Ever had an idea kind of keep bouncing back into your head time and again? Something you've never really thought of before, but then suddenly it seem like it's everywhere, and you can't believe you've never seen it before? I had one of those.
So, I was sitting in a community meeting the other day, and we were discussing something fancy like, "how do you encourage community engagement in a winter city where it's hard to get outside for four to six months of the year?" Outdoor play areas are great, as are indoor areas, and they all got discussed. But then someone made an interesting observation that you can build as many amenities as you'd like - it really doesn't mean ANYTHING if people don't go out and use them.
Building an indoor playground does not make community members engage. Making programs does not encourage citizens to connect. Dr. Frankenstein would never have made the news if he hadn't found that magic ingredient, and it's the same thing that is too often missing from our municipal planning. You can stitch the body parts together - build the whole thing - but the true challenge is that elusive 'breath of life'.
I sit on another committee - part of a 'task force' to end homelessness. One of the biggest things we've identified that's missing is a FORUM. A place where the stakeholders can go and exchange information. Builders don't have to guess what the community needs for housing. Service providers can go and share their stories and needs. Funding providers make know what they have available to solve the problem.
We lack a place. But it's not a physical space. We could build a room just for this to happen and it still wouldn't happen. What we're missing is that elusive thing - that thing that draws people out. That thing that invites the discussion to happen. We lack, well, hosting. The "breath of life," so to speak is getting people to show up.
Imagine that it's Christmas time and I'm throwing a party. What is it that makes the party? It's not my house - the physical space. There's an effort that goes into it. I try and attract the people I desire to be there by making that place feel appealing. I decorate, I prepare food. I plan fun activites. I invite other people who would make the party enjoyable - who will add to the atmosphere. At the end of the day, the location is the smallest part of the equation. My party will be amazing because the RIGHT people are there, talking about the RIGHT things, in the RIGHT atmosphere. RIGHT?
THIS is what our municipal planners need to be trying to foster! Indoor space? Outdoor space? Sure, you need gathering places to attract people to. But whether it's a summer festival or a discussion on ending homelessness that you're trying to accomplish, you need to consider how you're HOSTING the event. Who's coming? Is it a context they'll feel welcome in? Does everyone gain more from attending than they're giving? Is it likely to be effective?
Create the right 'space' (mental space), and you will have the right people arrive. Fail to create the right place, and they'll stay in their silos.
Ever wondered why it is that the world feels so unsafe? 20 years ago, parents kicked their kids out the door to go find the park. They'd play all day and come back when the street lights turned on. Not so today. I heard someone the other day tell a story that he asked a woman if she let her kids walk the 2 or 3 blocks to their neighbourhood school. Her answer was no, and when he asked why, her response was something to the effect of, "The pedophiles."
Neighbourhoods haven't changed in 20 years. We have. WE don't feel safe. And I think it's the same thing. We can double the amount of police, but if we don't know our neighbours, we still aren't going to feel safe. Heck, if I knew who lived around me, maybe I'd know who the kids were who rifled through my car. One quick call to their parents, and I'd feel MORE safe in my neighbourhood, not less!
So how can I create that community - draw my neighbours out? Well, maybe I could haul my barbecue into the middle of the close and put some flyers in the mailboxes? Shake some hands and introduce myself. If I feel like there are more sets of eyes on Silas than just my own, maybe I wouldn't be so scared to let him pedal out of my sight on his own.
Building places, adding programs - it's not going to work. And it's going to make us go broke. What is going to make the difference? Find ways to make mental spaces that draw people together. Where the right conversations can happen. THEN we'll feel safe in our neighbourhoods. THEN we can get down to the business of ending homelessness! THEN we can have communities that are HEALTHY. It comes down to people. Finding out what draws them out. And doing that.
Any ideas? I'd love to hear them.