Urban Next Summit – Community

This was probably my favourite session that I attended during the Summit.  Jake Barton, founder and principal at Local Projects, led the session, and the ambition of The US Initiative that we were focusing on was Community.

“Everyone can participate in a robust public life.”

Our group first wanted to articulate some characteristics of a robust public life:

–       feeling invested in a place (security of tenure)

–       feeling empowered

–       feeling safe from harassment

–       having time to be involved with your community

–       knowing your neighbours

–       access to gathering spaces and parks

–       a vibrant, home grown culture that is publicly expressed

–       creating opportunities to be involved

–       feeling valued as a stakeholder

–       quality of jobs and quality of housing

–       a balance between inclusiveness and progress

–       accessibility of services for all (understanding who is currently left out and why)

However, this discussion was really about how to change the current way of thinking of the City as the provider and the citizen as the customer, to one of shared responsibility throughout a city.  Everyone in our group had witnessed this relationship in their city – where collectively, citizens perceive City administration as responsible for everything, leading to fewer people taking an active role in the way their cities are shaped.

Cities often set this vision of being a good business that provides superior products for their customers – and this may be an admirable concept.  However, this relationship is problematic in that a) cities cannot logically make everything work perfectly or provide everything (essentially setting themselves up for failure), and b) it encourages a sense of entitlement as opposed to engagement in citizens.  If citizens feel more responsible for their surroundings, they are more likely to take part in its improvement.  It’s a sort of de-evolution of authority where citizens seize the opportunity to do what governments aren’t doing or can’t do.  The question then becomes, how do we as citizens propel this relationship?

The concept of urban literacy came up a few times as being an important step towards having an engaged public – if you don’t know much about how your city functions, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and disinvested.  One gentleman in our group suggested a sort of community “owners manual” – a guide for citizens to understand what services and resources are available to them.  Though these exist in general ways (e.g. you can look in the phone book to find numbers for city departments, etc.), he was thinking a little more locally.  Picture having an “owners manual” specific to the neighbourhood where you live – in addition to a list of what community resources are available, it would also explain how to go about accessing those resources.  This line of thought continued with the suggestion that citizens be given a breakdown of where their taxes go to better understand the linkage between what you pay and what you get (i.e. break the cycle of citizens feeling somehow entitled to both low taxes as well as better and increasing services).

There was also talk about the need for governments to be more innovative and less risk-averse, and for citizens to be open to fully understanding the larger picture of those innovations.  For example, when a city wants to promote cycling, the focus needs to be on the larger reasons and implications for the change.  Citizens have a tendency to focus on small points (bikes vs. cars) instead of the overarching reasons for creating bike lanes.  Many people want to live in a city that is vibrant and innovative, but sometimes we don’t see the progressive actions and decisions of our government because we get too focused on one thing (i.e. seeing a man in spandex come into work).

Our group saw potential for the nature of partnerships between citizens, government, businesses and non-profits to evolve to be more engaging and collaborative – again, moving away from the idea that government is responsible for everything, and towards an understanding that we all share responsibility.  Participation action research offers a lot of potential in this regard.  Small groups of citizens or non-profits articulate local issues in their communities that they would like to change and if they do not have the resources to tackle the issue, they engage experts to come in and discuss/develop solutions collectively.  This is similar to what the U of R Community Research Unit does – it pairs professors and students up with community groups and local non-profits needing solid research and data collection for their work.  This way, they can work together to help achieve the goals of both the community and the researcher.

Some examples where these principles have worked/are working were also presented.  It is amazing what can happen when citizens do start to share liability in their communities and when communities recognize that they collectively have many different resources.  Shirley Lam, of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, talked about how walking school buses have helped to create strong networks of parents and children in communities increasing overall safety.  Another representative from New York mentioned how some local artists have created playing cards featuring characters from around the neighbourhood.  Local kids collect and trade them as a sort of way to get to know the people in your neighbourhood.  Some of the projects in the DIY Urbansim exhibit showcase this as well including people creating community gardens and citizens building street furniture to create gathering places in their neighbourhood.  It is simply people filling eachother’s needs for their collective benefit.

This example of community responsibility and sharing resources has also presented itself in the form of alternative currencies.  In Tokyo, there is a growing network of young people taking care of the elderly for eachother.  While you may be too far from your own parents to regularly make sure they are ok, you can help someone in your own area.  In exchange someone living near your parents can check in on them.  In Montpelier, Vermont (only 45 minutes from us) the Onion River Exchange is one of many time banks in the US – where people can exchange their time for someone else’s time.  For example, I may bank 3 hours for helping someone do their taxes, and receive 2 hours of yoga and 1 hour of yard work from other members.  The idea is that collectively a community has a lot of services to offer and provide for itself and that everyone’s time is valued.

Again, this session really was my favourite of the conference – lots of great projects and possibilities were discussed, and the idea of shared liability and responsibility is still resonating with me.  I know that it is going to come up in many future posts.

Urban Next Summit – Community

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