Civic Plaza for All Overview

District Bridges’ Civic Plaza initiative takes a place-based and human-centric approach to hyperlocal public space management at the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza.

Our holistic strategy aims to create a vibrant and healthy public space through consistent activation with free and accessible community events, resident engagement in our neighborhood Placekeepers Program, coalition building with city agencies and neighborhood stakeholders, and through street outreach and connective social services work with Columbia Heights residents experiencing substance use disorder and housing insecurity.

In 2023 District Bridges is undertaking a multi-part community survey plan, in which we are collecting data from residents, business owners, and community organizations through community conversations and surveys about public space usage in Columbia Heights. The goal is to use these surveys and focus groups to better understand stakeholder priorities around space usage, and to engage with diverse groups of residents who may be interested in becoming involved with District Bridges’ work.

2022 by numbers

This year, with the support of the Department of Parks and Recreation, we engaged Columbia Heights residents at over 85 free and accessible community events and activities, not only at the Civic Plaza, but also at Girard and Unity Parks, at the Columbia Heights Rec Center and at Lamont Park in Mount Pleasant. We coordinated inclusive, multi-generational fitness classes, family entertainment nights, musical and cultural performances, community meals, book sales, community swaps, and more.

The 2022 Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony celebrates neighborhood pride and the fact that good things can come in small packages with the lighting of Tiny Timber, our viral neighborhood Holiday Tree. If you feel inspired head over to the DB shop and buy some Tiny Timber merch. The proceeds go towards supporting our plaza work!



Free and Accessible Community Events



Partnerships established
with community
organizations, non-profits, businesses, and
faith-based groups.



hours of street outreach at the Civic Plaza with residents experiencing substance use disorder and housing insecurity



CH residents experiencing housing insecurity assisted in obtaining
identification documents

Initiative Background

In 2021, the Columbia Heights Main Street launched a pilot program called A Civic Plaza for All. Funded through a grant from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), the goal of the pilot was to activate the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza with community events and an outdoor dining area. The pilot program, launched during the COVID 19 pandemic, faced significant challenges out of the gate. District Bridges realized quickly that the space would require a more comprehensive approach, including strategies to address housing insecurity and behavioral health challenges experienced by a large number of residents frequenting the public space.

In 2022, District Bridges received funding from Councilmember Brianne Nadeau to build on the lessons learned the year before, and to hire 2 new full-time staff dedicated to the neighborhood. A four-pronged approach was developed to manage the public space: physical maintenance and space improvements; connective social services; business engagement and support; and space activation. Using established networks and building new partnerships to address these core areas, District Bridges began mapping the ecosystem of the Civic Plaza to gain an in-depth understanding of the root causes of the issues. As a result of the efforts and gains through this approach, District Bridges received funding to continue to expand upon the pilot into 2023.

Stakeholder Meetings
Working Groups

In 2023 District Bridges will lead a Coalition with the Department of Behavioral Health’s Community Response Team, made up of organizations engaged in outreach, treatment, and continuum of care for individuals experiencing substance use disorder in Ward 1. The goal of this Coalition will be to increase communication and coordination, increase joint capacity, and ensure that all Ward 1 residents who need them have access to core service agencies, detox and rehabilitation programs, assertive community treatment teams (ACT), and general community support.

From September 2021 through August 2022 the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza Stakeholders Coalition, led by District Bridges and the Office of Councilmember Nadeau, met monthly to engage city agencies, community-based organizations, and a handful of residents, business owners, and property owners who have a stake in the success of revitalization efforts at the Plaza. The goal of these meetings was to bring those voices to the same table, clarify roles, and begin to hold each other accountable for addressing the various areas of concern that were affecting the overall health of the neighborhood and of its residents. The Stakeholder Coalition was made up of the following partners:

Street Outreach & Connective Social Services

We began direct street outreach and connective social services in March of 2022, reaching over 170 CH residents in need of support, through over 900 hours of outreach at the Civic Plaza in 2022. Through this work, we have made direct connections and provided logistical support and documentation for housing, legal, and medical services, have assisted individuals in 34 cases with obtaining identification documents, and have made direct connections in 67 cases of an individual wanting to enter withdrawal management. 9 CH residents were successfully connected with in-patient rehabilitation for substance use disorder as a result of District Bridges connective services work.

The goal of our outreach and connective social service work is twofold. By engaging in this work we are gathering insight into systemic gaps that limit access to a continuum of care for residents in need of support, which allows us to advocate for long-term systemic change. Additionally, we are helping residents access direct services that reduce their level of vulnerability. Common requests include food, accessing SNAP/EBT Benefits, health insurance, replacement of social security cards, access to the DC Cares program, DC One Cards, scheduling of medical appointments, assistance with follow-up medical care and prescription pick-up post-hospital visits and metro card access, and access to veterans benefits.

Partnerships & Collaboration

This year we established partnerships with over 43 community organizations, agencies, small businesses and faith-based groups.

Some of our most fruitful partnerships include:

  • Substance use awareness, prevention and treatment partnership with The DC Prevention Center for Wards 1&2 and their Community Prevention Network (CPN). Through the CPN we have been able to collaborate on outreach, harm reduction, and increasing communication and collaboration among community partners in Ward 1, ultimately increasing our impact in the CH neighborhood.
  • Public Safety Partnership with the DC Peace Team and Fresh Farm Market, with whom we created a comprehensive, community-based security strategy for the CH Farmers Markets. After a string of violent incidents in May of 2022, the market had to shut down as vendors were afraid to come to the space. District Bridges coordinated an effort to support a strategy that included presence of the DC Peace Team at all CH Farmers Markets, alongside support from DB’s Plaza Stewards, who worked to maintain a clean and safe environment and to de-escalate conflict between residents on market days. District Bridges partnered with Fresh Farm Market to support musical and cultural performances at their biweekly markets. The DC Peace Team and District Bridges communicate regularly via group chat to increase our joint capacity to assist individuals at the Civic Plaza experiencing substance use disorder.
  • Coordinated Outreach with the Department of Behavioral Health’s Community Response Team (CRT) and Miriam’s Kitchen. After demonstrating the effectiveness of our consistent outreach at the Civic Plaza in building trust with CH residents experiencing behavioral health issues and substance use disorder, District Bridges was able to establish a coordinated outreach model with CRT and Miriam’s Kitchen where we flag individuals for targeted outreach, provide background information, and meet twice a week at the plaza to assist CRT in making connections for assessment, treatment and follow-up.

Maintenance & Public Space Management

The Civic Plaza is a complicated little chunk of the city, as different pieces of the public space fall under the jurisdiction of several different DC agencies. In our Maintenance & Activations Working Group we have developed a shared maintenance accountability tracking tool which we use to identify maintenance issues as they arise, confirm the agency responsible, and strive to resolve issues within 30 days.

District Bridges is excited to begin a partnership with Livable City Group in 2023 to directly address feedback received from residents and business owners in the neighborhood about their short and long-term priorities for the space. Stay tuned for updates on public art, neighborhood banners, rat abatement, landscaping, increased trash removal, signage, and other space improvements!

Organizational Capacity Building

DDOT has completed 80% of the sidewalk maintenance repairs that have been identified in their right of way and has begun to reach out to us for our insight into parking and right-of-way issues along the corridor;

Community Engagement & Placemaking

We have held 5 walkabouts of the space with DGS, DPR, and DDOT, as well as with residents involved in the original plan of the Civic Plaza, and have identified a 2-step plan for maintenance and restoration of the garden beds, to include rat abatement and prevention measures; .

Measurement & Evaluation

District Bridges has installed signage to encourage residents not to feed the pigeons, as food dumping is a huge problem in the space, contributing to the prevalence of rats, and unsanitary conditions at the children’s splash pad.

Thought Leadership

District Bridges was able to acquire the original tiles from the artist of the public art mosaic fountain, and DGS was able to repair the original design of the Resonance Art Mosaic;

Small Business Technical Assistance

CleanTeam (CareerPath) has committed to a monthly power-wash of the plaza, and to coordinate a custom schedule of daily clean-ups around events and activations;

Research & Policy

District Bridges launched a Plaza Stewardship Program workforce development pilot.

The Plaza Stewardship Program

With support from Thrive DC, Miriam’s Kitchen, and Fresh Farm Market, District Bridges worked with three individuals this year who frequent the space as part of a workforce development pilot. The plaza stewards are contracted to work during, before, and after the Columbia Heights Farmers Market and at other events throughout the week to clean up the space, de-escalate conflicts that arise during the events, and act generally as stewards of the space so that all residents feel welcome at the plaza. 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.
The Goals of the Plaza Stewardship Program are to:

Create and maintain a cleaner, healthier environment

for everyone, inspiring all neighbors to become custodians of the space;

Foster a sense of stewardship

to individuals who express a desire to contribute to their neighborhood and to their own personal development;

Why Stewards? Stewardship is a concept that can mean different things in different contexts and has no direct translation into Spanish. The various applications of the idea in Mexico and Central America, usually involve the word “guardian” or “guard”. It invokes a role as protector and peacekeeper, in addition to care-taker.

Create and maintain a cleaner, healthier environment

for residents who spend time in the Civic Plaza on a daily basis who are experiencing substance use disorder and/or homelessness;

Foster a sense of stewardship

between Plaza stakeholders, including residents, property owners, and security personnel.

This interpretation has been meaningful in allowing the program to reach beyond the strict physical maintenance of the plaza space to a more holistic maintenance of the overall environment and dynamics at the plaza. Our Stewards have had careers in which they were guardians, or caretakers (security, landscaping, maintenance), so it is a role that empowers them to bring their skill set to the table.