This post is for all you Strong Citizens out there writing op-eds, blogging, going on the radio, talking it up at the coffee shop, slowly winning your neighbours over… Keep going!
I’ve been engrossed in this work myself for a few years and this week’s Field Notes are about that process. I’m writing this in reflection of some recent experiences that made me feel like, "HEY! IT'S WORKING!!"
Two weeks ago, I got a call from our local public radio station. CBC Fredericton’s flagship morning program wanted to talk to me about a squabble they were covering which involved city planning.
I invite you into a digression on our local drama:
So we have a great big property downtown occupied by agricultural exhibition grounds. You can explore it here:
Somewhere in the city law book is the legacy of an old handshake that declares something along the lines of: the exhibition grounds will belong to the Exhibition indefinitely.
Nowadays, this place is underused most of the year. There are some fun carnivals and festivals that take over for days at a time as well as sporadic concerts and events, but the gigantic parking lot is usually empty. The people who run the Exhibition want more money from the city to activate the space. $50,000/year to be precise.
The city says NOPE and has been described (by the Exhibition's CEO) as uncooperative. It is an open secret that the city is displeased with the forgone potential of this site, due to the aforementioned law that it's both non-taxable and under the control of the Exhibition. There was a proposal at some point (I don't know from whom) to build housing there of the big, glassy variety. I saw plans. They were meh at best.
Well, the Exhibition cried foul about the City being unsupportive and that landed a radio story. And then the Deputy Mayor responded in the City’s defence and we’ve got ourselves some radio drama.
AND THEN, *I* get called in as a third party to offer a professional opinion on what to do with such a property.
Having not been involved in the issue at all, this was an unexpected call. Do I believe I am the foremost expert (if such a thing exists) on this matter? No. Do I believe I have some valuable perspective that would otherwise be missing. Absolutely. So I go on the air.
I’ve been on the morning show a few times now and I’m always surprised at how many people are tuned in. I receive a small torrent of messages referencing my interviews in the moments and days after they air. Radio’s still got it.
I have no idea if this interview will impact the exhibition grounds, but I think it's an effective way to help shape the conversation on a controversial development issue. And the fact that the CBC interviewed me rather than another city official helps the discussion belong to the community as much as the institutions involved. That was pretty cool.
Back in face-to-face world, I’ve been called in to speak with politicians, journalists, business leaders, activists, professors, and public servants to talk about how city-building affects their priorities. I love these meetings because we’re all sort of colleagues in the work of building a better city. Everyone is pecking away at it in their own field.
A couple of those meetings have been with business and community leaders in a nearby small town who are working to revive their main street. They are self-organized, dedicated, and moving quickly. They brought me in recently to take a look at their progress (lots) and make sure they are heading in the right direction. I was so honoured by their trust that it kind of threw me into a reality check. All the meetings, presentations, writing, interviews, and videos over the years have made a difference. My goal was to get the message out, but that process keeps gifting me with more opportunities to be a messenger. Woohoo!
So how did this all happen?
There are always requests for more process-heavy, how-to pieces on Strong Towns, so here we go. What is the process involved in becoming locally influential on urban issues if you don't work for the government or a planning firm? Here are the pieces I’ve pulled from my experience so far, but this post is mostly a prompt for people to discuss their tips and findings in the comments.
The work: Knowing your stuff (so, more like know what you don’t know)
Read beyond the “city” books. Study other cities. Be observant. Walk your fields every day. Talk to the people who make your city tick. Having a degree in a related field helps here but I don’t believe it’s necessary or nearly sufficient. You can make a degree unnecessary by having practical expertise like being a small developer or a city council member. You can be a go-to person on your own turf, wherever you know your stuff. In any case, there’s only so much we can “know” about cities. The people I trust most in the field are open about the limits of urban planning knowledge and focus more on wisdom and implementation.
The time: Earning trust and relevance
There is no replacement for time and presence. You have to keep showing up and being available to your community. For me, I gravitate toward activism and volunteering. This means a lot of gatherings and events and meetings. For some people, they show up by sitting on committees or keeping tabs on local affairs by writing op-eds and such. In any case, it’s hard to find time for this stuff and it’s usually frustrating to the extreme, which is why few people do it. Be one of them. What one lacks in volume, they can make up for in dedication over time.
The luck: Have an advocate.
Somehow, I’ve found myself under the wing of generous people who are wise and trusted and have done their time. They have put my name forward and asked me to take on big projects and let me take cover in the shadow of their own legitimacy. For a young person, this is incalculably valuable. I’ll be paying it forward for the rest of my life.
The fear: Acknowledge it and carry on.
If you are like me, having people take your opinions/advice seriously is terrifying and a lot of work. No matter how well you “know your stuff,” you’re always haunted by a little voice wondering if you’ve made a mistake or if you’re a conceited idiot. Sometimes you have to own up to humiliating oversights or tell people who you like and respect that they are wrong. I’ve been forcing myself to write and speak for many years now and the fear has actually gotten heavier, for whatever reason. It will always be there, so I just carry on. The thing that keeps me at it is the vacuum.
The vacuum: Your new friend
In my place, I found there was a vacuum when it came to public conversation on building a better city. The City was making plans, approving developments, spending money on urban design... Meanwhile, I could hear crickets when it came to informed and engaged public discussion about the consequences. That scared me even more than going public with my thoughts on the matter, so I spoke up. The vacuum sucked me in.
It started with educational videos about cities, which led to giving workshops and presentations, which led to collaborations with other community activists. I’ve done public art projects to celebrate Strong Citizens and participated in countless discussions with neighbours, leaders, and officials on making Fredericton more liveable.
Because of all that, I was invited to appear on a local tv show. It’s a Charlie Rose-inspired, vintage venue for long-form talk hosted by a community leader.
I don’t have a TV so I had no idea how or where the end product would be broadcast. But I said yes, I'll do it since I care about the message and want it shared. Turns out this show gets broadcast repeatedly on a local network that people do watch. I’ve had more than a few acquaintances say that they saw me on The Dennis Report even a year after it aired. That includes the host of the CBC morning radio show, hence the Exhibition interview. Everything feeds off each other.
So in conclusion, I’ve gained some local influence by being the most accessible voice in a quiet space. Any trust and legitimacy I’ve been able to build around that voice is based on showing up, being knowledgable, sincere, and having advocates. Speaking up is scary and I've got lots of room for improvement but it does feel like the work matters and is gradually making an impact.
That’s how it seems to be working for me. Anyone else having some success shaping the conversation in their city from the ground up?
(Cover photo by Gracen Johnson)