TED Conversations

Ziska Childs

Freelancer, united scenic artists


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How do we get back the neighborhood?

Of course I'm referencing the 2012 TED prize The talk which inspired this question has been posted: Jen Pahlka talking about "Peace Corps for Geeks" aka- coding for government. One of the ideas in that talk which resonated for me was it's not about making the bureaucracy easier- it's about solving the problems. More often than not that means getting the bureaucracy out of the way and letting people be neighborly. "Adopt a fire hydrant"- shovel it out when there's a snow storm. That's pretty simple stuff and it promotes Community - with an upper case "C".

I've seen my own home town go from a place where I could walk to everything (the butcher the baker the candlestick maker) to one where there are 30,000 vehicle round trips a day. This is for a town of 6000 residents. The service providers drive in and out for work. The residents drive out and in to go to school, the hospital, the rec center and to find lower priced goods. Employee housing (also out of town-but closer) has resulted in a boost for the construction industry which increases the service trips in and out. Placing a transfer tax on real estate has favored flipping and cowboy development. I only mention this to emphasize that treating the symptom doesn't work and the unintended consequences can be devastating.

So, how do we get back the neighborhood? How do we get back the Community?


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    Mar 25 2012: There's some great discussion and a lot of potential solutions which all of you have brought out in this thread. May I trouble you to go one step further?

    Here's something which was sent to me recently. I've sat through quite a few meetings and I have to say- this rings true. Resoundingly true. One of the biggest problems when dealing with city planning is how to present your ideas in a friendly, informative and (this is really important) succinct fashion. We've got 12 days left. Any ideas?

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      Mar 25 2012: I agree one needs to present ideas in an informative and succinct way, but there are some factors of the context I believe are important to understand. First, public hearings of a formal sort in any case tend to limit time for each speaker. Then many speakers speak one after the other in a way that mainly serves to get their ideas on the record. But often the decision at hand has already been made and the opportunity to give input is not as real as it may appear.A second factor in bringing ideas forward is that decisionmakers at the local level, if ideas are brought to them, are bombarded with different ideas from different parts of their constituencies. This makes more data to process than may be humanly possible. What makes its way through may be less the content of the message and its presentation than the relationship the decisionmaking body has with that specific constituency from interaction over time. It is a little bit like the way many people do not do through research into each item on a ballot but follow the recommendations of a group they have found credible over time.When we are not talking about public hearings but rather a meeting a group gains with an individual, a vital aspect of preparation is to study what the typical interests are of the person to whom one is bringing the proposal.
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      Mar 27 2012: Can I throw the C-word at you?
      Charrette. I think it helps us to re-examine the whole idea of 'the presentation', of public hearings, and of the roles of the key players.

      There is a shifting of the role of architects/urban planners in the City 2.0. A new player, The Facilitator, has become a crucial element 'at the table'. Their main purpose is simply to organize the people involved (professionals, politicians and community-members alike) and send them towards goals that are defined by the community itself.
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      Mar 28 2012: Yes, how to turn public hearings into public listenings?

      Turning around a dysfunctional civic culture is not easy, as we have found in our small Southern California city, near the now-infamous City of Bell. We've been at it for about a year, and have developed a model mixing the "watchdog" approach with the more educational approach of the League of Women Voters. (So, we've found, there is a time for friendly dialogue, and a time for calculated conflict.)

      But sensitive to concerns about simply "promoting the same but with a different flavor," we (a small group dedicated to governmental transparency and inspiring our neighbors to engage in city affairs), have laid the groundwork for our own functioning using the ideas of Communities of Practice (CoPs). It took us a while to get there (see Etienne Wenger's work on CoPs: http://www.ewenger.com/theory/ ), and we are still defining our community and seeking the proper mix of problem-solving with community-building. Take a look at our website www.signalhillfirst.org/

      We are an evolving organization and very sympathetic to many of the ideas and views presented in this fascinating thread. I would love to continue this discussion among others who are in the throes of actual neighborhood action/organization.

      Good Job Ziska!
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        Mar 28 2012: You had me at "Public listenings."

        Is the Signal Hill page based on Etienne Wenger's "community platform" using a wordpress format?

        (and thanks)
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          Mar 28 2012: Hi Ziska,

          Wenger's thesis--and our guide for how to go about our business--is, I'm told, a bit too theoretical for our website which, yes, is on Wordpress.... if I understand your question correctly.

          As Facilitator of Community First, my focus is on organization design and internal communications--the superstructure upon which the responses to issues addressed in our website are built. Sounds a bit too high-falutin, but its at that organization level where I think a dialogue on policy-related, community building can most effectively occur.

          We are talking about a change in civic culture which begins with BEING the community we desire; but also within real-world, political context. A challenge, as you can imagine.

          There may be some similarities with the Occupy Movement and, perhaps, even Burning Man. (At least according to some we met at the BIL "unconference" where we presented recently.) But we, by contrast, are a bunch of old fogies.

          So, if anyone is curious about what we are up to, the theoretical foundation and practical issues that arise as we move forward, i.e., expand our "core" and focus more on community-building (to supplement our "watchdog" role), perhaps we can continue to dialogue.

          Ziska, you did such a great job of formulating the original question. Perhaps now you can prompts a new, more focused, practical discussion. We need your ideas and perhaps a few of ours might be helpful to you.
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        Mar 29 2012: Hi Richard

        Can I ask what metric you use for your organization?
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        Mar 29 2012: Richard,

        Replying to this thread since it seems we've maxed out replies on the one below.

        "(Citizens are) seen as an essential resource and stakeholder in the public policy process"

        The ones who show up are the ones who get to influence the policy (squeaky wheel syndrome).

        We're back to a really big question- how do we get people motivated to participate?
        How do we keep it civilized?
        How do we keep discussions on point?

        Not everyone is comfortable speaking in public or on the internet. Not everyone can state their issues without becoming emotional- or worse- using personal attacks. Not everyone can speak in simple enough language to make their point; and *everyone* gets misunderstood at one time or another.

        Catching flies with honey.


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