Cornerstones Blog

Engage everyone…even in the big city?

Boston, MA aerialBoston 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.

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Seeing Green: The Intersection of the Economy, Ecology and Character

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.

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Shared Border, Shared Vision

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.

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The Road to Resilience

Photos: www.mansfieldheliflight.com/flood/
Irene Damage - http://www.mansfieldheliflight.com/flood/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.

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Slow Democracy: Power – Do We Talk About It In Polite Company?

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).

Power-O-MeterSome 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.

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Community Wisdom + Expert Knowledge = Good Community Design

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.

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Slow Democracy: Deliberation – More Than Just Talk

This is the third 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).

The scene at the public hearing is all too familiar. A tired-looking panel sits in front of the auditorium at a table cluttered with documents and microphones; although the room is full of chairs, most are empty. Citizen questions and discussion are not encouraged, testimony is polarized and tempers flare.

The “public hearing” is one of the most-used citizen participation processes in the United States, with many local and state governments legally mandated to use it. But leaders and citizens are often frustrated by the format.

While originally devised to improve participation, hearings are too often framed as contests between points of view. They’re not structured to seek common ground or collaboration, and occur too late in a process to be taken seriously.

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Seven Ways to Increase Community Power in Local Decision-Making

CommunityMatters®, a partnership of seven national organizations including Orton, share the belief that people have the power to solve their community’s problems and direct future growth and change.

As leaders in the fields of civic engagement and community and economic development, the partners believe that by strengthening civic infrastructure, communities can become more prosperous, vibrant places to live.

Why is civic infrastructure key? Because, like the physical infrastructure that supports a community’s built environment, civic infrastructure supports the social sphere. It consists of the opportunities, activities and arenas, both online and face-to-face, that allow people to connect with each other, solve problems, make decisions and celebrate community.

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