Monday, December 19, 2016

Learning from Kind Communities, Bicycles as Canaries

Most of us have been enchanted by places that have no outstanding feature, no grand building or super highway, no monstrous shopping mall or ballfield to draw inane profits. Instead, we enter such places with ease and relax even with activity all around. 

Some of the places that come to my mind include particular neighborhoods within cities; villages in Mexico, Africa, and Thailand, even Bangkok as a whole, though it is a massive city. I’ve worked on farms in villages in Sweden and New Zealand where people care for each other, rallying to help anyone in distress. Nantes, France is another city that makes my list with its playfulness and caring for its residents. These are wildly different places and yet each shares one feature – everyone who lives in places like this, kind places, expects to ride a bicycle.

In Cures for Ailing Organizations I show why organizations, like organisms, need to be healthy in order to accomplish positive change. This includes a strong purpose (skeleton), coordinated people helping each other (muscles), sound policies (nervous system), and steady communications (respiratory and circulatory systems). Now I wonder, could whole communities also function this way?

In 2017, One Street will embark on a new program to unlock the secrets of communities that already enjoy a connected and empowered citizenship. Our mission is based on serving leaders of bicycle organizations, yet we have found that bicycle facilities and programs in communities that isolate people—whether by high-speed roads, sprawl and single-use development, gentrification/displacement, or police harassment—cause little if any change. Many of these bicycle-only victories are eventually removed or vanish because they reside where people are not prioritized.

Bicycles are to communities what canaries were to miners. When few people can ride bikes, or only one sort of people rides bikes, it is a sure sign of disease. In such places, officials base decisions on grand infrastructure, attracting large businesses, and reactions to complaints, isolating and marginalizing people as if they are bothersome, inanimate objects. Streets are widened, housing and public spaces replaced by shopping centers and car parking lots. The purpose or skeleton of such a community is diseased and its muscles, the participation of its citizens, have atrophied.

I’ve been studying several proactive efforts that touch on this topic, but don’t hit the mark:

  •  Intentional communities and ecovillages – focus on kindness and connection within their group, but are usually isolated from mainstream society.
  •  Service communities – serve marginalized individuals, but rarely engage them as leaders or integrate their community into mainstream society.
  •  Placemaking, community development corporations, and other socially sensitive developments – generally focus on infrastructure designed by outside “experts” and diminish the expertise of the people they desire to serve.
Even these promising efforts tend to veer away from integration. Our research into the reasons for this will be important to this new program. We do know that organizations and communities tend to devolve into places where a few people dominate, where new ideas are suppressed, where the hard work of kindness and respect are replaced by sudden pronouncements from those few or their call for a majority vote.

The goals of our new program will include identifying models and creating resources to help organization and community leaders gain the courage to resist this tendency and instead ensure the engagement of everyone (not serving them, engaging them) to better their community together.

Our working name for this new program is Kind Communities because it will examine communities as a whole to find out how some have kept or shifted their focus to break down barriers that marginalize people. And one of our best gauges for finding these model places will be that everyone—no matter their age, ability, or income—expects to ride a bike whenever and wherever they like.

Do you know of places like this? Can you offer pertinent resources, books, websites, or conferences? If so, please offer them in the comments section. Also, we’d appreciate any suggestions for naming the program. Kind Communities will work, but we’re looking for suggestions.

Thanks in advance!

Sue

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