in art, Environmental Justice, Place-based communities

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An open letter from Bill Berkowitz of Community Tool Box Re: “Taking Action in Your Neighborhood”

in art, Environmental Justice, Place-based communities

I got this note from UMass Professor Emeritus Bill Berkowitz earlier this week, and with his permission have posted it here so you can share your own thoughts and suggestions. Dr. Berkowitz is a writer, editor, and core team member of the Community Tool Box, the most extensive web site on community health and development on the planet (which we featured here). His books deal with skills, ideas, personal qualities, and stories relating to community organization and improvement. Bill is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and a recipient of its award for Distinguished Contributions to Practice in Community Psychology.

I’d forwarded this email to some of my contacts in the neighborhoods movement, and with their permission will be posting excerpts from their responses here as well.

Hi, Leo – Thanks very much for your April 12 note. It’s so easy to be impressed by it – both by your statement of purpose and by the people you’ve been gathering around your ideas. I surely hope your work gains momentum, takes off, and soars.

In this note, I’m sending along a concept of our own, titled “Taking Action in Your Neighborhood,” which perhaps you might reflect and comment upon.

In some ways, it’s a variation and extension of Our Blocks. Some differences are that it’s more explicitly action-oriented, and more explicitly participatory. It also structures the content by topic, rather than have the user do it via tagging. And it centralizes and gives a specific focus for much of the needed neighborhood work.

What’s here could be a rather big idea, probably calling for both synthesis of existing content and creation of some new content as well. The potential payoff, though, could be very large.

So take a look if you can, and see what you think; we’ll be very grateful to learn of your own reactions, others’ as well, whatever they may be.

We’re also very comfortable with your sharing any or all of this with your other neighborhood contacts – actually we’d encourage this, since more feedback may both help strengthen this concept, as well as Our Blocks itself, and potentially lead to mutually-beneficial collaborations.

Thanks very much again, Leo, and be talking to you.

~~ Bill

* * * * *

In response to your note and request for feedback, I’m writing to sketch out some neighborhood thoughts, and more specifically around developing a centralized “Taking Action in Your Neighborhood” resource that I’d mentioned before.

We’d certainly be interested in any of your own thoughts you might have on this, especially (if the idea has merit) for moving this idea forward. I’m also copying Jay here, since this relates pretty closely to some work he has done.

Here’s the rationale: There’s a lot of neighborhood-related stuff in print and in cyberspace, which may not be very surprising. Much of what exists is both good and useful. A lot of it can be found on Our Blocks. Some of it is on the Community Tool Box, and I’m sure also on many other sites as well.

But a real downside is that it’s scattered all over the map – so if someone is interested in a particular neighborhood topic or issue, they might find themselves looking in a lot of places, and having to patch together what they need from a bunch of different sources. This is both time-consuming and often not all that effective.


The Craigslist Foundation San Francisco Gathering, Part 2

in art, Environmental Justice, Place-based communities

Toward the end of 2009, the Craigslist Foundation began a series of discussions around their plans to focus the foundation’s efforts on strengthening communities, with some emphasis on neighborhood-based communities. This began with a meeting at The Case Foundation in Washington DC, which included Michael Smith, Kari Dunn, Cindy Gallop, Jessica Kirkwood, Marsha Semmel, Michael Karpman, Rhonda Taylor, Ron Carlee, and Siobhan Canty. They “chatted about the need of organizations with libraries of unpublished case studies and ideas, connecting local changemakers with the big picture of systemic change, bringing essential info to people at exactly the time they need it most, and using storytellers to communicate long (or boring) case studies in more entertaining and inspiring ways.” (see How Can We Build On One Another’s Successes?)

In the second meeting, at end of January 2010, they gathered twelve more friends in San Francisco “for a different take on the conversation: Beth Kanter, Chris Gates, Craig Newmark, Frank Schulenburg, Gwyneth Borden, John Lyman, Kate Stahnke, Matt Garcia, Pamela Wheelock, Peggy Duvette, Rob Miller, and making it all amazingly fun was our facilitator Allen Gunn. Here, we talked a lot about the importance of people over information, how to reach those who aren’t online, what motivates people to tell their success stories, which organizations have already been doing work in this area, and what audiences might be most in need of improved information flow.”

A week later, they posted their “theory of change”: that “that place-based communities and neighborhoods must be strengthened if our society is to flourish and our democracy advance — and that Craigslist Foundation can play a catalytic role in assembling the talents of key partners and collaborators capable of offering people in communities the tools and resources they need to take greater responsibility for where they live, work, and play.” (see Catalyst for Community Vitality)

In this article, they also said “this translates into a role for us in convening successful organizations and people across all sectors — nonprofit, government, business, philanthropy — to work intentionally and together toward building stronger local communities and economies.” A month later, on  March 9, Craigslist Foundation announced that it was going on the road to learn more about “how people build stronger neighborhoods and what prevents others from joining in the fun.” They hosted small group discussions in Washington DC, New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Austin, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon in March and April.

I was part of the seventh and last of these meetings, posted photos of participants and their ideas, and transcribed their post-it notes below. Also in this meeting: Aaron Goodman, Ali Williams, Amelia Kolokihakaufisi , Anne Marie Engel, Bruce Richard, Clint Mitchell, Ka Yun Cheng, Karen Kwok, Kathie Lowry, Kristarae Flynn, Terri Forman, Maura Mccarthy, Nick McClintock,  Patrick Flanagan, Peggy Simmons, Toby Leavitt, and Winston Dong.

To keep track of the discussions and to create “a place to listen to the community, share some of our ideas, highlight cool projects we encounter, and generally keep the community up to date as our programs are developed”, CLF created the lab at craigslist foundation, and a uservoice forum that asks people to submit and vote on answers to the questions: What stops you from impacting your community? What has worked well for you?

Things I know that I wish I could share with leaders in other communities

Can't read the one on the top left

  • I didn’t get a good snap of this, sorry (see pic), so the way it reads to me is this: How do you break down barriers to regorible thaking? (i.e. minimize appepridics of competrif nit & cissided resources)
  • Illegible/illegible mentoring
  • I don’t wish, I share
  • The adventure of education abroad
  • How many options there are for raising money
  • How to create concepts that are large scale, inventive, and sizzling in getting people in cohesion faster
  • I know good ways of getting people of very different backgrounds together, as equals, so everyone walks away changed
  • How to facilitate community action/impact of people averse to talking to institutions and developers (more…)

Superbia! : 31 ways to create sustainable neighborhoods (with links to resources)

in art, Environmental Justice, Place-based communities

[ The resources linked below are those referenced in the book, p179ff ]

Easy Steps


Bolder Steps

[more links to follow]

Boldest Steps

  • Create a community energy system.
  • Establish alternative water and wastewater systems.
  • Establish a more environmentally friendly transportation strategy.
  • Create a common house.
  • Create a community-shared office.
  • Establish weekly entertainment for the community.
  • Narrow or eliminate streets, converting more space to park and edible landscape, walkways and picnic areas.
  • Retrofit garages and rooms in your homes into apartments or add granny flats to house students or others in need of housing.
  • Establish a mixed-use neighborhood by opening a coffee shop, convenience store, and garden market.
  • Promote a more diverse neighborhood.

From Dan Chiras & Dave Wann (2003). Superbia!: 31 ways to create sustainable neighborhoods. Gabriola, B.C.: New Society.

Click here for more idea lists

11 key elements in transforming public spaces into vibrant community places

in art, Environmental Justice, Place-based communities

Thanks to Richard Layman for pointing us to PPS, and to Bill Berkowitz for recommending the book.

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public places that build communities. It has identified 11 key elements in transforming public spaces into vibrant community places, whether they’re parks, plazas, public squares, streets, sidewalks or the myriad other outdoor and indoor spaces that have public uses in common. These elements are:

  1. The Community Is The Expert. The important starting point in developing a concept for any public space is to identify the talents and assets within the community. In any community there are people who can provide an historical perspective, valuable insights into how the area functions, and an understanding of the critical issues and what is meaningful to people.
  2. Create a Place, Not a Design. If your goal is to create a place (which we think it should be), a design will not be enough. To make an under-performing space into a vital “place,” physical elements must be introduced that would make people welcome and comfortable, such as seating and new landscaping. The goal is to create a place that has both a strong sense of community and a comfortable image.
  3. Look for Partners. Whether you want partners at the beginning to plan for the project or you want to brainstorm and develop scenarios with a dozen partners who might participate in the future, they are invaluable in providing support and getting a project off the ground. They can be local institutions, museums, schools and others.
  4. You Can See a Lot Just By Observing. We can all learn a great deal from others’ successes and failures. By looking at how people are using (or not using) public spaces and finding out what they like and don’t like about them, it is possible to assess what makes them work or not work.
  5. Have a Vision. Essential to a vision for any public space is an idea of what kinds of activities might be happening in the space, a view that the space should be comfortable and have a good image, and that it should be an important place where people want to be. It should instill a sense of pride in the people who live and work in the surrounding area.
  6. Start with the Petunias: Experiment…Experiment…Experiment. The complexity of public spaces is such that you cannot expect to do everything right initially. The best spaces experiment with short term improvements that can be tested and refined over many years. Elements such as seating, outdoor cafes, public art, striping of crosswalks and pedestrian havens, community gardens and murals are examples of improvements that can be accomplished in a short time.
  7. Triangulate. “Triangulation is the process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to other strangers as if they knew each other” (Holly Whyte). In a public space, the choice and arrangement of different elements in relation to each other can put the triangulation process in motion (or not).
  8. They Always Say “It Can’t Be Done.” Creating good public spaces is inevitably about encountering obstacles. Starting with small scale community-nurturing improvements can demonstrate the importance of “places” and help to overcome obstacles.
  9. Form Supports Function. The input from the community and potential partners, the understanding of how other spaces function, the experimentation, and overcoming the obstacles and naysayers provides the concept for the space. Although design is important, these other elements tell you what “form” you need to accomplish the future vision for the space.
  10. Money is not the issue. Once you’ve put in the basic infrastructure of the public spaces, the elements that are added that will make it work (e.g., vendors, cafes, flowers and seating) will not be expensive. If the community and other partners are involved in programming and other activities, this can also reduce costs. People will have so much enthusiasm for the project that the cost is viewed much more broadly and consequently as not significant when compared with the benefits.
  11. You Are Never Finished. Being open to the need for change and having the management flexibility to enact that change is what builds great public spaces and great cities and towns.

excerpted from Eleven Principles for Creating Great Community Places

The book puts it a little differently:

  1. The community is the expert. The people living and working in a place are the folks who know what needs to be done and how best to do it.
  2. You are creating a place, not a design. The blueprints for a neighborhood improvement effort are much less critical to its success than other factors, such as a management plan and the involvement of local citizens.
  3. You can’t do it alone. Finding the right partners will bring more resources, innovative ideas, and new sources of energy for your efforts.
  4. They’ll always say “It can’t be done.” When government officials, business people, and even some of your own neighbors say it won’t work, what they really mean is “We’ve never done it like this before.” It’s a sign you’re on the right track.
  5. You can see a lot by just observing. The smartest way to turn a neighborhood around is to first take a close look at what goes on there, watching out for what works and what doesn’t in that particular place.
  6. Develop a vision. For a community vision to make sense and to make a difference, it needs to come from the people who live there, not from consultants or other outside professionals.
  7. Form supports function. If you don’t take into account how people use a particular place in the beginning, you will have to deal with the consequences later.
  8. Make the connections. A great place in a neighborhood offers many things to do, all of which enhance each other and add up to more than the sum of the parts.
  9. Start with petunias. Little things can set the stage for big changes, especially by proving to local skeptics that change is indeed possible.
  10. Money is not the issue. If you have a spirited community working with you, you’ll find creative ways around financial obstacles.
  11. You are never finished. Eighty percent of the success of any good place is due to how well it is managed after the project is done.