The Louisville Civic Assembly

In February 2020, 89.3 WFPL News in Louisville and  The American Assembly at Columbia University conducted The Next Louisville: Civic Assembly, a community-driven virtual conversation. The goal was to  explore the issues that matter most in Louisville — and to identify potential solutions.

The Civic Assembly was conducted with an online tool called Polis, which allows participants to make and respond to each other’s brief statements. The result is a community-directed survey of opinion and also a loose dialogue as participants respond to statements with new submissions of their own. The only direction was a framing question: “What do you believe should change in Louisville to make it a better place to live, work and spend time?”

For participants, the voting process looked like this:

Participants could agree, disagree or pass. Over a period of three weeks, 1,398 people participated; 877 statements were submitted and voted on nearly 124,000 times. All participation was anonymous. The organizers exercised some light moderation to ensure that submitted statements were clear, unique and civil.

Because participants self-selected, the survey is not statistically representative of the views of Louisville-area residents. However, because Polis tracks patterns of voting among subgroups, we can see how lines of agreement and disagreement emerge within the respondent community, and how those lines shift as respondents explore issues through the statement process.

Groups

Polis clusters participants into larger voting blocs based on their responses to the statements. In the Louisville voting community, this process distinguished two broad groups: a small Group A (128 people) with generally conservative views and a much larger Group B (1,037 people) with more liberal views.  People who voted fewer than 7 times count in the overall results but not in the groupings. So while 1,398 people voted overall, only 1,165 were grouped.

Here is what that grouping looks like to Polis:

There is a lot of information compressed into this graph, but the main point is that the statements (each represented by a number) that receive the most support across all participants cluster in the middle, while the more divisive statements are placed toward the outer edges. The concentration of statements in the middle indicates a high degree of consensus across most of the submitted statements. The consensus blob defines Group B, while Group A is defined mostly by its distance from this central consensus. (If you want to explore this in more detail, see the full Polis technical report for the conversation.) Because the conversation passed through user-submitted statements, there was no effort to introduce statements that would organize votes into conventional ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ voting blocs. Although it is easy to characterize Group B as more liberal most of the time, the most interesting Polis results are those where liberal/conservative labels don’t adequately explain opinion. And there are many of those results. It’s worth noting that the self-identified political leanings of the Louisville Public Media audience generally mirror voter registration in Jefferson County.

The same strong tendency toward agreement can be visualized along a single axis, with the high consensus statements on the left and the divisive ones on the right:

Here’s the most divisive statement, marked by sharp differences between Groups A and B:

And here’s one on which nearly everyone agreed:

How Should I Read These Bar Charts?

Polis serves up statements in semi-random order, favoring statements that have received the fewest “passes.” In practice, not everyone will see every statement—especially those statements that arrive late in the process. In a Polis result like the one above, the white section on the right side of the bar represents the number of people who didn’t see the statement. The gray numbers in parentheses are the total number of people in each group for that statement.

Because the Polis survey is generated by its participants, it can go in any direction. There are no fixed questions or topics. There is, however, loose path dependency as participants build up an impression of the process based on the statements they initially encounter. For our part, we provided a framing question designed to encourage respondents to think locally. Nearly all of the statements referenced local community issues such as traffic, development, zoning, schools and municipal governance. Some provided local inflections of issues with wider state and national profiles—statements about climate change, for example. Only a few referenced decision-making or policy at the state or federal levels.

Transportation

The need for better transit infrastructure was a common subject—with an emphasis on the need for better public transit and more attention to amenities for biking and walking. Public transit improvements were overwhelmingly supported by Group B, while attracting only limited support from Group A. Group A was positively disposed toward statements about improvements to roads and highways—positions that may reflect a preponderance in the group of car commuters into the city. Almost everyone supported making Louisville a more walkable city.

Overall

Group A

Group B

Louisville needs better mass transit.

We need light rail between Louisville and Elizabethtown/Fort Knox and between Louisville and Frankfort/Lexington.

Louisville should have a transit plan that focuses more on alternative modes of transportation, including public transit, biking, & walking.

More employers should be encouraged to incentivize use of public transport.

Safe bike lanes are needed on Taylorsville Road between Seneca Park and Breckinridge Lane.

Louisville needs to be a safer place to be a pedestrian. Well lit, upkept sidewalks and crosswalks should be the norm across Louisville.

Hikes Point needs investment to be more pedestrian, bike and public transportation friendly.

TARC should have at least occasional trips to places like Farnsley Moreman and Jefferson Memorial Forest.

Louisville should invest heavily in its roads and sidewalks.

Louisville needs to clean up the TRASH from the city and highways.

Environment

Climate change and other environmental concerns figured prominently in the submitted statements. Overall, respondents showed very strong support for measures to combat climate change locally, including efforts to create more green space and tree coverage. The views of the much smaller Group A were generally mixed—supportive of measures to make the city greener and clean or recycle trash while strongly opposed to statements that put climate change at the center of political agendas or that suggested limits on the use of cars. Responses to a proposed ban on single-use plastics also sharply differentiated the two groups.

Overall

Group A

Group B

Louisville needs a clear, concise plan to address Climate Change.

Louisville should do more to act on climate change.

We need to vote out officials who deny the existence and threat of climate change.

We need more trees. Desperately.

Reforesting West Louisville/Downtown should be a priority to address our urban heat island problem.

We should plant trees and wildflowers along the highway because it’s cheaper to maintain and would combat climate issues.

Apartment complexes should be encouraged to provide recycling for their residents.

Louisville should invest in our tree canopy and natural infrastructure to reduce air pollution, particularly in the West and South Ends.

Businesses should be encouraged to plant native trees and flowers for pollinators.

Louisville leaders should close downtown streets to cars NOW as a way to combat climate change.

Louisville needs more and better public transport to help address the impacts of climate change.

Everyone should walk, bike, and carpool more as a way to combat climate change.

Air pollution is a problem in my neighborhood that must be addressed.

Louisville needs to lead the nation in cleaning up the Ohio River and stopping river pollution.

Louisville needs to ban plastic bags and single use plastic from restaurants.

Neighborhoods

Several statements addressed the socioeconomic divisions of Louisville’s neighborhoods, with a particular focus on the economic development and infrastructure needs of the West End. Statements proposing  heavy investment in the West End were among the more divisive in the conversation, garnering very strong support from Group B and minimal support from Group A.

Overall

Group A

Group B

The city should invest extensively in West Louisville, securing equity for all and addressing the severe disparities that exist in our city.

Louisville should invest more in the West End.

We need more grocery options downtown like Aldi or Trader Joe’s, which would fit into areas like Old Louisville and Shelby Park.

The city should work to reduce the number of vacant residences and commercial properties.

Louisville should encourage shopping local by making it easier for small businesses to fill vacant spaces.

We need better/well-lit signage for stops and crosswalks to improve pedestrian safety in neighborhoods including Clifton/St. Matthews.

Housing

Participants submitted dozens of statements about housing and housing policy in Louisville. Statements advocating for increased affordable housing garnered overwhelming support from Group B, with minimal support from Group A. This split also emerged in a statement suggesting mixed-income housing should be spread evenly throughout Louisville. Another divisive statement, which recommended restricting new high-end developments in favor of more affordable housing, reflected ongoing disagreements over projects such as developer Kevin Cogan’s proposed One Park high-rise.

Overall

Group A

Group B

Louisville needs more affordable housing.

Affordable housing needs to be addressed, either by restricting high-end new developments or incentivizing middle and low-end developments.

Mixed income housing should be spread out evenly to all neighborhoods in Louisville, not just the urban core neighborhoods.

Zoning and Development

The continued litigation over the proposed TopGolf facility drew several statements. While supporters slightly outnumbered opponents, the issue had no clear A/B alignment. Both groups showed moderate support for the project. Support for a new soccer stadium was stronger (and more divisive along A/B lines).

Overall

Group A

Group B

We should support TopGolf because it is good for Louisville.

We should support big projects that move our city forward like One Park and Top Golf instead of delaying them with frivolous lawsuits.

I’m excited about the new soccer stadium and all of the potential development around it.

Louisville should develop and maintain the riverfront as a park, from Cox Park to Chickasaw Park

Public Safety

A number of statements explored perceptions of the police. Overall support for the police was strong across both groups. Statements about police harassment and diversity, on the other hand, produced familiar divisions between Groups A and B. Other statements examined the role of guns in schools ahead of passage of a state law requiring that School Resource Officers (SROs) be armed. These proved to be among the most divisive statements in the conversation, with strong overall opposition to guns in schools but considerable (though not majority) support among Group A.

Overall

Group A

Group B

The police department makes our city safer and we should show our support.

LMPD should be made up of a very diverse population.

We need to end the police harassment that so many of us have personally faced.

Louisville should move its Fire and EMS into one department.

On guns and safety in schools:

I believe having armed School Resource Officers in Louisville Schools will make our schools safer.

Trauma informed care and restorative practices would make schools much safer than armed SROs.

JCPS should allow teachers to supplement SROs by allowing them to concealed carry in the classroom.

Campus Carry should be allowed for all students, faculty, and staff that are old enough and can obtain a concealed carry license.

Other issues:

We need Metro Council to pass a resolution securing our county as a 2nd Amendment sanctuary county.

There are too many panhandlers asking for money at stoplights and parking lots.

Government

Statements about government covered a wide range of topics, from tax policy to transparency to opportunities for civic engagement. Relatively few of these were well engaged: high numbers of “passes” in the voting made them less likely to appear early in the voting queue. The clearest division appeared in statements about taxes, including the potential for a restaurant tax to address the city’s budget crisis, as well as the long-debated local option sales tax. 

Overall

Group A

Group B

There should be easier ways for people to participate in local government.

The city should utilize more participatory budget processes with its annual budget.

Louisville needs a local option sales tax.

The state should allow Louisville to have a restaurant tax like other cities in Kentucky.

We need to replicate Oklahoma City’s MAPS program of voter-approved, time-limited, one-cent sales-tax hikes to fund major civic projects.

White leaders in Louisville are scared of the economic empowerment of West Louisville.

I believe Mayor Fischer has done a fantastic job as Mayor of the city of Louisville.

Economy

Statements favoring a “living” minimum wage—the minimum income needed to afford one’s basic needs—were favored by majorities of respondents. However, these statements also proved to be among the most divisive between the two sub-groups. Groups A and B overwhelmingly agreed the city needs to diversify its employment base, with an eye toward attracting and creating tech jobs.

Overall

Group A

Group B

Louisville needs a minimum wage one can live on.

Louisville should have a mandated living wage minimum wage.

Louisville should invest more time and energy in developing a technical work force as well as luring technology companies to the area.

Diversify the employment base with high-tech companies so Louisville students want to stay here after graduation.

We need more collectively-owned businesses, starting with grocery stores.

Social Justice and Inclusion

Statements about race, LGBTQ issues, confederate history and immigration touched on some of the major contemporary debates about inclusiveness of the polity. Strong majorities of respondents generally supported statements favorable to inclusion, including statements about gender-neutral restrooms, the positive role of immigrants in the community, and the desirability of removing the statue of John Breckinridge Castleman—a confederate and later U.S. Army officer and prominent Louisville citizen. Although some of these majorities demonstrated the familiar conservative/liberal splits between Groups A and B, there were some notable breaks from this pattern. More members of Group A agreed rather than disagreed that immigrants benefit the community. And more members of Group B disagreed than agreed with a statement favoring reparations for slavery.

Overall

Group A

Group B

The John Breckinridge Castleman statue in Cherokee Triangle should come down.

Louisville needs statues or public art commemorating and honoring local African-American women or African-American women from history.

We should pay reparations to ancestors of people who were enslaved.

Louisville should strive to protect its LGBT+ community from hate crimes.

All public buildings in Louisville should have gender neutral restrooms available.

Louisville needs to give its Fairness Ordinance some teeth to ensure everyone is being treated equally.

Louisville benefits from the immigrants and refugees that settle here.

LMPD should not inquire about immigration status.

Homelessness

The growing visibility of homeless camps—and the city’s efforts to disband them—elicited several statements about how to approach the problem. Broadly, a plurality of Group A favored efforts to “crack down,” while Group B supported the expansion of services to get the homeless off the streets.

Overall

Group A

Group B

Louisville needs a solution for homelessness.

The city needs to add more homeless shelters.

Louisville should move towards a housing first model for homelessness.

Louisville needs to create compassionate solutions for homelessness.

Louisville needs to crack down on homeless loitering.

The city should stop tearing down homeless encampments

Education

Although all respondents overwhelmingly agreed a quality and safe public school system is essential, there was disagreement over how that should be achieved. A majority of Group B is willing to pay higher property taxes to benefit schools, whereas only 14 percent of Group A feels that way. Over half of Group A supports an end to busing in favor of increased investment in neighborhood schools, compared to 35 percent of Group B; interestingly, 40 percent of participants overall “passed” on this statement, suggesting broad uncertainty on the issue.

Overall

Group A

Group B

All Louisville students should have the chance to achieve great things through a top notch PUBLIC school system.

Universal access to high quality, affordable preschool should be a priority for Louisville.

I would be willing to pay more in property taxes if it meant better public schools.

Charter schools should be an option for my child.

JCPS should keep its current bus system intact to ensure schools remain diverse.

Louisville should end busing and invest in better neighborhood schools.

High-performing Jefferson County Public Schools should not be able to send problem students off to low-performing schools.

Comprehensive and age appropriate sex education is essential.

Louisville should invest more in libraries to help address literacy gaps, digital divide & workforce development.

Fully fund our libraries!

We should look into bringing Mike Rowe’s Project Jumpstart, a skills training program in plumbing, carpentry and the electrical trade, to Louisville.

High school students with 3.0+ GPA should be offered tuition assistance to attend a local community college.

Culture and Recreation

Statements encouraging the city to increase funding for events, arts and recreation received far more support from Group B than Group A. These divisive statements included calls to create a dedicated revenue stream to support cultural activities and fully funding Metro parks, which have taken a hit due to city budget shortfalls.

Overall

Group A

Group B

Louisville should invest more in festivals and events to bring neighbors together.

There should be more public art installations.

Arts and cultural activities in Louisville should be supported by a dedicated public revenue stream.

Louisville parks need to be fully funded. Our parks spending should be comparable to other cities of our size.

There should be restroom access at parks year-round, even if it is just a porta-potty.

Health

Creating a safety zone outside Louisville’s abortion clinic, requiring employers to offer sick leave, and ensuring first-responders will provide care to transgender individuals were among the most divisive health topics. The vast majority of Group B favors affordable mental health services, compared to just over one-third of Group A. Those groups also were divided on the prospect of free healthy breakfast and lunch for all JCPS students.

Louisville should regulate and tax e-cigarettes at the same rate as traditional cigarettes.

The Louisville Water Company should be treating our drinking water for chemicals like PFAS and PFOA.

Louisville should have mandated sick leave for workers.

Louisville needs a (constitutional) safety zone outside EMW, the city’s only abortion clinic.

Transgender people need to know if they are critically injured, first responders won’t deny life-saving services due to personal beliefs.

We need more free and sliding scale mental health services.

Healthy breakfast and lunch meals should be free for all JCPS students.

Drugs

There was broad agreement that heroin addiction is a major problem in Louisville, though the percentage was smaller in Group A. The contrast was much starker on the issue of decriminalizing addition and offering harm-reduction strategies, such as needle exchanges. The prospect of legalizing marijuana for recreational use also garnered more favorable responses from Group B.

Overall

Group A

Group B

Kentucky should legalize recreational marijuana.

Heroin addiction is a major problem in Louisville that needs to be addressed.

We need to help people in recovery from addiction after they finish inpatient treatment by helping them reintegrate and sustain sobriety.

Decriminalize drug addiction and treat it as a medical condition, utilizing harm-reduction strategies and treatment-on-demand.

Last Words

There were many interesting statements that belonged to no clear larger thread or theme—some were serious, some conceptual, and some veered into the realm of silly. We’ll conclude with several standouts.

Overall

Group A

Group B

Let’s remove George Castleman from the statue in Cherokee Triangle…but leave his horse.

The Castleman statue should be left alone. He was not a racist, he saved freed slaves and was prominent in developing our city. Study him.

Louisville should Anglicize its name by changing it to City of Lewis.

Louisville should secede from Kentucky.

Louisville should prioritize bringing an NBA team to town.

Lawmakers and citizens should look deeper at the problems in the community and not form opinions based on media and social media posts.

Louisville is a compassionate city.

Louisville is a great place to live and work.