Engaged citizens as planners and do-ers
The Opinionater blog of the New York Times has a big piece on KaBOOM, the DC-based national organization focused on working with communities to improve playgrounds, "Mobilizing the Playground Movement."
From the article:
KaBOOM! is attacking another dimension of this problem: the shortage of safe, developmentally appropriate and attractive play spaces available to many American children. KaBOOM! has assumed a leading role defining, highlighting and, now, mapping, the country’s “play deserts” — communities lacking such spaces. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half the children in the country live in a neighborhood without a park or community center.
What makes KaBOOM!’s model unique is the way it sparks leadership and unleashes energy within communities to improve the play environment. KaBOOM! raises most of its funds from businesses and foundations and it could hire contractors to build playgrounds directly — something that would be faster and easier. Instead, it has spent years refining a process that teaches people around the country how to organize themselves to turn around their own public spaces. Along the way, it has created a blueprint for activating citizens — something of particular value in a country that has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the industrialized world.
As much as I get enamored of my own ideas, which I like to think are pretty good, I believe that even the best ideas of individuals (except in rare circumstances maybe, none of which include me) are improved by interaction and give-and-take with other interested people.
While it's about something a little different, Steven Johnson wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal, “The Genius of the Tinkerer,” and he discusses what the biologist Stuart Kaufmann calls "the adjacent possible":
We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition.
But ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we've inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. We like to think of our ideas as a $40,000 incubator, shipped direct from the factory, but in reality they've been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.
The KaBOOM method takes this a step further, by focusing the "design method" and the energy of citizens on a specific project. Ideally, and this is unclear, participants should be able to take the meta-learning and the way the process is organized, and use the same methods for other community activities and projects.
Planning ought to work that way, but usually doesn't. To my way of thinking, with each iteration of a planning process that people participate in, they should get better at it, more creative, more focused, more able.
That our processes don't have that kind of outcome communicates to me that the way we set up our planning process is flawed--if improvements in quality of life and the level of civic engagement are the kinds of outcomes that we are looking for from our planning and zoning processes.
Note that the charrette process is a similar one, but it is expert-centric. The Project for Public Spaces Place Game and the How to Turn A Place Around workshop(/book) is another way of doing this. So is implementation-focused planning, and what I call the "Action Planing" method. And visioning sessions.