New Partnership: Falcon Heights Public Work Initiative

I’m thrilled to announce a new partnership for Strong Towns, bringing together a team that includes the Bush Foundation, the City of Falcon Heights, Minnesota, the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, and the University of Minnesota College of Design. Over the last two years, I have been exploring ideas with these partners for harnessing non-financial capacity of citizens and households, providing ways for people to contribute to the public beyond property taxes and volunteerism.

In addition to big change in land use, restoring a social system that generates public goods will make communities more flexible and stronger. The Falcon Heights public work project is about connecting the huge capacity of neighbors to build places, reflecting priorities and strategies identified together, locally.

We have grown to view the payment of taxes as our primary way of contributing to key shared assets. Yet, our system of paying taxes is an at-arms-length transaction. Property tax payments – the main way that cities, school districts and counties raise revenue – are embedded in mortgage payments or rent. We remain disconnected from the reality of what happens once we make those pecuniary contributions to the commonwealth.

At the same time, we have skills to rethink and redesign the systems on which we rely for food, education and training, water, public safety and housing. Engaging residents directly in the design of these systems – beyond physical comprehensive planning that typically involves citizens in a review capacity – promises to build civic muscle, taking underused capacity in the form of citizen expertise and labor and investing it locally.

The Falcon Heights project will involve elementary age students through the remarkable public achievement model developed and internationally applied by the team at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship. Students will identify priorities for change, and develop solutions. University students will be trained to support the elementary students’ work as coaches and chroniclers of the process. Implementation of solutions will empower each of these groups in the doing, as well as the designing, in partnership with the City.

Scarcity has become the backdrop of public debate nationally in part because the assets of citizens have been left underused. Our deficit is structural in part because of our development pattern, and also because we do not channel the resource of citizen skills, labor, and ingenuity into community vitality. In my view, we need to reinvent language for what it means to contribute to the public without being a volunteer or a public employee. It’s citizenship as a verb.  

Local communities can serve as centers of experimentation and innovation. A public work initiative focused on community design in Falcon Heights is one approach to invest the resource of citizen experience in the future of the City. What we learn from the process will guide efforts to address scarcity not with more scarcity, but with greater community productivity.

The partners on this project don’t have the answers yet. In fact, we don’t even have all the right questions. Building both the questions and the answers will be the core of the project, and done by citizens in Falcon Heights. As we learn from this work, I will keep you posted!