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.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Helping and making a difference year round (not just at holidays)

Probably the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas/Hanukah is when a lot of extra volunteerism happens, and nonprofits send out various annual fundraising appeals to eek out donations before the end of the tax year.

Urbanophile has a post, "What Are You Doing For Your City?," that makes the point that it's not enough to pontificate how to make the city better, that we need to take action and help in credible ways now.

From the entry:

It’s tempting to think that if we read (or even, like me, write) an urban blog, vote, or write the occasional letter of protest that we are doing our part. But while words, protest, and lobbying are important, they are not nearly enough.

Instead, I’ve tried to challenge myself to try to find ways to actually do something tangible, physical that contributes to civic improvement. Something beyond just my words. I was a long time free software contributor, and am glad to have been able to participate that way. I also helped drive the creation of the Indianapolis neighborhood map and online architectural tours. But that’s frankly not a whole lot.

On the other hand, if everybody challenged themselves to take on at least one personal project, whatever or however small it might be, our cities would be much better places. Many neighborhoods could benefit from just having someone committed to keeping their own block free of trash. Or may a guerrilla gardening project at some lonely, pathetic stretch of dirt on a city right of way. There are a million things that are within our grasp to actually do ourselves to make an improvement. We aren’t always dependent on somebody else to make things better. We can make a start in our own back yard.

So I’d like to challenge all of you to do that. What’s your project for improving your city? And I’ll also challenge me, as I don’t have much going on at present and haven’t made much of an impact since I moved. As we come to the end of the year, let’s all plan to make a tangible difference of some sort where we live.

2.  Normally, I wouldn't be so quick to devalue "indirect" service, focused on creating long term, structural change,even it usually takes years to see tangible results.  See "Good volunteerism vs. "bad" volunteerism."

Focusing on structural change is important. Most people are content to write a check or do nothing--hell, most of my neighbors don't even pick up litter in front of their houses--or to volunteer at a soup kitchen once/year.

Most people don't really have the capability to look more deeply at issues and problems and suggest deeper and more comprehensive solutions.

Focusing on structural change is thankless and takes a long time, there are plenty of defeats along the way, and the wins don't usually accomplish all that you intended.

But I think the point that taking on a personal project, in addition to tilting at windmalls, is a reasonable suggestion.

3. TransitMiami has an interesting post, "The Power Of Thinking Small" (reprinted from the Biscayne Times), which makes the point that too often we are focused on "thinking big" when there are plenty of do-able important little projects "under our feet" that we can address now, if we make up our minds to do so. From the entry:

There are a series of questions we should be asking about life in downtown Miami that are emphatically about the small and simple things: Are the sidewalks clean and inviting, or are they caked with old chewing gum and poorly lit? Are there public maps to guide people around? Is the transit system easily navigable? Are there attractive public spaces with places to congregate? Is bicycle parking readily available? Are there places for children? Pets? Adequate crosswalks and crossing times? Does walking feel safe and inviting?

If the answer to some of these questions is no, the solutions are usually simple, relatively inexpensive, and can offer a high return on investment. Their importance must not be dismissed, though it sometimes feels like these basic livability issues are hardly being addressed.

Left: guerrilla wayfinding sign by the Miami Improvement Alliance.

The piece discusses Scott Douglass, the founder of the Miami Improvement Alliance, which aims to bring people together to work on community revitalization projects--sanctioned or guerrilla, that are achievable without spending a lot of time or money.

The group’s first project was the creation of “urban wayfinding signs” to encourage visitors to the recent Red Bull Flugtag event at Bayfront Park to venture across Biscayne Boulevard and explore what downtown Miami has to offer. While unsanctioned by any local authorities, the initiative had the blessing of many local business owners.

4.  Tactical urbanism offers a framework for thinking about community projects that you might want to take up.

-- Tactical Urbanism Manual, vol. 1
-- Tactical Urbanism Manual, vol. 2

5.  Most community libraries, parks, trails, recreation centers, and neighborhood schools ought to have "friends of" programs that we could participate in and shape, plus various neighborhood groups including historic preservation and community revitalization programs.

Although "structurally speaking," most local governments don't set up how they work in a fashion that respects and engages citizens.  (We won't talk about planning processes...)  Baltimore is exceptional with a couple programs such as the Weed Warriors program in the parks department that works with citizen volunteers to rid parks of invasive weeds, and the Live Baltimore resident attraction program.

In a blog entry about "networked solutions" I argue that the way communities set up friends programs is too complicated, requiring that involved citizens spend a significant amount of time on administration, paying for incorporation, etc., instead of spending their time "doing".)

This article, "Minneapolis' Superhighway: The Midtown Greenway," from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy on the Midtown Trail in Minnesota mentions that while the corridor is run by the city, the volunteer nonprofit Midway Greenway Coalition is engaged in many projects that support, maintain, and improve the trail.

6.  Another way to serve is to be on the board of a community organization (although that can be like tilting at windmalls too).

7.  Another interesting example from Miami, is how the local community foundation, the Miami Foundation, has created Give Miami Day as an online giving event (not unlike how nonprofits nationally are working to create in line with Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday post-Thanksgiving shopping events, see "Cyber Monday and now #GivingTuesday" from CNN) to build local giving and individual philanthropy by encouraging residents to make donations to Greater Miami community organizations.

More than 300 organizations have signed up to participate.  And to reward giving, the Miami Foundation will match a percentage of individual donations made that are between $25 and $10,000, increasing the total funding raised by the groups.  See the Miami Herald articles, "First-ever Give Miami Day is Wednesday" and "Miami, this is the day to give."

This 24-hour donation period began at midnight Wednesday, December 12 and ends at midnight, December 13.

In addition to the Miami Foundation's matching gift program, other community organizations such as Catalyst Miami are leveraging the event by organizing donation match programs of their own.

8.  And stoop down, and pick up some litter on your way to or from the subway, around a bus stop, on your block, in your neighborhood park, or from the trail that you walk or ride on. ("Every litter bit hurts.")

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