As students returned to school this fall, I began to notice things were just a little bit different.
There were all the usual signs of school starting up: sidewalks lined with young walkers, streets sprinkled with bikers, baseball hats turned backwards, colorful backpacks, glittery hair ribbons and flashy footwear.
Children not quite school-aged were walking with their older siblings, anxiously waiting for the day when it will be their turn to have a backpack over their shoulders. Flowers were blooming at school entrances, and inside, freshly waxed floors shined.
Yet something still seemed just a little bit different.More
Storytelling has caught on as a means of social change and civic engagement in the last five to ten years, and has been a popular practice for, well, pretty much forever. Consider the use of slave narratives in the US abolitionist movement, or popular theater performed from early on in the farmworker movement.
Anyone reading this blog has probably thought about how stories can motivate people to volunteer or donate money; a personal narrative tugs at your heart and compels you to help out.
Perhaps less obvious are other applications of storytelling that change the way people interact within communities: to assess a community’s needs and strengths (Orton’s Heart & Soul is a great example); to organize people in a group (consider Marshall Ganz’s “Public Narrative” method, adapted by the 2008 Obama campaign); to educate the public (such as Voice of Witness does with human rights); or to advocate a cause (examples include the grantees of the Health Media Initiative of the Open Society Foundation).More
Boston is changing rapidly, by-and-large for the better. There are cranes everywhere. Our population is growing. We’re revitalizing old neighborhoods and building new ones. But, as even expert planners acknowledge, artists and young adults recently out of college can’t afford to live and work here. My neighborhood has lost its middle class.
There are public housing units, high-end condos and expensive single-family residences, but very little in between. Elsewhere, preservationists struggle to save historically important neighborhood buildings while others bemoan the lack of cutting-edge architecture.
I enjoy thinking about how cities grow and change. I keep up to date on the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s (BRA) latest decisions, have weighed in on development proposals in neighborhood forums, and served on a “citizen advisory committee” when the BRA rezoned a broad swath of my neighborhood.More
Vermont has just exploded into summer. The weekly farmer’s markets are in full swing and summertime concerts, fairs, parades and art walks are just starting. It’s an exciting time and one that brings with it the opportunity to grow and reap the harvest together.
It’s a great time of year to be in Vermont: summer has arrived and it’s taken its sweet time to get here so we appreciate it all the more. In a mostly rural state, many communities have pinned their abilities to grow and thrive on the constancy of the cycle of seasons. A successful harvest or a big snowfall is not only beautiful to behold—they’re economic indicators as well, and the collective identity of the people who live here depend on that.More
Photo: Jane Lafleur
The neighboring communities of Rockland and Rockport, Maine, have many things in common. Both have unsurpassed scenic beauty. Both have a strong maritime history of shipyards, fishing fleets, lobstering and boat building, their oceanfront geography a source of economic strength and security.
Both also share a section of Route One that serves as the area’s backbone for traffic and commerce, as well as the link between the economic hubs to the north and south.
Residents of Rockland participate in a walkability audit.
On August 28, 2011, US Route 100 leading into the mountain town of Rochester, Vermont simply ended. And so did every other road leading in and out of town. That was the day Tropical Storm Irene washed away roads and bridges and homes throughout the region, leaving 13 towns cut off from the outside world. It was hours before anyone managed to get in or out of Rochester, and even then only by ATV and on foot. It was days before most people could communicate with anyone outside of town. It was weeks before power was restored and roads were passable to anyone other than emergency crews.
This is the last in a four-part series adapted from the book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012).
Some people are uncomfortable talking about power. While power is the currency of political activists, it’s a dirty word to many of us—like “money,” it is not mentioned in polite company. But listen for words like “influence,” “impact,” “authority,” and “control,” and notice how often they come up. Ultimately, power is a crucial element of democracy and something we need to acknowledge and discuss in community decision making—early and often.
It would be helpful if every decision-making process came with its own “power gauge.” Imagine a dial like an old-fashioned speedometer that would tell us how leaders answer the question, “Who makes the decision?” At one end, the dial reads “Me”—the leader holds all the power. In the center, “We”—decisions are made together. At the far end, “You”—citizens make the decisions. Exactly where the needle quivers on this dial should be clear to every leader who plans to engage the public, and to every citizen before he or she commits time to the process.More
This post was first published in April 2013 on the Citizens’ Institute for Rural Design blog.
Residents in Exeter, RI used a “Places of the Heart” map to identify
parts of town that they value most as well as areas of concern.
Have you ever been at a meeting about a community issue and heard the statement, “We don’t need some outsider coming in and telling us what to do.”?
I know I have. This phrase points to a common challenge I see when working in rural communities—balancing the value of community input with expert knowledge in community design.
Too often community projects favor one of these approaches over the other; the design team who drops in for a week with the solution to a town’s traffic woes (i.e. roundabout) or the community workshop that recycles the same, old idea for its downtown’s redevelopment (i.e. more parking).
So, how do we move off of this dynamic towards a more effective model? By recognizing the best of what both sides bring to the equation and designing a process that leverages both strengths.More