Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Civil society, civic engagement, and public life (a continuing discussion)

Dan Reed has a piece in Greater Greater Washington, "Do-it-yourself culture makes our community stronger," about what young people like him call "DIY Culture" but I refer to as "self-help," which is a frequent theme in the blog, about community organizing, neighborhood action, capacity building institutions to strengthen civil society, etc.

So the previous entry on the Super Bowl and the Baltimore Grand Prix quotes from a Baltimore Sun op-ed about how secrecy and an unwillingness to be public may well have doomed the Grand Prix and certainly contributed to the $12 million of losses on the event last fall.

Speaking of "self-help" culture in Baltimore, a group created some guerrilla crosswalks in Hampden, out of the belief that finally, they had waited too long.
Guerrilla crosswalk installation, Hampden, Baltimore
Guerrilla crosswalk installation, Hampden, Baltimore. Photo: Jed Weeks.

Building civic capacity
Friday I met with DC City Council candidate and we were talking about how the city's political and governance culture needs a reboot and a fundamental commitment to small "d" democracy and civic participation, and the weak civic culture and lack of vision generally.

I talked with him about this, and the absolute necessity of capacity building institutions for community organizations, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, I mentioned "participatory budgeting" while he mentioned the equivalent of "donor advised funds" and the community foundation model as a way to provide grants to nonprofit organizations instead of the somewhat corrupt way that DC does it now, etc.

But I said, what if we did create those kinds of supporting organizations and civic infrastructure and what if the way things happen now continue to happen and he replied that it wouldn't happen, when you build people's capacity and control over their lives, over their participation in local civic affairs, in how civic affairs are conducted and how civil society works, it will function better.

Baltimore City Trails Summit
And that reminded me that last weekend I went to the Baltimore City Trails Summit and there were probably about 80 people there ("Baltimore City bikers look for more recreation, commuting options" from the Baltimore Sun). It was heartening to hear the commitment from the City Parks Commissioner and other city officials, but it was also extremely exciting to learn about the various citizen-initiated projects to bring trails to various places around the city.

Compared to going to meetings about such topics in the DC area, it was "mind-shattering" to see "old people" (people in the 60s and 70s) as key advocates for bringing trails to their neighborhoods, because they see the value in having places to walk and bike (and skateboard and walk your dog and push the baby carriage and rollerblade) that are free of cars.

And how the city and nonprofits use National Trails Day, June 2nd, as a way to organize local events across the city to promote parks and trails in Baltimore.
National Trails Day in Baltimore volunteer form
It's a completely different attitude compared to DC proper, about how to organize, how to leverage resources, how to engage citizens and produce change. "The DC Way" (as opposed to "The Arlington Way") is very much a top-down driven process.

Metropolitan Branch Trail
Speaking of which in terms of local trails and bikeways in the DC region, Montgomery County has decided to delay by 6 years their investments in making key connections for the Metropolitan Branch Trail in the Silver Spring area--the trail when complete and with a connection to the Capital Crescent Trail in Silver Spring makes a kind of horseshoe trail network serving east and west Washington DC from Bethesda and Silver Spring and points in between.

From the Washington Area Bicycle Association:

As our members and supporters know, WABA has worked for decades to help bring about a high-quality trail connection between Silver Spring and downtown DC. The Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) can provide this connection, but its progress is threatened.

This year, the budget proposed by the Montgomery County Executive cuts design and construction funding for the county’s portion of the MBT for the next six years. We need the County Council to ensure that these years of effort are not wasted and that the County’s commitments to prioritize the completion of the trail are kept.

Priorities are determined not in empty words, but in budgetary commitments. In this budget the promises to build this trail are broken.

Your opportunity to tell the County Council to return the MBT to the county’s budget is this Tuesday, February 7th at 7pm. Please come and show your support for the trail.

If you are unable to attend in person, CLICK HERE to email the County Council to state your support for the trail and to request that funding be restored.

I can't help but believe that if we had a more engaged citizenry, not unlike the people at the Baltimore City Trails Summit, that it wouldn't be taking more than 30 years--from concept in 1987 to finished trail in 2018--for the Metropolitan Branch Trail to become reality.

CicLAvia logo
CicLAvia/Feet in the Streets (Greater Los Angeles)

Speaking of the need for civic engagement driven strategies to drive Ciclovia/Sunday Streets type programs, where streets are closed as special events for placemaking, biking, walking, and other activities, the City of Pomona seems to have had almost as many people coming to an organizing meeting for creating a Ciclavia program there!, as DC gets to come out to the equivalent event at Fort Dupont in Southeast DC, far away from the city's centers. See "Pomona Hosts a Great CicLAvia Stakeholder Meeting" from the CicLAvia blog.

It's all about the process and commitment to civic engagement.
Pomona_Meeting, Ciclavia
Pomona meeting, CicLAvia.

People Power...

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