How to Build Back Better from the Bottom Up
By supporting low-threshold, low-commitment opportunities to participate in civic life, we can build back society from the bottom-up. (Reading time: about 4 minutes)
Communal batch cooking, collaborative childcare, repair cafes, street festivals, teen trade schools, small business incubation, community gardens.
Such low-threshold and low-commitment opportunities draw people into participating in civic life without requiring copious time or energy. They provide opportunities to connect with new people and build a sense of belonging. And they contribute to a network of mutual benefit supporting those who are often economically or socially marginalized.
These projects are like start-ups: they are low budget, evolve quickly through trial and error, and develop through the collaboration of many people with a broad range of capabilities.
With enough support, these initiatives can aggregate into a dense participatory culture that provides a collective benefit for even those who don’t participate – a civic society rich in placed-based community, civic participation, and economic entrepreneurship.
Look around and you will see some of these aspiring bottom-up efforts. Yet countless numbers of them, like start-ups, fall apart in progress, or cannot get started, grow, or attract people to take part.
There must be a better way.
Participatory City, the UK-based program that I have been recently extolling, has developed a compelling precedent for scaling-up low-commitment/low-threshold community projects into a robust “participatory ecosystem.” Their results are incredible.
The solution relies on a “support platform,” a coordinated and shared infrastructure that makes it easier to support, maintain and grow collections of projects.
Their support platform takes the form of two primary components:
- A physical space (or network of spaces) to host workshops, maker-spaces, community events, trainings, and more. It also provides important support like insurance, financial resources, logistics, etc.
- Trained support staff to provide technical and organizational support. If you have an idea, the staff are on hand to help you evaluate, develop and pilot it. Or they will connect you to other people who are working on similar aligned ideas.
Together, the two components of the support system make it easy for people to plug-in, either by growing their own ideas or by participating in an existing program. They reduce and share the risks inherent in starting up new projects, and get more people involved as co-builders. And they connect people together to nurture collections of smaller projects that might never see the light of day on their own.
If you want a sense of what this looks like, join me in drooling over this menu of projects underway through Participatory City’s” Every One Every Day” project in Barking and Dagenham, and check the “Everyone’s Warehouse” that supports it. Wow!
By necessity, the support system is place-based and rooted in the geography of our neighborhoods. Neighborhoods are the tangible and psychological scale for which our brains are evolutionary wired for belonging and participation. Regional, city, or district-wide initiatives simply won’t work.
To reach a point where low-commitment/low-threshold projects proliferate enough to generate larger societal benefits, a support platform requires municipal support.
Our federal, state and local governments barely bat an eye at spending millions (or trillions) of dollars in large infrastructure projects, like highways and roads. But when investing in social infrastructure like Participatory City, the price tag is suddenly too expensive even though the costs are comparatively small.
Here in Seattle, the City continues to disinvest in place-based community support programs, despite its recent and noble efforts to support bottom-up ideas through the frames of race and ethnicity.
For example, Seattle’s legacy Neighborhood Matching Fund budget is half of it’s 2001 peak, and it’s Large Project Fund, which supports the implementation of higher-impact placemaking projects, is now defunct.
Other City of Seattle supported “engagement” programs focus on helping communities navigate Seattle’s bureaucracy or engaging in top-down initiatives, rather than delegating power downwards to our neighborhoods.
And this is really the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Power is increasingly consolidating upwards, even within the boundaries of our local politics.
Instead, we need to be shifting power to the smallest political unit that can discharge it. In many cases this means organizing, planning, and participating at the neighborhood levels, so that power becomes a function of the communities where we live.
It’s an idea I rarely spoken or practiced by politicians or leaders, even progressive populist ones, who continually seek to leverage the maximum power of their position.
It is magical thinking to wait for the next great strongman/strongwoman leader, whether at a city, state or federal level, to unite us all together towards some shiny utopian future.
Rather, we can take back control of our lives and build-back society by creating a vibrant ecosystem of participation and mutual support in the places where we live – our neighborhoods. It starts with a proliferation of low-threshold low-commitment opportunities for getting involved.
Now if we can just create a little bit of support…
Interested in bringing Participatory City to Seattle? I am! There’s no plan or funding at the moment, but all great movements begin with a handful of passionate and smart people getting together to talk, no? Let’s start there. Plus Canada is already doing it – we won’t let Canada best us, will we?