The Best Community Building Model You’ve Never Heard Of

Participatory City dials in all the right ingredients to maximize grassroots place-based community building. The results are staggering. (Reading Time: 4 minutes)

What if you could dream up some great community-building idea, like a community kitchen or a clothing exchange, and walk into a place in your neighborhood that would provide trained staff and funding to help you get it off the ground? 

If this sounds too good to be true, it’s time to pinch yourself.

I want to tell you about one of the most exciting and innovative initiatives I have ever seen: Participatory City. This program based in England is so spectacular and jaw-dropping that it is worth shouting from the rooftops, which I will attempt to do from this forum over the next several posts.

Here’s the quick summary: the folks at Participatory City have done the homework to identify the barriers that keep community-led initiatives from success and then created a participation and support system to help people start, grow, and sustain those initiatives. Their goal is to “mainstream practical participation” by creating a vibrant and resilient participatory ecosystem.

Their support system is the key approach that distinguishes Participatory City from other similar programs, like the Neighborhood Matching Fund here in Seattle. On the ground, it takes the form of a staffed and financially supported neighborhood community center. This center serves as a sort of incubation space – anyone who shows up with a community idea can work with a staff member to refine their ideas and get a prototype launched.

The community center becomes a civic hub for grassroots entrepreneurship, innovation, and mutual exchange.  And the neighborhood is then flooded with a myriad of opportunities for people to get involved in a neighborhood project of collective or personal benefit.

Some examples of projects that are launched through Participatory City: a repair cafe, community garden, communal batch cooking, collaborative childcare, business incubation, and so many more.

Compared to other civic expenditures, Participatory City’s model is not an enormous investment. The most recent effort, called “Every One Every Day,” in the London neighborhoods of Barking and Dagenham, launched in 2017 with about a $5 million investment.

If that sounds like a lot, it’s worth remembering the City of Seattle’s Budget is $6.4 billion, and even basic capital improvement projects can easily cost $100 million bucks. Does anyone remember the nixed North Seattle Police station renovation that was projected to cost $160 million? That’s 25 Participatory City launches!

Yet, given the low cost, Participatory City’s approach has resulted in an impressive explosion of neighborhood-based economic innovation, social enterprise, and mutual cooperation.

To top it off, they’ve partnered their work with top-notch data-driven studies and research. Their data shows incredible successes: increased community health, reduced inequality, combatted gentrification, decreased isolation, and an explosion of ‘individual agency’ – feeling welcome and included, making friends, being active and creative, and feeling optimistic.

It’s a tour de force demonstrating what many of us intuitively know – that our economic, public, and personal health is intrinsically linked to our place-based connections to each other

It’s a tour de force demonstrating what many of us intuitively know – that our economic, public, and personal health is intrinsically linked to our place-based connections to each other. 

This kind of model would work well in Seattle and I’d love to bring Participatory City here. Who’s in?  

To collect interest and focus any energy that could bring a Seattle version to fruition, I’ve set up a website as a placeholder. Who wants to help me get this off the ground? Field trip to the UK, anyone?Field-trip to the UK, anyone?

Anyway, over the next couple of posts I am going to tackle some of the opening research in Participatory City’s model, like “Why don’t people participate, or start and grow projects?” and the “8 Reasons Projects and Projects Ideas Die” Their takeaways are virtual goldmines for those who work with communities or support community-led efforts.

I will be largely expounding on content from The Illustrated Guide to Participatory City, a beautifully composed and compelling document you should definitely take the time to read. 

But first this gem from the Illustrated Guide:  Research in the UK has shown that 60% of people are willing to work together to improve their neighborhood, but only 3% ever do. I don’t know if these numbers are the same in the United States, but I can imagine they are similar.

If you do the math, that leaves over 50% of people with an untapped potential to get involved in their neighborhood. 

All that potential…just left on the table.

What incredible opportunity exists in that gap? 

Just dream with me for a moment:  What could we accomplish by mobilizing 50% of the people in neighborhood-based projects?

What could we accomplish by mobilizing 50% of the people in neighborhood-based projects?

I’ve said it many times in this forum, but I will say it again: the route to reversing our nation’s increasing polarization, tribalism, loneliness, and disconnection rests in creating connection and belonging in the places where we live. The neighborhood is the unit of change. 

And we have more than 50% of people willing to do something right now in their neighborhoods. Governments, foundations. non-profits, people! – what are we waiting for?

We have national reserves for petroleum and ventilators and other things. Now is the time to tap our reserve of neighborhood participation. The emergency is now. 

Participatory City shows us a way.

Stay tuned! Find out more next time when we look at why don’t people participate, and why they don’t start and grow projects.