Creating the Communities we Want means Supporting the Grassroots we Need

by Mariia Zimmerman


I've spent a lot of time this year working with local groups around the country who are trying to make their communities better. In some places this has meant revising transportation planning process to prioritize public investments to better serve communities most in need. In other communities, I've worked with those concerned over skyrocketing land values that are pushing out long-time residents and small businesses. I've also been learning more about my new community of Richmond, VA where local groups are debating new bus rapid transit routes, baseball stadiums, public schools and historic preservation all within a complicated context of historic racism, poverty and segregation. 

Local and national advocates are working together to advocate a community vision for honoring the complex history of Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, VA (Photo: M. Zimmerman)

Local and national advocates are working together to advocate a community vision for honoring the complex history of Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, VA (Photo: M. Zimmerman)

We often encounter massive societal challenges while planning things as simple as sidewalks, transit routes, and new developments each of which can have profound impacts on the daily quality of life -- for an elderly couple trying to reach the doctor's office but unable to drive, or a working parent hoping to see his son's soccer game on the other side of town, or a financial manager using her transit trip home to unwind and catch up on podcasts. Planning debates can bring out the best and the worst in the public and in politicians. It's easy, with all of the change going on around us --- much of which is happening at lightening speeds --- to feel anxious about proposals to add more people or cars to a neighborhood; or whether the cost of improving bus service or schools are worth it to those who may not use either. Earlier this month, Jarrett Walker wrote a short blog that summed up well the anxiety that often surfaces during planning processes and which can derail public investments or be an opportunity to move community debate to a higher plane.

It is the nexus that planning presents between ephemeral concepts like macroeconomics, climate change and social justice with the tangible ways they play out in the daily experiences of people who may be waiting at a bus stop, or walking on a street with no sidewalk, or trying to convince local leaders that providing housing affordable to janitors, teachers, police officers, and Best Buy employees is just as important as attracting the elusive Millennial or Empty Nester back downtown (note these may be the same thing, but psychologically we don't tend to see them the same in policy debates, esp about housing markets). We are in a period of enormous social change, but also one of almost unprecedented urban innovation. Gabe Klein's new book, Start Up City,  is a sort of auto-biography of both the transformation happening to cities and to urbanism professionals.

And it feels like we have just touched the surface .... What will autonomous cars mean for America's cities and for the mobility of many who currently have few desirable options if they are unable to drive? How are we going to retrofit suburban communities as consumer demand shifts towards more walkable and energy efficient communities? What will be the true impact of the SIlver Tsunami on our local and national economies, and are we ready for how to meet their changing mobility needs or housing preferences?  

For those of us who work with innovative public agencies, passionate local advocates, and visionary business leaders or elected officials we know there is no shortage of good ideas or commitment to a more inclusive, sustainable and "cool" urban future. However, our ability to fund these new ideas remains a challenge in this new era personified by lack of trust in government, unwillingness to sufficiently raise public revenues, and private capital finance tools hamstrung by outdated regulations, increased risk aversion, or pressure to have easy and quick returns.

The more I work in this field the more I believe its future depends on building a robust pipeline of cross-disciplinary practitioners who represent a range of socio-economic backgrounds. But even the most innovative leader or practitioner can only go so far if the public is not with them. To sustain and expand urban innovation, we must have a strong community advocacy ecosystem. I wrote about this in my blog last fall, and I continue to feel strongly that inclusive, sustainable and economically resilient communities requires strong grassroots organizations with the technical capacity and community organizing power to sit at the tables where decisions are made. Yet in far too many communities this is simply not the case. Local philanthropy may be lacking or focused on other important issues like the arts or education. Some national foundations, such as Transit Center, are making investments to build the field but individual, local giving remains the life blood of many grassroots advocacy groups.

We are entering the End of Year Giving Season ... as you make your list and check it twice, consider supporting those groups working to improve your community whether fighting for better bicycling and walking, smarter growth or brownfields clean up, or to ensure that the poorest and most disadvantaged in our communities benefit from new public investments in housing or transportation. Effective and sustainable grassroots work requires funding, not just good wishes. It's easy to say no to a new idea, but effective grassroots work goes beyond that. Offering solutions and pushing them through the long planning, design, funding and construction process requires strong local advocates and funding. Are you ready to help?   

(PS - For my readers in Minnesota, don't forget November 12 is Give to the Max Day)