Build Community by Being Open to Ideas

Don’t be too quick to judge it, says Seattle’s former Director of Neighborhoods Jim Diers.
Build Community by Being Open to Ideas cover

In the neighbourhood of Fremont in Seattle, a hideous troll lurks under the Aurora Bridge. With a real Volkswagen Beetle car clutched in its fist, the monstrous, 5.5-metre-tall sculpture is a beloved landmark where the locals hang out, and a popular tourist attraction.

But once upon a time, it was a subject of much controversy.

In 1989, residents – tired of the illegal dumping and drug peddling under Aurora Bridge – wanted to rejuvenate the cavernous space.

A sculpture was suggested and the community applied for Seattle’s nascent Neighborhood Matching Fund for assistance. The funding, which supports citizen-initiated projects, has to be matched by an equal value in cash, volunteer effort or donated goods and services from the community. The local arts group was granted US$22,400 for the project, and the choice of sculpture would be determined by a public vote.

The uncertainty worried Mr Jim Diers, then the first Director of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods. “How were we going to explain to the mayor that we were using public funds for a troll when we didn’t have enough money to fix the potholes?” added Mr Diers, who feared that the sculpture would kill future funding for community-initiated projects.

The residents overwhelmingly picked the troll, but their choice found many detractors. A “cement monstrosity” and waste of public funds, cried the local newspaper’s art critic, declaring that “the people” should never be involved in art decisions.

The criticism riled the local community, spurring them to work even harder to protect their troll. They raised funds through street dances, the youth wrote a troll rap and a nightly “troll patrol” was formed to prevent vandalism. “When people start to take ownership of their art, they don’t go to the government [for help]. It’s their troll and they take care of it,” observed Mr Diers.

As it turned out, not only did the artwork help revitalise the area, making it safe, it also brought together the community and boosted the local economy. Thus Mr Diers, who eventually came to love the troll too, learnt that “you really can trust the people to do the right thing as long as the process is inclusive of everyone”.

Build community through art

Community-initiated art projects are a great way to build community, as “anyone can get involved” and art can highlight a neighbourhood’s identity, said Mr Diers, now a consultant on community building after 14 years heading the Department. He was in Singapore in May for the Housing & Development Board (HDB)’s annual Community Week.

A sense of community is hard to have if everything looks the same, he said. “How do we put our own stamp on it, so we’re not just building housing like everybody else’s and the only thing that distinguishes us is a [block] number?”

His suggestions for Singapore are simple, such as commissioning artists to work with residents to create more unique artworks. “The art creates the identity, sets you apart – [focus on] some natural feature maybe, or your history, culture, values.” For instance, Seattle’s playgrounds used to look exactly the same – “boring, not much fun”. Thanks to the Neighborhood Matching Fund, each one now reflects something special about the place and the people who live there. In one neighbourhood, a salmon-themed playground reminds residents to protect the environment so that more salmon would return to spawn in their nearby creek once again.

During his stay in Singapore, Mr Diers was delighted with the community gardens he visited. “The plants aren’t in neat rows like they’re trying to maximise space,” he enthused. “One had a treehouse where kids were climbing – we would never get away with that in the States!”

For greater community engagement in Singapore, Mr Diers recommended that public officers be open to all sorts of ideas – like the Fremont troll – and cultivate a healthy appetite for ground-up processes that tend to be messier.

You really can trust the people to do the right thing as long as the process is inclusive of everyone.

Jim Diers' tips for community building

Have fun. “Why have a meeting when you can have a party?”

Give people a sense that they can create their own activities. “Do a lot more listening and less promoting [of top-down activities].”

Identify the networks people are part of. “If they come in [to events or projects] with their network, they will feel a lot more comfortable. And you can bring in a whole lot of people rather than just one.”

In urban design, have bumping spaces where people can “bump into and meet one another”, such as neighbourhood shops.

Get everyone involved

He also advised looking beyond formal organisations such as non-profits and residents’ committees. Rather, find or create networks of people who know and care about one another – and these are everywhere, such as in temples, schools, community gardens, and open areas where old folk watch songbirds, he said with a smile.

Having been part of non-profit groups himself, he recognises the value of such organisations but cautioned: “Most non-profits weren’t elected... government often treats them like they are the community because they’re easy to work with: they work the same hours, speak the same language... They provide real value but their value isn’t to be the community.”

And there is a danger that “when government starts thinking about the community, they think about those few individuals”, he said. “No one group represents everybody. It only works if it’s really collaborative and inclusive.”

Mr Diers pointed out that the Department of Neighborhoods was formed to get the government to value active citizens rather than “seeing them as a problem”, and also to get citizens to see the government as an extension of themselves. When communities and governments work together, the “us” versus “them” mindset disappears and real partnership emerges.

“Democracy doesn’t work if it’s just a few self-selected people trying to speak for the community.”

Share stories

At HDB’s Community Week, Mr Diers was particularly taken by Stories on Wheels, a roving exhibition of good-neighbour stories in a bus.

Visitors could post a note thanking a neighbour, take pictures with friends in a photo booth, and record their own story of good neighbours.

“Everywhere I go, people are starting to understand the importance of stories,” he said. “Stories inspire us about what can be accomplished through community. They also help government to feel less risk-averse and to understand the value of partnering with the community.”

    Sep 1, 2014
    Siti Maziah Masramli
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