How to be an urban change agent – Favorite guides of Shareable readers

in Ideas, Organizing, Resources

by Kelly McCartney, reposted from How to Be an Urban Change Agent, Shareable Style, published 05.18.11 by Shareable

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The John Lennon tribute in Central Park’s Strawberry Fields. Credit: Kerry Kehoe.

There’s a movement – or two, or many – under foot. It goes by myriad names and comes in an array colors. The common thread, though, involves citizens stepping up to better their surroundings, to create safer, more livable, and more environmentally sound urban environments. According to the folks at Pattern Cities, some popular monikers include “guerilla urbanism,” “pop-up urbanism,” “new urbanism,” “changescaping,” or “D.I.Y. urbanism.” They, however, prefer the “tactical urbanism” approach which is defined with five specific criteria:

  • A deliberate, phased approach to instigating change;
  • The offering of local solutions for local planning challenges;
  • Short-term commitment and realistic expectations;
  • Low-risks, with a possibly a high reward; and
  • The development of social capital between citizens and the building of organizational capacity between public-private institutions, non-profits, and their constituents.

Such a strategy employs an incremental approach in order to test real-world solutions to real-world problems in the urban environment. Like any good incubator project, small-scale experimentation demands fewer resources, be they time, funds, or man hours. The hope here is that positive results are scalable. The definition of true tactical urbanism hinges on the institutional involvement and long-term vision.

In contrast, so-called D.I.Y. or guerilla urbanism affects temporary change in a more localized setting and is instigated from the bottom up without, necessarily, an eye toward the bigger picture. These actions amount to social interventions in the name of bettering a community or furthering a cause.

In a shareable world, there is room for both of these divergent, albeit similar, strategies, and everything in between. Indeed, intiatives from many camps are proving successful in cities around the world. Here at Shareable, we’ve written numerous guides for shaping your urban environment and community. Below are our readers’ favorite ideas.

How to Be an Urban Change Agent

A good first step to begin your urban experiments is to start a neighborhood work group to get your community’s support, input, and resources from which to draw. After that, the sky is really the limit for what a group of committed people can do.


Julian Dobson on “Out of the Ordinary” by David Robinson of Community Links

in Ideas, Organizing, Resources

Last week I was in a conference room in the heart of London listening to some of our leading thinkers discussing the ‘enabling state’ – the formula, magic or otherwise, that would allow government to harness the power of civic action and let citizens reach their potential without the stifling hand of bureaucracy.

When I got home I found a slim book in the post. Entitled Out of the Ordinary, it’s David Robinson’s reflections on more than 30 years’ work in east London with Community Links. I’ve followed Community Links through some of those years, as I used to live down the road from them in Newham, and David and his colleagues contributed on many occasions to New Start magazine.

The pulse of Community Links is something the thinkers and policymakers need to share if they are to realise this vision of the enabling state. On virtually every page of David Robinson’s book is the word ‘relationship’.

Community Links works with children and young people, with families and those who struggle with poverty and unemployment. When someone encounters a Community Links worker or volunteer, it’s the start of a relationship. The organisation has a policy of ‘no wrong door’ – whatever your entry point, that’s where the process of listening and understanding begins.

Contrast that with users’ frequent experience of public services and large private companies, which is that there is a specialist to deal with each problem – and it’s usually someone else. It can be easy for ‘not my area of expertise’ to turn into ‘not my responsibility’, offering a get-out clause for any tricky and time-consuming situation. Banks may employ hosts of ‘relationship managers’, but very few of them know their customers.

Community Links doesn’t have relationship managers. It has staff and volunteers who get to know the people who come through their doors. As David Robinson puts it: ‘It is not only possible for one human being to make a real and lasting difference to another, it is often, in the most difficult circumstances, the only thing that ever does.’

What does that tell us about the idea of the enabling state, so dear to the advocates of a Big Society? I’d suggest that if we want to achieve that, the best investment will be in relationships – or, more precisely, in the people who can forge relationships.

You can’t achieve that with hosts of public servants sitting in offices running programmes, and neither can you achieve it with huge outsourced contracts to companies that put efficiency before effectiveness.

Relationships happen face to face. Technology can and does help, but trust is built person by person. If people don’t trust the state or its leaders, it may well be because they don’t encounter them at a level likely to lead to any understanding.

So we have to resource the people who build relationships that effectively address complex problems. Many of them are in voluntary organisations like Community Links. Many others are public servants who engage with the public and go the extra mile. Some are councillors and politicians who genuinely represent their constituents. Others may be less obvious – postal workers, pub landlords, sports coaches and shop staff who notice what goes on around them.

A huge amount of highly educated thought goes into devising programmes, fine-tuning processes and setting priorities. It is important to get these right and to take into account the best evidence we can muster. But without investing in people the state may manage, but it will never enable.

What is out of the ordinary about David Robinson’s book is not just that it is unusual, but that its stories and recommendations really do come out of the ordinary – the ordinary lives, interactions, and conversations that over time achieve extraordinary results.

Out of the Ordinary is published by Community Links today, and you can find out more here.

[Reposted with permission from this article by Julian Dobson, author of Living with Rats, founding editor of New Start magazine, Fellow of the RSA, and a voluntary board member at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies. Follow @JulianDobson on Twitter.]

5 Rules of Community Engagement

in Ideas, Organizing, Resources

Excerpts from From the Ground Up: Community’s Role in Addressing Street Level Social Issues, by Jim Diers. This is the fourth report of the Core Challenge Initiative, a three-year public policy research and communications project, and a major component of the Western Cities Project of the CanadaWest Foundation.

Building strong communities is not easy. Even so, my 32-year background in community building has taught me some simple rules of engagement that still hold true today.

1. Have Fun

Cesar Cala, a community activist in the Philippines and now in Calgary, told me, “The problem is those GD activists.” “GD activists?” I inquired. “Yes,” he said, “the grim and determined.”

We all know those sour activists who act like civic engagement is their cross to bear. They love to complain. Who would want to get involved with them?

The key is to make community life fun again. As my friend Jeff Bercuwitz says, “Why have a meeting when you can have a party?”

[Some examples Jim cited: the Statue of Lenin erected in the Artist's Republic of Fremont, and the Blue Tulip Party of Elgin, Illinois]

2. Start Where People Are

Saul Alinsky, who is often described as the father of modern community organizing, complained that too many activists start with the world as they would like it to be rather than the world as it is. If you want to get people engaged, he advised, you need to start where they are. This is true on several levels.

First, the closer the action is to where people live, the more likely they are to get engaged. While there will undoubtedly be a larger turnout for a citywide meeting, there will never be a higher percentage of participation than if the meeting is held at the block level. A more localized meeting makes transportation and child care much easier. It also gives people a greater sense that their participation is important. After all, if they don’t attend, who will? And, if they aren’t present, they might be in trouble with their neighbours.

Second, if you want to get people involved, you need to be cognizant of their language and culture. This seems obvious in working with immigrants, but even when communicating with people who speak the same language as you, it is important to use words that are familiar to them. Too often, we use jargon or acronyms that comprise a sort of secret code known only by members of a particular profession or by hard core activists. Not only do we fail to communicate, but those whom we are trying to reach come to believe that they lack the expertise required for participation.

Third, in trying to recruit people, it is important to start with the networks to which they already belong. Too often, we think that people aren’t organized simply because they don’t belong to our organization. In fact, just about everyone belongs to at least one network, either formal or informal. They likely don’t have time to join yet another group. Besides, they have developed relationships within their existing network that make them comfortable.

It is especially difficult to recruit people whose age, income, ethnicity or other characteristics set them apart from the existing members of your organization. If you want to create a multi-cultural community effort, it generally works best to identify and build alliances with the key networks involving people who are underrepresented in your membership. These local networks could be centered on neighbourhood, nationality, faith, education, business, recreation, environment, history, art, crime prevention, service, a hobby, or something else. There are literally dozens of networks in every neighbourhood. When these networks are aligned, the community can exercise tremendous power.

Fourth, we need to focus on people’s passions. Too often, we try to convince people to care about our cause — what we are passionate about or what we are paid to promote. And, when people don’t join us, we call them apathetic. In fact, no one is apathetic. Everyone cares deeply about something. People will get involved to the extent that we can tap into their passion. The key is to start, not with an answer or with a program, but with a question: “What is your dream or what keeps you up at night?”

Finally, in order to start where people are, you need to know their call. I learned this lesson from John McKnight, Director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute. McKnight taught me that different kinds of people respond to different kinds of calls, just like ducks. Too often, though, we only use the loon call and wonder why only the loons turn out.

Typically, the meeting (not the mating) call is the one that we use. For most people, this is the worst possible call. They’re afraid to come to the first meeting because they know they will be on the sign-in sheet and be sentenced to meetings for the remainder of their life. Those who have come to meetings usually see few if any results. And, many people are shy. They may attend meetings because it is the only option they are given, but they don’t feel like they are making a contribution.

In fact, everyone will get involved if they hear their call. Most people respond to the social call of community meals, parties and festivals. Shy people may respond to the volunteer call as a tutor or mentor. And, everyone seems to love the project call. With projects, unlike with meetings, people make a short-term commitment and they see results. There’s a role for everyone – young people, elders, people with disabilities, architects, artists, construction workers, etc. The more varied the calls they utilize, the more broad-based and inclusive the organization will be.

3. Strive for Results

While it is important to start where the people are, it is crucial not to leave them there. This is especially true of people who have felt powerless and are getting involved for the first time. They need to see results if they are going to stay involved. So, you probably don’t want to start by working on world peace or global warming. Alinsky talked about the importance of focusing on issues that are immediate, concrete and realizable. Once people have a sense that they can make a difference, they will be more ready to tackle the larger issues.

4. Utilize People’s Strengths

Activists tend to focus on the problems in their community. As a result, they look outside the community for the solutions and overlook the abundant assets that exist in every neighbourhood and in every individual. Everyone has gifts of the head (knowledge), heart (passion), and hands (skills). Identifying ways in which people can contribute those gifts to the community is a wonderful way to get them engaged. This is especially true for labeled people such as prostitutes, drug users, at-risk youth, immigrants, and homeless and disabled individuals.

5. Celebrate Success and Recognize Caring Neighbours

Getting results is important, but much of the potential value is lost if you fail to celebrate your success and thank those who made it possible. Neighbours need to know that people like themselves were responsible. The sharing of such stories inspires people about what is possible when they work together and build on their assets. Public recognition also motivates those being recognized to do more.

Recommended resources, 2010-0829

in Ideas, Organizing, Resources

Recently added to our list of Resources for neighborhood-based community building:

  • Coalition for Community Schools – Resources Housed at the Institute for Educational Leadership, CCS is an alliance of national, state and local organizations in education K-16, youth development, community development, and family support.
  • Printable Outreach Resources for Inclusion Online Links to all of the print materials we are generating in our Inclusive Social Media effort promoting neighbor Issues Forum for all.
  • Harlem Children’s Zone – Publications Newsletters, white papers & poems from Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone Project – a unique, holistic approach to rebuilding a community so that its children can stay on track through college and go on to the job market.
  • National Gang Center The latest research about gangs; descriptions of evidence-based, anti-gang programs; links to tools, databases & other resources for developing & implementing effective community-based gang prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies.
  • Promise Neighborhood Institutes Blog An independent, foundation-supported nonprofit resource, offers tools, information, and strategies to assist any community interested in participating in the DOE Promise Neighborhoods program.
  • The Sharehood – Resources You don’t need to start a community garden or use our local currency or get an article in your local media to be part of a Sharehood community. We’re just giving you some information on how to do these things in case you want to.

Out of the Box Prize

in Ideas, Organizing, Resources


The Community Tool Box is hosting an inaugural global prize contest for community innovations. The 2010 “Out of the Box” prize will recognize and honor promising initiatives from around the world that improve community development and community health. 

The Grand Prize will be $5,000 in cash, plus a free customized Workstation (interactive website that supports collaboration).  A second prize will be $2,000 in cash and a free WorkStation. 

We invite you to enter the innovations contest, and encourage you to share contest information with others doing innovative work to improve life in their communities. 

Your group’s innovation may involve activities to improve community health, education, urban or rural development, poverty, the environment, social justice, or other related issues of importance to communities. 

To learn more and to download an application form, please visit Or, for Spanish, visit

The opening date for applications is August 1, with a closing date of October 31. An international panel of judges will select Finalists. Award Finalists and their innovative projects will be posted on the home page of the Community Tool Box. Public voting will then help determine the two top “Out of the Box” prize winners; voting will close on January 31, 2011. 

Many of you are already familiar with the Community Tool Box, which has been creating and disseminating practical guidance about community health and development online since 1995. For those of you who have not viewed our site recently, we invite you to visit us at, where you will find over 300 how-to-do-it instructional modules and many tools for bringing about community change and improvement. 

If you have any questions concerning the Out of the Box Prize, please direct them to Christina Holt at

Lessons learned – from Neighbor Power, by Jim Diers

in Ideas, Organizing, Resources

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Excerpts from Neighbor Power, by Jim Diers. I will conclude by summarizing what I have learned about community, community organizing, community initiatives, and the role of government.

A neighborhood is not the same as a community. A neighborhood is a geographic area that people share, while at community is a group of people who identify with and support one another.

Strong communities are those that rely on their own resources, including the assets that each and every person possesses.

Individual reciprocity is not sufficient. Communities are most powerful when they take collective action. The process of building that kind of power is called community organizing.

The key to community organizing is to start where the people are. The more local the activity, the higher the percentage of people who will get involved.

Organizing entails building on existing networks. Most people are already organized and cannot reasonably be expected to develop an entirely new set of relationships and find time for yet another organization.

Starting where people are also involves identifying their interests. That means listening. The organizer should be prepared to hear and understand interests that may be different from her own.

If a common interest involves an issue, that issue should be framed in a way that is as immediate, as specific, and as achievable as possible. People get involved to the extent that they can have an impact on the things they care about.

Community plans, projects, and social events are good ways to bring people together. Whatever the approach, whatever the issue, it is best to think big and start small.

Community self-help projects tend to have qualities that are missing in projects generated by institutions. Innovations are more likely to emanate from community efforts. Communities have a knack for converting a problem into an asset.