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

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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.


5 steps to your new community garden

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When I moved into my new apartment in Washington DC, the first thing I did was contact the two nearest community gardens to apply for a garden plot. The first replied that I was just barely outside the borders of their eligible neighborhood; the second regretfully informed me that they had no available spots, and that their waiting list was so long they had actually stopped putting people on the waiting list.

So what gives? Where can I grow some food? My windows face north. I could suspend pots from the clothesline over our building’s alley… or become a guerrilla gardener… or volunteer at a local farm… but those are topics for another post.

I know I’m not the only one in this situation. And at the same time, the availability of fresh, local, healthy produce is severely limited in many urban centers, especially in the most under-resourced neighborhoods, so we should definitely be encouraging people to grow their own food. We need more community gardens, so let’s start digging!

Why build a community garden? Because aside from all this talk of obesity epidemics and food deserts and dire predictions on food security, we need more than just access to good local produce to make this work. We need a food culture that’s tied to agriculture and a knowledge of where our food comes from. A culture that’s centered on a community gathering space to get together and swap recipes, show kids that dirt and bugs can be fun, share ideas and know-how, and ask…

“What should we do next to fix up the neighborhood?”

So here’s what you need:


Lessons learned – from Neighbor Power, by Jim Diers

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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.

The GOOD Guide to Better Neighborhoods

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Recommended resource: GOOD Issue 19, The Neighborhoods Issue. GOOD started planning the issue back in January, inviting its readers to help plan and produce it. The printed magazine went out to subscribers this month, and pieces are being published online in daily increments. Dozens of good articles in the issue (here’s the rss feed), but in keeping with the Our Blocks focus on getting practical information into the hands of people who want to make a difference in their neghborhhoods, these are articles I like the best:

The GOOD Guide to Better Neighborhoods: A Neighborhood Manifesto. Closer to a Table of Contents than the Communist Manifesto, lists 12 articles from the issue that provide readers “with the tools you need to make your neighborhood more than just the place you live. What all these tips have in common is the fact that they connect you to the actual human beings who live around you—and make your neighborhood better as a result.”

Start a Community Garden. Tips from Marvin Yee, the community garden program manager for San Francisco: Find a plot of land; Secure some seed money; Put together a dedicated team; Draw up your proposal and begin talking to your neighbors; Contact your parks and recreation department with your proposal. For more information check out the American Community Gardening Association.

Throw a Block Party. Tips from Jon Lawrence, who puts on an annual block party for up to 300 people in Bloomington, Indiana: Form a planning committee and pick a date and location; Make sure it’s legal; Promote the hell out of it; Work out your budget; Decide on food; Plan entertainment and activities; Enlist volunteers; Wrap it up. More on block parties from Our Blocks here.

Meet Your Neighbors Without Seeming like a Crazy Person. Tips from Kit Hodge, founder of the Neighbors Project. Say “Hi”; Spruce up your outdoor space, and spend time there; Practice common courtesies; Hang out in your neighborhood, and shop locally; Get involved with your neighborhood in a formalized way. More crazy things you can do with the neighbors here, here, and here.

Share Your Yard (or Get Your Neighbors to Share Theirs). More space, lower bills, and enough pooled cash to install that solar-powered hot tub—there are a lot of practical reasons to share yards with your neighbors. As with any kind of sharing, however, it’s best not to go into the situation willy-nilly. Here’s how: Identify what you want; Approach your neighbors; Plan for a social space; Make an agreement.

Join a New-and-Improved Commune. Tips from Stephanie Smith of WeCommune and Alex Marshall of Brooklyn Cohousing: Decide on your community’s values early on; Keep lines of communication open; Trust the power of consensus; Enjoy the economic benefits of communal living; Learn from the success stories; Don’t think being in a community is the same as being friends.

Create a Neighborhood Clubhouse. Artists/Professors Ted Purves and Susanne Cockrell of fieldfaring ran, among other things, Oakland’s Temescal Amity Works and the Reading Room – a store that sold nothing. Their tips: Pick your vibe; Have a purpose; Make it inviting; Have a bathroom people can use; Tap other people’s talents.

Get on Community Access Television. Pepper public access television with shows by people with useful skills they can share with their neighbors. Here’s how: Figure out who runs the stations in your area; Respect the station’s ethos; Have a good idea; Get organized; Find someone who actually knows how to use a camera; Spread the word; Make a good show.

All images by Trevor Burks:

News Roundup: Community gardens, food banks & co-ops

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Gardens feed neighborhoods and neighborly feelings

Episcopal Life Online – Just as gardens increase the diversity of flora and fauna, they can bring together a variety of people from the communities surrounding them, some of whom might not otherwise meet. Adult gardeners join with children and youth in the garden. St. Michael’s garden in Anderson, Calif., plans to welcome gardeners from an adjacent grade school next season. In Akron, Ohio, the summer education program at St. Paul’s Church was rooted in the parish garden and community hunger concerns. Youngsters fashioned tomato cages, chopped cabbage for soup at the nearby hunger center and visited an organic farm. “The children were delighted to work the garden,” said Sheila Svoboda, the church’s family minister, “and they felt a wonderful pride to see concretely the fruits of their labor.”

In two Lexington church gardens, a shared bounty is found

Lexington Minuteman – A true community garden movement has blossomed in Lexington, providing all involved with nourishment for both stomach and spirit. Earlier this year, two Lexington churches marked out organic, pesticide-free garden plots on their property. Neighbors old and young tended to them all summer, fighting blights and floods. Their labors paid off — squash, pumpkins, radishes and more burst forth. Every week, something was ready to harvest. And every week, that bounty went into the hands of Carolyn Wortman, director of the Lexington Interfaith Food Pantry.

Local organic food co-op sells ‘real food’ variety

Toledo Newspaper – “We’re owned by the community,” Youngs said. “We all become business partners when we purchase a share of the co-op.” The 130-member co-op is governed by a nine- to 11-member board. Any member is eligible to run for the board and vote for members. Lifetime memberships cost $200, payable in installments during that year. That membership cost is fully refundable.

Kids Cafe fills hungry stomachs at Brown YMCA

Selma Times-Journal – Yasmin McKinney knew there must be something she could do when she looked into the eyes of several children who were telling her how hungry they were. And, to her, these were not just ordinary children; they were her children, children she was responsible for as director of Community Development for the Brown YMCA. McKinney knows about hunger, its effects on children who are in their developing years. She addressed this as the former senior program director at a Louisville, Ky., YMCA through a program called Kid’s Café, a program that provided meals to local children.

Community food bank holds grand opening

Eastern Arizona Courier – Most people have felt pangs of hunger while dieting or if a meal was skipped due to busy schedules or for religious reasons. Some families in the Gila Valley, however, feel those pains every day because there isn’t any food in their cupboards or refrigerators. The Graham County Interfaith Care Alliance hopes to help alleviate that pain with the grand opening of the new food bank, Our Neighbor’s Pantry. Many churches and organizations donated time and money to make the group’s vision come true, according to Pastor Bob Holliday.”It’s not one church’s effort,” he said. “By coming together as a community, this becomes a community food bank.”

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