Resources for building & empowering communities – Rebecca Sanborn Stone

in art, Environmental Justice, Place-based communities

14th in our Best practices in Community Empowerment series.

Rebecca Sanborn Stone is Senior Associate for Communications at Orton Family Foundation and CommunityMatters. She holds a BA in Biology and English from Williams College, where she helped found the Williams Social Choice Fund for socially responsible investing. She got her MESc from Yale. You can also find Rebecca on Twitter (@rsstone) and Facebook.

On the practice of hoarding or sharing best practices, Rebecca says: I’ve historically seen a fair bit of hoarding, including in my own organization, though not always intentionally. I think a lot of organizations intend to share and collaborate and grow a common set of best practices, but it breaks down because we all want control over what our case studies and resources look like, how we build and share them. I think I see a shift in that trend, though – I’ve recently learned of a number of newer organizations (mostly either run by millennials or at least operating with a millennial mindset) that are bucking this trend and abandoning the ego in favor of true collaboration. It makes organizations like mine stop and take notice and, I hope, will be enough to help us change our ways.

These are Rebecca’s recommended resources:

Changemakers Competitions – Community empowerment for me always starts with inspiration and examples, and I can’t think of a better resource for that than Changemakers. Their competition winners offer so many inspiring stories of people taking control of their communities and coming up with innovative solutions to both local and global challenges. The competition entrants who don’t win are perhaps an even richer resource – the site doubles as a database of creative ideas for community change.

CommunityMatters blog – CommunityMatters helps local leaders and changemakers find collaborative, innovative grassroots solutions to community challenges. The CommunityMatters blog includes information-rich posts and podcasts of conference calls on topics ranging from local foods to placemaking to economic development.

NCDD Resource Center – The NCDD Resource Center is home to more than 2,500 resources for dialogue and deliberation, including dialogue guides, case studies, tools, and evaluation methods. Dialogue and democratic participation are at the heart of all community empowerment, and NCDD is at the heart of this movement.

Cause Communications Toolkit – Cause Communications publishes a Non-profit Communications Toolkit, as well as other resources related to networks, online outreach tools, and print and presentation design. It might seem only peripherally related to community empowerment, but we find that so many community initiatives stall because they fail to communicate with or reach citizens. The Cause Communications guides are some of the best resources around for improving effectiveness in communications.

Deep Economy (Bill McKibben) – It’s not free, and not an obvious choice, but I have to list it. I see so many aspects of community empowerment leading back to the “local” movement today – buy local / grow local / eat local / work local / etc. Bill McKibben’s book was at the forefront of the local movement, and is one of the best articulation’s I’ve seen for why local economies and community empowerment have to go hand in hand. [Check a library near you]

Building community in neighborhoods

The following resources on Rebecca’s list are more focused on building community in neighborhoods. As Rebecca notes: There are several great databases and resources out there with examples of community initiatives, and instructions on how to do it, but I wouldn’t limit myself to the neighborhood level. Lessons from small town and rural planning would apply very well to neighborhood community building, and the resources I’d recommend would point people in that direction. – The Community Planning Handbook by Nick Wates is one of the best publications, with ideas for planning-related tools to engage citizens, identify what matters to communities, and plan for the future – especially in an international context. is a free online database listing most of the resources from his book.

Planning Tool Exchange – The Planning Tool Exchange is an online hub for tools, resources, and organizations in community planning and civic engagement. We invite all users to find and contribute resources and help grow an information bank for communities.

Heart & Soul Community Planning Handbook – The Heart & Soul Community Planning Handbook helps communities engage citizens and take control of their future. Chapters include network analysis and stakeholder identification, outreach and communications, storytelling, and engaging youth. I recommend this because it’s at the heart of our work and it’s one of the resources I know best; neighborhoods looking to engage citizens would learn a lot from the small town planning examples included here.

Animating Democracy database – This database focuses on projects that use the arts to build dialogue, engage citizens, and work through difficult civic issues. Many of the projects are replicable, but even if they’re not a perfect fit for other communities and neighborhoods, they inspire creative thinking about unorthodox community tools.

PPS Placemaking 101 Articles – PPS’s resource collection includes how-tos, articles, principles, tools, and just about everything else a community would need to understand how placemaking can help and how to get started.



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.


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.