Abundant Communities in Action: Street Parks, Gardens, Steps, and Rainbows  

October 6, 2014

When San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) and San Francisco Parks Alliance (SFPA) representatives gathered over the weekend to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Street Parks Program, they were honoring something that is both quintessentially San Franciscan and something seen throughout the United States: our ability to find abundance where others see cast-offs.

Block--Abundant_Community_BookIt’s the sort of commitment documented by Peter Block and John McKnight through their Abundant Community book, website, and online discussions. It’s a movement beautifully grounded in Tactical Urbanism. And it’s a sustainable, community-based, volunteer-driven effort that celebrates the work of people we don’t often notice: the people behind the projects that make our communities far more rich than they otherwise would be. Not bad for country where we so often hear about how badly divided we are.

“The [Street Parks] project was started to enable and assist community members in adopting DPW parcels and then turning them from blighted lots into verdant gardens and community gathering spaces,” Julia Brashares, Director of Street Parks for the Parks Alliance, reminds us in a brief video prepared for the Alliance by students from San Francisco State University. “We, with community members, have seen the development of over 120 gardens in every district of the city.”

Those Street Parks projects are part of an ongoing program that brings City/County elected officials and employees, Parks Alliance staff, and hundreds of volunteers together to “activate” a string of City-owned parcels that, when combined, include approximately 500 acres of potential parkland. It’s an amazingly complex undertaking and, at the same time, it is amazingly simple. The complexity comes from the large number of stakeholders who have to be engaged to bring Street Park Projects to fruition; the simplicity comes from the idea that the projects begin when as few as two or three neighbors see the potential in an unused piece of public property and make the commitment to foster the numerous community collaborations required to produce positive results.

What’s even more fascinating is the obvious interest in transforming unused public land into additional green open space in a city that already has a magnificent, nationally-acclaimed park system, a reclaimed bayside gem in Crissy Field and an equally ambitious counterpart in the Blue Greenway project that is already in progress; the Green Connections project that is also underway as another effort to increase access to green open spaces throughout the City; an effort to create more vibrant plazas throughout the City; and many other local efforts where volunteers work with an amazing network of nonprofit organizations, City/County representatives, neighborhood organizations, local business representatives, and anyone else who sees abundant possibilities for community development and enrichment.

Street_Parks_LogoStreet Park Program projects are, in many ways, the epitome of individuals setting aside individual interests to collaboratively produce a public good—often something designed to last far longer than the lifetimes of those who initially gather to produce the street park. We see individuals bringing neighbors together to turn a short, blighted cul-de-sac along a freeway into a community garden that attracted a new coffee shop to the block. We see neighbors next to another stretch of land adjacent to a freeway create a dog park where members of the community meet and enjoy each other’s company. A third stretch of blighted land becomes Progress Park—the site where we gathered last weekend to celebrate 10 years of Street Parks progress. A median strip in the Outer Sunset District becomes La Playa Park. Another lot becomes Pennsylvania Garden. And a set of concrete steps originally built in 1926 becomes the Hidden Garden Steps—the second set to be transformed into volunteer-maintained gardens and a beautiful ceramic-tiled mosaic (designed and fabricated by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher) in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

HGS--Steps_Visitors--2014-08-18

Visitors on the Steps

The real payoff for any local or extended community comes when we spend time at any of those sites, as I so often do on the Hidden Garden Steps. I see my neighbors come out every Friday afternoon to sweep the steps so the site looks clean and inviting to weekend visitors. I see volunteers gather onsite monthly to maintain and add to the gardens. I see the results generated by the volunteers who maintain the project website, blog, and Twitter and Facebook accounts. And I see and talk with visitors from all over the world as they enjoy and admire the site, marvel over how the extended community adds to all the site offers, and blurt out wonderful observations such as “It’s like being in a rainbow.”

Working on any Street Park Program project is, in fact like being in a rainbow. It’s inspiring. It’s overwhelmingly beautiful. And it hints at greater aspects of life than most of us would otherwise encounter.

The 10th-anniversary Street Parks Program celebration documents a bit of what that rainbow offers and brought volunteers together to dream of even bigger rainbows—those we can produce during the next 10 years. If we are successful, we will use what we have learned and done to inspire others to seek similar community-based collaborations to positively change our world.

N.B.: Numerous articles documenting the Hidden Garden Steps project remain available on this Building Creative Bridges blog. Steps updates can be found on the Friends of the Hidden Garden Steps blog. Stories provided by donors to the Hidden Garden Steps project are currently being added to the project website by Steps volunteer Liz McLoughlin, and a step-by-step virtual tour created by McLoughlin and by project volunteer Gilbert Johnson is also under development.

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ALA Midwinter 2013: Learning to Transform Communities One Panel Discussion at a Time

January 30, 2013

“The conversation starts out in Seattle” turns out to have been far more than an ephemeral marketing slogan for those of us lucky enough to attend even part of the American Library Association (ALA) 2013 Midwinter meeting that ran from Friday, January 25 – Tuesday, January 29; it was an inspiring call to action that extends far beyond the conference site and the libraries represented there.

ALA_Midwinter_2013We had plenty of opportunities to catch up with colleagues, reflect upon how easy it is to explore and act upon the big ideas that we so rarely take the time to ponder, and be present at numerous activities focused on an effort to promote positive change through collaboration in our extended onsite-online world: ALA President Maureen Sullivan’s presidential initiative, “Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities.”

The interactive presentations began Saturday morning with a panel discussion that Sullivan moderated. Panelists included Richard Harwood, founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation; Tim Henkel, president and CEO of Spokane County United Way; and Carlton Sears, past director at Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County and certified coach with the Harwood Institute—and it only took a few minutes for Harwood to get us going by reminding us that to move our country forward, we need to find ways in communities to get things done.

Furthermore, he suggested, we need to restore a sense of belief in ourselves and forge the sort of meaningful relationships that foster positive change at the local, regional, and national level. Libraries, he continued, are uniquely positioned to support community development—an idea we’ve seen repeatedly in reports ranging from the Urban Libraries Council study “Making Cities Stronger” (2007) and the “benefit study” published by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library that same year to the resources compiled online by Iowa Library Services, to cite just a few of the resources available to us. Libraries across the country are already doing great work, he acknowledged, and there’s room to do even more.

Sears was equally direct in praising libraries for what they are accomplishing, and stressed the need for “authentic” engagement within the communities they serve. Involvement, he said, begins with a simple question: “What kind of community do you want?” Because work done by community activists tends to spread, he said he thinks of is “as a virus—but a good one!”—and he seemed committed to nurturing the spread of that particular virus.

In the end, Harwood agreed, we’re all in this because we believe in communities, and it’s clear that attendees at that initial session were ready to return home after the conference concluded so they could use the tools and resources provided during the Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities sessions.

Harwood--Work_of_HopeSullivan, Harwood, and the other panelists left us with plenty of great resources; those interested in exploring his work can access a free online version of his book The Work of Hope: How Individuals Can Authentically Do Good from the Harwood website. There is also additional coverage of the panel discussion available in American Libraries online. Three other onsite programs continued the discussion: “Community Engagement Conversation: The Work of Hope”; “Community Engagement Conversation: Appreciative Inquiry—The Library in the Community”; and “Community Engagement Conversation: Change in the Community, Change in ALA.”

Abundant Community advocate Peter Block was also onsite for a program drawing upon Community: The Structure of Belonging, the book he co-wrote with John McKnight.

The groundwork has been laid, the challenge issued. Now it’s up to those of us inspired by Sullivan, Harwood, Block, and the others to spread the word, dive in as advocates, and help nurture the promise that libraries and other community-based organizations and initiatives offer.


Building Abundant Communities (Part 4 of 4): Hidden Garden Steps

November 21, 2012

New community possibilities emerge “when we and other neighbors know of each other’s gifts,” John McKnight and Peter Block suggest in their book The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. And that’s exactly what we continue to see in the Hidden Garden Steps project here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

As has been abundantly chronicled in this continuing series of articles about the Steps and the overlapping shorter series about fostering abundant communities, an awareness of gifts, resources, and an enthusiastic commitment to collaboration has steadily moved us toward a very exciting phase of our efforts to create a second set of ceramic-tiled steps along with murals and gardens featuring California native and other drought-tolerant plants. Project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher have, since September 2012, been working in their studios to build the 148-step mosaic that will eventually be installed on the 16th Avenue concrete steps connecting Kirkham and Lawton streets. Community involvement in fundraising, marketing, and hundreds of hours of onsite work cleaning up a terribly ignored pedestrian corridor has drawn together an ever-growing group of volunteers and other supporters inspired by the beauty of the first step of steps (on Moraga Street, between 15th and 16th avenues) completed by the same two artists working with a different group of neighbors and other supporters.

Our next big step forward, at this point, is less than two weeks away: our two artists (on Saturday, December 1, 2012, from 1-5 pm), will lead the first of three community workshops for anyone interested in making hands-on contributions to the construction of the mosaic.

This will be a celebration of community and collaboration in action within a local church meeting hall (Christ Church Lutheran, 1090 Quintara, San Francisco). It’s a chance to learn how projects of this magnitude are literally pieced together. An opportunity to work side-by-side with neighbors on a process that not only will produce a new community gem but also contribute to the already strong sense of community that exists within the Inner Sunset District. And a pre-holiday chance to reflect on what our work together over a three-year period has created and continues to create.

It also is a visceral incarnation of the spirit of “making gifts visible,” as outlined by McKnight and Block in The Abundant Community (pp. 120-122): having members of a community teach and learn from each other; bringing together residents and local business representatives (a couple of our sponsors are donating refreshments for workshop participants); and attracting community members of all ages and backgrounds.

There is plenty to acknowledge and celebrate in projects like the Hidden Garden Steps. These community efforts help build connections between those of us who previously knew little more about our neighbors than what we garnered from hurried waves and cursory greetings as we raced from one personal obligation to another. They attract people from other nearby neighborhoods so that we develop an extended sense of community, support, and simple, pleasurable human interactions that often seem to reach no further than a few feet away from our own homes or apartments. They further connect us to those wonderful third places within our communities—the coffee shops, the libraries, the neighborhood farmers markets, and streets transformed into meeting places by community-operated street fairs. And they remind us—through the collaborations we establish with existing groups like San Francisco’s Inner Sunset Park Neighbors (ISPN), the San Francisco Parks Alliance (our fiscal agent), and the San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program (supporting our onsite work on City/County property)—that transforming a dream into reality doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to start from scratch in our efforts to organize for success.

“The expression of our gifs and their manifestation through association with our neighbors” is at the heart of abundant communities, McKnight and Block remind us in The Abundant Community (p. 109). “The challenge is to make these gifts visible among all in the neighborhood. These are the means for creating our social fabric. The task is to make more widely available these gifts in service of our core concerns for the child, the land, enterprise, food, health, the vulnerable, and our safety With the consciousness and ability to connect our gifts and make them practical and usable, we experience what we are calling community abundance (p. 120).”

And as Hidden Garden Steps current and prospective supporters move toward the day of our first mosaic-building workshop and continue with our fundraising efforts to bring this $300,000 volunteer-driven community-based effort to a successful conclusion, we all have plenty to celebrate—and to offer others in need of the inspiration we continually find from the families, friends, and other neighbors who are contributing to our own abundant successes.

N.B.: This is the fourteenth in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco and the fourth in a four-part series of articles exploring abundant communities. 



Building Abundant Communities (Part 2 of 4): Trainer-Teacher-Learners in Action

November 12, 2012

Trainer-teacher-learners, in spite of frequently citing a lack of funding and other resources as an impediment to success, are often extremely effective at creating and sustaining what John McKnight and Peter Block call “abundant communities”—those gatherings of people who effectively find strength through a focus on people as creators and collaborators rather than consumers.

Our efforts as members and as the driving force behind the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD), when we are at our best, serve as an easy-to-replicate example that seems to be pulled from the pages of McKnight and Block’s Abundant Community  book on the topic.

When the writers tell us that “a competent community has three properties” (they focus on the gifts of its members, they nurture associational life, and they offer hospitality through the act of welcoming strangers into their group), we immediately can picture any ASTD or any other well-organized and well-developed association that creates a potent, supportive, and dynamic community through individual chapters, informal regional consortia, and national connections firmly rooted in commonly-adopted mission, vision, and value statements.

We know for example that when we walk for the first time into a meeting of any well-functioning local ASTD Chapter, our previous agreement to affiliate with another chapter and/or colleagues at the national level makes us immediately part of the group of colleagues we are about to meet. It’s what I experience every time I go to activities sponsored by my own home chapter, the ASTD Mount Diablo Chapter. It’s what I’ve experienced over the past year with other California chapters as well as with the South Florida Chapter. It’s what I experience when small groups of ASTD members from all over the country meet over dinner, as we frequently do when drawn together by ASTD or other conferences. And it even carries over when ASTD members meet in non-ASTD venues including the weekly #lrnchat conversations via Twitter every Thursday evening.

This, for anyone engaged in a well-functioning association, is the best of all possible reminders of how abundant our communities are and can be in an onsite-online world. When we’re together—together in every sense of the word—our limitations and challenges somehow take a back seat to the benefits we reap from associating in these abundant communities: full of inspiration; full of colleagues dedicated, as ASTD suggests, to making a world that works better; and full of solutions to problems none of us would dream of tackling without the support of other members of those explicitly abundant communities.

And just as McKnight and Block consistently focus on an abundant community’s ability to awaken the power of family and neighborhoods, members of ASTD and other first-rate associations use their strengths and resources to contribute positively and significantly to the extended communities to which they belong and which they serve. California ASTD chapters, for example, are among those informally providing free learning opportunities to returning veterans under the aegis of programs that support Wounded Warriors; having documented initial successes from this sharing of what they bring to their communities, some of the California chapter leaders are beginning to explore ways to create a more formal consortium to expand what they had previously been doing completely at a local level independent of colleagues from other chapters—a great sign that this particular abundant community is pooling resources in a way that creates greater possibilities while also drawing more attention to ASTD, its chapters, and its individual members as potential community partners reaching beyond more local borders.

None of this, however, matters much if our community doesn’t carry through on its commitment to be as permeable as possible. When we are greeted, welcomed, and drawn into conversation the moment we walk into an ASTD gathering, we sense the draw and engagement of an abundant community: it makes us want to join the club. This doesn’t mean that every person entering our community will ultimately want to serve on a board of directors or become a major financial supporter of the organization’s activities, but what makes us strong is our willingness to accept all interested parties at whatever level is comfortable to them: occasional visitor, member of a local chapter, dual member of the local and national organization, member of a local chapter board, member of a national committee of volunteers dedicated to strengthening and promoting the organization throughout its extended community, and former board member who remains engaged at any sort of level that contributes to the continuity of the association.

And that, I would suggest, is the key element and resource that contributes to the success of an abundant community—one capable of holding our attention and setting up the continuity that creates something capable of outlasting the efforts and lifetime of any individual member.

N.B.: This is the second in a four-part series of articles exploring abundant communities

Next: San Francisco’s Inner Sunset Park Neighbors as an Abundant Community


Building Abundant Communities (Part 1 of 4): From Citizen to Consumer—And Back Again

November 2, 2012

To propose the existence of abundance at a time when so many people are discouraged and overwhelmed might appear to be a hard sell. But that’s exactly what John McKnight and Peter Block effectively do and nurture through their wonderful book The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods and the Abundant Community website they maintain to support and spread their work—and ours.

A heartfelt and encouraging paean to the power of collaboration, The Abundant Community serves as a positive source of inspiration for rethinking many of our unquestioned assumptions; it also consistently serves as a useful handbook for those of us interested in and committed to building the sort of collaborative coalitions that make a difference locally, regionally, nationally, and globally with surprisingly little effort.

McKnight and Block begin the rethinking process by drawing a distinction between what they call “citizen” and “consumer” societies—maintaining that until we reverse the trend away from the citizen to the consumer model, we’re going to miss the obvious abundance of resources around us and the opportunities to overcome the challenges that leave so many people feeling incapable of effecting change.

Consumer society, they maintain, is predicated upon the belief that “satisfaction can be purchased”; the result, they consistently suggest, is that we try to buy solutions to everything ranging from healthcare and emotional challenges to education, safety, and security needs. Citizen society, in contrast, nurtures “social and civic life” so that we work together to create and support healthier communities that meet their members’ educational, safety, security, and other needs. It’s clear that the authors are trying to move us from being armchair critics to being actively engaged in creating healthy, thriving, vibrant communities where connections foster success and a high quality of life.

“The greatest tragedy of the consumer life is that its practitioners do not see that the local community is abundant with the relationships [italics added for emphasis] that are the principal resource for rescuing themselves and their families from the failure, dependency, and isolation that are the results of a life as a consumer and client,” McKnight and Block suggest. “Their ships and sinking, and they struggle to swim to safety, ignoring the life raft at their side. The way to the good life is not through consumption. It is, instead, a path that we make by walking it with those who surround us. It is the way of a competent community recognizing its abundance” (p. 18).

The writers are explicit about the problems we create when we fail to acknowledge and build upon the abundance that remains untapped within communities: we marginalize nature to such a degree that we lose sight of much of the beauty that surrounds us and the numerous benefits we might draw from nature; we surrender to marketing efforts that create and then require additional resources to alleviate dissatisfaction in our lives; we pay attention to little more than we can immediately see, thereby missing the opportunity to operate within a larger, more positive framework; and we become slaves to debt rather than freeing ourselves by having a goal of living within our means (p. 50).

They are equally explicit about the numerous, simple achievable changes we can make to address these challenges, e.g., learning “how to fix what is broken rather than replacing it. Shopping when we really need something, not shopping as a form of recreation.” And at a larger level, shifting from a primary focus on immediate challenges and needs to a focus that includes “a future orientation” (p. 54).

The abundant community that McKnight and Block want to help us strengthen is built upon several core beliefs that too few of us recognize: that what we have is enough; that we have the capacity to produce what we need; that cooperation and satisfaction provide a framework for organizing our world; that we each have definable responsibilities for and toward each other; and that there is a basic undeniable reality to the human condition within which we must live. The communities that incorporate these beliefs into daily practices are rooted in focusing on the individual gifts we bring to our communities, nurturing “associational life,” and offering hospitality to everyone—an idea based on a commitment of welcoming strangers to our communities rather than creating barriers to their acceptance (pp. 66-67).

And when we set aside all the theorizing and rethink our way into putting this into the familiar context of our own communities, we see that we’re really not talking about much more than what already exists in those that are successful. A neighborhood association (like San Francisco’s Inner Sunset Park Neighbors) that consistently improves the quality of life for significant numbers of people draws from all these ideas and practices. As does a local, regional, or national association organized around a specific profession (e.g., the American Society for Training & Development, which creates a tremendous learning community for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance, AKA staff training). And as is the case with the volunteer-driven community-based Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

There are literally thousands of organizations like this all over our country and beyond our own borders. The challenge for all of us is to recognize them, appreciate them, and support them through our own involvement regardless of whether we can only give a few minutes/a couple of hours/a few dollars a month or whether we recognize that we are ready to become more deeply engaged through deeper commitments—not only to those entities but to the greater extended abundant communities that would not exist without them.

N.B.: This is the first in a four-part series of articles exploring abundant communities

Next: ASTD As an Abundant Community


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