Burnout and the Mythical Tinkerbell Placemaker

My mom epitomized the phrase, "When you want something done, ask a busy person." She is the primary reason I have an "involved" disposition. Somehow, despite having five children and hundreds of equally demanding undergrad and grad students to push along, she still manages to be a nationally appreciated professor and great neighbour. When I was a kid, she organized an off-the-charts block party every spring. It's how our neighbours became so friendly with each other despite the snout-houses and lack of public space. In fact, her organizing (and five cubs who were regularly told "go play outside - make up a game.") more or less transformed our cul-de-sac into the de facto plaza/basketball court/snowpile/play-zone. My mom sits on boards and shows up when it counts and constantly volunteers for thankless jobs because someone has to do it. So I've grown up with a sense of excitement and responsibility around Strong Citizenship. It's exciting to get involved because I know how even a block party can lead to endless warm fuzzies and transformation. But it's a heavy responsibility at times - to step up to the plate more than your fair share, or to be expected to always be 'on' and accessible. It's also relationally challenging at times to be known for your community activities because people tend to think that's your full-time job, which can lead to a small identity crisis.

Walking the tightrope of Strong Citizenship came to the fore this week after I re-read a short research article from grad school. At the time, I had highlighted the key points in a very theoretical way, ready to work them into an exam paper on the challenges of community involvement. Reviewing the paper again, I realized this is my life now. This is my life.


For context, this is a study of the experience of community leaders involved in what was called the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) in the UK. The SRB itself is an interesting story for another time, but in essence, the UK pooled most of their place-based ec-dev policies and monies into one huge program, the SRB, to which local groups could apply for funding. It became a national Challenge Fund - a competitive bidding process in which local community partnerships would submit their proposals for projects that would address any number of social ills, and the SRB could target funding where it was needed most. The premise was that problems and solutions around urban decline were best identified at the local level by partnerships of local authorities, the private sector, and community/non-profit groups. Also, the process of forming an interdisciplinary partnership, crafting a solution together, and applying for funding as a team was thought to encourage more effective and sustainable solutions. £2.2 Billion later and Bob's your uncle. Of course, since cities are complex and un-understandable, it's not quite that simple. Again, that's a story for another day.

When we look at the experience of community leaders in that SRB process though, I think we can learn a lot about the challenges of Strong Citizens going forward. Of course, there are a great many Strong Citizens in civil service or working as developers, but in this case I want to focus on volunteer Strong Citizens like my mom before me and like so many of you with other day-jobs. I want to focus on the life of people who are on the front lines of city-building without receiving a paycheque for it.

Do these things sound familiar? All direct quotes from that paper (Hambleton et al., 2000):

  • The contribution of community leaders [...] is undervalued by policy makers and public service managers. Community leaders have much responsibility but little power.

  • Short funding deadlines led to [Community Leaders] being asked to sign up to regeneration bids late in the day. Often this meant they had no real chance to consult with the community and gave the impression that, while their support was needed, their views were not sought after.

  • The personal experience of leadership is an internalized and often unshareable mixture of energy and commitment, juggling time and money, fighting off burnout, and balancing conflicting loyalties between community roots and the wider partnership. This requires community leaders to set clear limits on the demands partnerships make on their personal lives.

  • The procedures and funding aspects of SRB tend to attract those with sound bureaucratic skills rather than necessarily those with strong or innovative leadership skills.

  • Community leaders are expected to give up vast amounts of time for no pay. Some simply cannot afford to spend this kind of time without compensation to release them from work. For those who do take up the challenge there is no career development. Without a professional background preparing them for dealing with the high levels of paperwork and conflicting demands, burnout is inevitable.

  • Expectations from the community can be even more demanding. Leaders are thought to be permanently available and are frequently blamed for any problems or criticized for trying to change a situation that others have come to accept.

The paper's recommendations are equally cathartic. Two of my favourites:

  • Statutory and business partners need to recognize community leaders as equal partners, value their time and not overload them with bureaucratic tasks. 
  • Leaders of local authorities engaged in regeneration partnerships need to be less defensive when community partners raise concerns. A willingness and ability to work across departmental boundaries and share local authority expertise would be helpful to community leaders.

Preach it, paper. It's not easy to moonlight as a local champion that gets asked to be involved in everything... but only superficially and in an unpaid capacity. That brings me to this:

A Declaration of Principles from Broken City Lab. http://www.brokencitylab.org/blog/towards-a-new-collectivity-a-declaration-of-principles-for-artists-cultural-workers-supporters-thereof/

At the Strong Towns National Gathering, I had a conversation to this effect with a new friend. She is older and wiser than I and had many years experience straddling a similar identity crisis. On one hand, what people value the most about her is a knack for "bringing the magic." Everyone sincerely appreciates her placemaking activities and they desperately want more. More events! More ideas! You should do this! Can you speak here? Will you organize this? Can you find volunteers? What's your advice on this? And meetings galore. People clearly see the value in what she's doing, but no one is willing to pay a dime for all of that important stuff that makes a community feel like home. Because it's magic, not work, right?

I'm in the same boat, and make no mistake, we are not Tinkerbells. Hard work, not pixie dust makes a place feel magical. And while at times we enjoy this work immensely and it can even define us, the challenge remains, how can we afford to keep it up with little to no compensation? This friend confided in me, "I've stopped trying to get paid for the placemaking stuff. Instead, I've taken other jobs to subsidize that work."

After that conversation, I've taken the same approach and some concrete steps to avoid burnout. But it doesn't change the fact that people in this position get paid for a fraction of the work that they do. It's exhausting, unsustainable, and it puts them at odds with the people with the pursestrings (who arguably have a budget for this stuff).

I came across the above poster from Broken City Lab (masters in urban intervention). It's a touch of genius, clearly articulating that people who "bring the magic" and "make things cool" see right through the institutionalized frameworks for urban development. I've spent enough time with the planning and ec-dev part of this equation to know that bureaucrats are not bad people who want to exploit and impoverish. I don't see malice on either side - just fear and a broken system of accountability.

Our institutions are not set up to allocate resources to actors they cannot control. Instead, they are punished for making investments that can't reliably be followed up with a report on distinct outcomes.

But the magic is in the complexity and unaccountable. Movements don't move without artists. Cultural work is the difference between a good idea flopping or gaining momentum and a life of its own. Placemaking is rarely a product of policy alone.

The paper I talked about above understands this and makes a recommendation:

A shift to community-led evaluation would allow local people to establish their own criteria of success and measure progress against these, rather than complying with bureaucratic monitoring systems. Changing the rules for accounting partnership resources so as to value paid and voluntary time equally and introducing attendance fees could increase the value of the community input into the partnerships.
— Hambleton et al., 2000

What would that actually look like in practice?

This is what I've been thinking about.

GRACEN JOHNSON is a communications designer living in The Maritimes. While she finished her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013, she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats trying to crack that nut herself, including as the designer and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.