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, April 13, 2014

Self-help civic initiatives in DC, Mount Rainier, MD, Ysilanti, MI, and Brookings, SD

One of the points within Tocqueville's Democracy in America that is very important is the self-help-community impulse that was expressed by word and action by so many. 

People from other countries frequently comment about how the civil society in the US is so much more vibrant than in their own countries--even as we are experiencing a serious decline in civic participation--voting, reading newspapers, participating in local organizations, etc.

On the other hand, opposition to the growth of "big government" comes in part out of the recognition that it reduces civic impulses.

You see this in DC especially.  My joke is that "big government--the federal government--trickles down and shapes little--local--government in its image."  Advisory Neighborhood Commissions are both a benefit and a bane to local participation.  It's great that neighborhoods have a right to weigh in on matters before DC government through ANCs.  On the other hand, people end up believing that even the minutest matters have to be taken care of by government rather than ourselves.

But DC has a couple of interesting civic initiatives underweigh that are a kind of government-civic partnership.

1.  Love Your Block DC, a program by the Serve DC volunteer unit of the Executive Branch, offers grants of up to $1,000 to support independent civic initiatives focused on micro-neighborhood improvements.

Unfortunately, they don't make a downloadable application fully available--it's set up to be read and filled out page-by-page online and you can't read the whole thing first.  So I can't tell you the application due date.

(P.S. one of my examples about re-figuring how city offices ostensibly focused on engaging with the public is the Serve DC program.  I think offices like this should be based in the Main Branch of the Central Library, and open on those hours, rather than more traditional "business" hours, and located in less accessible government buildings.)

2.  I have been remiss in not writing about the Age-Friendly DC Block by Block Walk initiative.   Trainings preceded the March 20th launch of the program, which lasts til the end of the month.  The intent is to walk every block in the city " to help identify neighborhood assets and issues needing attention, particularly through the lens of residents, workers, and visitors 60 and older."

I think the main effort is a walkability audit, which frankly, ought to be done throughout the city, as part of sustainable mobility and community development planning anyway.  The kinds of things they are looking to record (see graphic) are the kinds of things that ought to be recorded anyway, such as in a neighborhood audit (cf. the 2007 entry "Systematic neighborhood engagement").

And it's the flip side of a point made in Safe Routes to Schools programs (and in my entry "Night-time safety: rethinking lighting in the context of a walking community") that these programs of developing and promoting safe walking routes benefit all residents, not just schoolchildren.

I think about these issues more and more as I age, don't see as well, don't hear as well (yes, young'uns, it will happen to you too, soon enough you realize that you are not perpetually 18 years of age).  I think about it a lot vis-a-vis Suzanne's parents, when we take them on transit or watch them drive in areas they are unfamiliar with.  So this is an important initiative too.

... but I doubt this initiative will do separate day time and night time walks.

3. And then there are some interesting projects locally and elsewhere, which also exemplify civic initiative, some involving local government and some not.

Before and after of a 2013 Paint Ypsilanti project.

In Ypsilanti, Michigan (it's next to Ann Arbor), the "Paint Ypsilanti" project ("Paint Ypsilanti project looking to expand after successful launch," Ypsilanti Courier) is not unlike Rebuilding Together's focus on housing improvement and repair for low income households or the HGTV show "Curb Appeal: The Block," where they fix up a house on a block but then also do some other smaller for other houses on the same block, to maximize the impact.

From the website:
 "Paint Ypsilanti is founded on the simple premise that we want to increase the vibrancy of our neighborhoods by providing assistance to residents unable to keep up financially and/or physically with the maintenance for their homes.  After completing a successful pilot project in 2013, the program has plans to expand and hopes to provide paint, landscaping materials and labor for 20 project recipients in 2014."
In Brookings, South Dakota, presentation consultant Robert Yapp is leading three different workshops (painting historic houses, exterior wood repair, window repair and weatherization) that involve fixing up particular houses as a form of training--I expect that the buildings getting the extra attention are owned by people of limited means. 

See the press release, "BOB YAPP HISTORIC PRESERVATION WORKSHOPS - May 1-3, 2014," from the city website.  Brookings has a strong historic preservation and Main Street commercial district revitalization programs, which are about promoting civic health as well as economic development.

Note that these kinds of programs exemplify the point made by Rolf Goetze in Building Neighborhood Confidence that the point of government assistance for community development and revitalization isn't to make the residents dependent on the municipality, it's to provide a push and confirm to people that the community is worth staying in and investing in.

4.  Locally, Mount Rainer, Maryland is sponsoring their annual "Better Block" initiative, on Friday April 25th. From the press release:
April 25th from 6 – 10 pm, the Mount Rainier Circle and intersecting streets of Rhode Island Avenue and 34th street will come alive for one evening of music, workshops, parade, performances, open studios, arts activities, and more. This year, creative placemaking activities will feature Lesole’s Dance Project, Urban Eats Arts and Music Café, Adinkra Cultural Arts Studio, Beloved Community Mosaics, artist Kenny George and Patrick McDonough’s Chard/Hops spot, a Hoop Jam by Noelle Powers to the body rollin’ tunes of BOOMscat, an open studio at Ani Kasten Ceramics, a pop-up exhibition by Krista Schlyer and family crafts with Community Forklift.
For more information:

-- Art Lives Here placemaking initiative
-- Gateway Arts District, in Mount Rainier, Brentwood, North Brentwood, Hyattsville, Maryland

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At 3:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One benefit I see of ANCs is that (at least in theory) they are open to all. In Fairfax for examples local opinion is still sought, but since there is no govt below the magisterial district level, and those are single member districts, instead civic associations are the principle representative of community opinion - but they mostly have their roots as coalitions of homeowner associations, and AFAICT they mostly speak for homeowners. In some places that means they really only speak for a very limited part of the community. In FFX in particular you often get big differences between the Civic Associations and the outlooks of Supervisors, as the latter are elected by voters including renters, who in FFX tend to be poor and less white, by a very considerable margin.

There are of course lobbies other than the CA's - like FABB, VOICE, etc, but they don't represent specific neighborhoods, and generally lack the clout of the CA's.


At 9:30 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I don't have a problem with ANCs, in theory, just in the lack of a sound capacity development and support system for them.

When I was on the planning committee for ANC6C, we did something semi-unprecendented, we met jointly with ANC6A to address the proposed zoning overlay change.

But we dealt with downtown issues at the time (one of the reasons it was interesting) and I was struck by the lack of information sharing between ANCs.

The city council prevented the creation of an "ANC Assembly" that would bring all ANCs together, because they didn't want a separate power base.

Another problem with ANCs can be that they are dominated by people who work for the exec. or legislative branch in some areas.

But recently I had the idea that if Councilmembers actually cared, they'd hold "ANC Asseblies" at the ward level.

And some ANCs, like ANC6C and 6A, some in Ward 1, etc., do really good stuff.

By code, non elected citizens are supposed to be able to be on ANC committees, but most aren't set up to allow that.

At 9:32 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The good ANCs are the exception that proves the rule that the problem is lack of capacity support.

I'd also create "participatory budgeting" systems for them, and as I have written before, provide some services at the "network" level. E.g., payment and accounts should go through the city system, but with an ANC/ANC treasurer initiating transactions.

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ANCs need to either be reformed or eliminated, as does the electoral system in DC.

I like earlier suggestions about expanding the Council, making it more representative of neighborhoods and making the jobs part-time.

At 1:46 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt that "other" e-conversation we've had on a related issue, I have been thinking about this aspect a lot "platform wise".

When I was working in Balt. County, I scheduled as many meetings as possible with informal and formal groups.

A meeting in "Paradise Valley" in District 1 made me realize that while the plan was proposing a countywide bike and ped committee, that it would be good to have parallel District subcommittees too.

And I changed the format of the plan to output recommendations by district. So you would have a "district by district" agenda, and with a district-wide committee, you would bring people together, plus the Councilmember's office, plus the exec. branch, to move stuff forward. It would also be a form of community organizing.

Anyway, they took that recommendation out of my draft. But I lobbied--I was out of the county by then--to get the provision put back in via a legislation package.

But only one councilmember actually set up such a committee, in District 5. It should be no surprise that most of the new infrastructure projects being pursued in the county are in that district... (Catonsville has an organized biking constituency, but they aren't as focused on working together and with other groups in the county.)

... anyway, I have been thinking about that example a lot as it relates to DC Council districts and the mayor's office.

As I have written about too much already, most of the constituent service functions of CMs and the Mayor are designed to solidify political support, not to build the independent capacity of civil society to act, sometimes in ways that the Exec./Legislators might not like.

Having a ward plan with constituent neighborhood and commercial district plans, having committees, having more money to give out to community activities but divvying it up via participatory budgeting processes, having say quarterly intra-ward ANC assemblies, providing capacity development activities (training, etc.), would make a big difference.


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