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What is the first step in Community Organizing and Building?

by | Nov 22, 2021 | Building Community, Community Development

What is the first step in Community Organizing and Building? When we set to work making our communities better we often start with infrastructure issues. We want a new pool, a new arena, and freshly paved streets. That may seem like the most logical place to start, and for elected officials it is the most visually obvious issue to tackle. However, it doesn’t make your community better any more than buying a large brand new house makes your family better. Yet, too often we focus on the buildings and ignore the deeper need to build a quality community.

Now, I don’t want there to be any misunderstandings. If you know me at all then you have heard me say how important beauty is to the future of your community. However, beauty is far more than nice new buildings. The appearance of a community reflects the soul of a community, but the soul of a community is more than its buildings. Its soul is its people, its values, its sentiments, its character. That is what you need to support and grow if you want to build a community. 

New buildings and infrastructure can enhance the beauty of a community, but they are no replacement for a beautiful soul. In fact, I have seen a lot of older communities with aging infrastructure that still show beautifully. I guess the adage is true: Beauty may only be skin deep, but ugly goes right to the bone. Attractive infrastructure only gives you skin-deep beauty. If you want a real strong and beautiful community you really need to focus on the soul, not just the buildings, or you risk creating nothing more than a group of attractive, but soulless, buildings.

First Step in Community Organizing and Building: Focus on the soul

There are a lot of ways to make your community great from the soul outward. It varies a lot based on the size of your community, its natural amenities and environment, its location and its proximity to other communities. As I have always indicated, however, every community is unique and has at its core all that it needs to be successful if it just pays attention to it, and feeds it properly. It’s much like a child that is naturally talented at the piano. You can add infrastructure, such as a piano, but without lessons it is very likely the child’s talents will never grow, and never become great. Every community has something that makes it great, but finding it and growing it requires more than just investing in infrastructure.

Success usually starts with how a community is designed. Many city planners have begun to rebuild their communities using new techniques that design out crime. Some of the techniques involve changing lighting and traditional fencing methods to remove hiding spaces, but many involve designing, or redesigning, neighbourhoods to improve socialization. In simple terms, they are designing communities instead of subdivisions and removing the dark corners where crime typically hides. Those techniques are not only good for cities, but are useful in smaller communities that want to make their community, not just their infrastructure, more attractive.

A community building interlude: 

This small community of Irmo, South Carolina (just outside of Columbia) has found a unique way to improve crime rates and vandalism. They continue to raise funds to expand on the athletic and educational opportunities for children living in affordable housing complexes. After it was discovered that many vandalism and property thefts were being committed by young people in the community some cried out for more police and patrols. In the end, a ‘youth zone’ approach was embraced, and has already led to a reduction in crime in the area. 

Our traditional mindset says that the only way to combat crime is with more police and harsher punishments. It may make us feel better because it seems like an easy and obvious solution. It also works for politicians who say they will be tough on crime, and we allow ourselves to believe it will just go away. But research proves that doesn’t work well. Just because something is illegal does not deter anyone from doing it. People who commit a crime think they can get away with it, so they never anticipate the law will apply to them, which means the law and the punishment is not a deterrent. We always say around here, ‘invest in sports or you will pay for it in the courts.’ Proper investments will prevent the crime from happening.

This is a great concept to implement in a community that is underprivileged and needs a place and space for sport to occur. In some cases, however, it is only a few underprivileged children that can’t afford to play organized sports. We recommend what we call ‘pop-up’ sports, which are cost free and league free, community sport gatherings that welcome everyone to play. They are friendly games that encourage the community to come out, to come together, and to play for fun and for free, which can go a long way to help your community connect, and give those youth something to do and a sense of belonging.

In fact, most of the techniques employed to make cities better and more prosperous work for smaller communities too. Integrating urban agriculture, creating an attractive business climate, and designing in walkability and a vibrant socialization based downtown that doesn’t shut down at 5pm are as important to the culture and soul of a large urban center as they are to a smaller community. Adding in cultural diversity, artistic creation, recreational options, and educational opportunities are the seasonings that lure others to sample what your community has to offer.

Additionally, since the pandemic began, quality of life factors have quickly overtaken many of the antiquated growth drivers for communities. What constitutes quality of life factors? According to this Abacus poll and this article, the top factors are: high-speed internet, good healthcare and schools, walking and biking trails, locally owned restaurants and shops, and good community programs. Each community needs to do a real asset assessment that identifies their quality-of-life assets, not just their physical and built assets. This includes the human, natural, cultural, political, financial, social, recreational, housing, and community assets (just to name a few) that will help you discover your unique value proposition and to whom you can market it.

So what is the first step in Community Organizing and Building? Those are but a small list of opportunities to enhance the soul of your community beyond its buildings. Of course, those buildings are important, but they shouldn’t be projects unto themselves. If you can find the soul of your community and ensure that the infrastructure investments you make show off the character and charismatic flair of your community, then the external structure will reflect the internal values your community possesses. You can’t fake it or hide who you are with fancy new buildings. A community is not simply defined by its buildings. It is defined by its soul. Start there and you will know how to build your community for success.

Let’s get started! – Finding your soul in a post-pandemic world

Bringing people together can be an effective first step when it comes to both organizing and building your community, but doing so might seem particularly difficult in the middle of a pandemic when such negativity and uncertainty seem to prevail. Nonetheless, there are a number of simple actions you can take to once again get people excited and re-energized about the places they live. Watch amidst the engagements and discussions that take place as your community’s soul begins to emerge and take shape. What is the first step in Community Organizing and Building? Here are a few associated items for you to try and consider:

  1. Social Media Campaigns: Remind people what’s on the other side of the pandemic. Leverage compelling visuals to show smiling faces, people gathering, children laughing. Get your residents and stakeholders engaged. Ask them to share their own content in response to a particular question (i.e., “What’s your favourite fall activity in the community? Show us!”). Granted, social media can be a vehicle for seemingly constant negativity, and it can be easy for more optimistic content to get lost in the mix. But ask yourself this: Where do you get the majority of your information from? What if the source of that information was much more positive and uplifting in nature? You control the content. You control the message. Make it fun, inviting, inspiring. Engage and empower your residents and remind them of the vibrant community that surrounds them — and which awaits them at the pandemic’s eventual conclusion.
  2. Pop-Up Events & Activities: This is something we seem to speak of more and more frequently these days, but in the midst of a pandemic in particular, the value of spontaneous, ‘pop-up’ events cannot (and should not) be underestimated. Such events can be relatively straightforward to plan, requiring considerably few inputs and usually only a meagre budget to execute. Whether related to sports, commerce, or culture, there’s plenty of room for innovation and creativity. Work with your local business and arts communities to come up with some unique ideas for collaboration — art walks, ad-hoc sporting events, live theatre in the park, and any other number of the infinite possibilities that exist. In most cases, such  events can be safely and responsibly held even with restrictions around social gathering and physical contact in place.
  3. Stakeholder Engagement: Covid significantly inhibited our ability to hold in-person events, and thus resulted in the indefinite cancellation of many stakeholder engagement activities. But it also gave rise to our capacity to engage through digital platforms. Since then, however, communities in some jurisdictions may have entered something of an “in-between”. That is, they’re suffering from ‘Zoom fatigue’, but they’re also not quite prepared or confident enough to fully embrace in-person events. Coffees with council, design charrettes, and the like have been difficult to plan and hold, while lots of our initial pandemic-induced online engagements have also now fallen by the wayside. Yet, stakeholder engagement remains no less important. In fact, the contrary. Continue to remind your citizens of their role in the decision-making process. Explore and pursue means of ensuring a sound balance between public safety and the ability to participate and provide input in the future of your (and their) community. There’s no shortage of examples out there of the ways in which your citizens can remain mobilized and engaged, in spite of continuously changing circumstances both locally and globally.