Frustrated by national politics? It's time to think local.

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

Whatever your political persuasion, I'm willing to bet there are a few things you’re frustrated about right now when it comes to national politics. No matter who's in office, it seems like that's always the case. It can feel like those of us outside of Washington have little control over what goes on there. But I know a place where your voice really matters and where your opinions and actions can make a definite impact: your own neighborhood.

At the beginning of 2017, I wrote about how renters can be neighborhood advocates, in spite of some of the unique challenges that come with trying to have a voice in your community when you’re not a homeowner. I offered some advice and shared some from friend and member of Strong Towns, Michael McGinn. I’ve been doing my best to live by that advice for the past few months.

This Tuesday, for example, I went to a community forum discussing local businesses, public safety and public space. It was incredibly refreshing to sit in a room full of people who care after a day spent glancing at social media posts from people who feel the need to shout loudly that they care, and spend far less time actually showing their care. At this meeting, we listened to a representative from our neighborhood association talk about business closures and openings (four long-standing businesses sadly departed from our commercial street this year, but two new ones have already filled their spaces!). We heard a brief report from our alderman about traffic safety at problematic intersections and streets, and thanked him for taking our questions. I even got the chance to check up on the status of a traffic study about the one-way streets that I’d like to see turned to two-ways and saw a majority of the people in the room express their agreement about the necessity of this change. (More on that later.)

We concluded the meeting with an extended discussion about a small strip of green space next to sixty odd yards of bike/walk path that connects two streets in our neighborhood, led by an architect who’s been working to redesign the space to be more inviting. I couldn’t help but mentally step back and reflect on the fact that, here was a group of 25 or 35 people listening attentively and seriously discussing a 50’ x 200’ strip of land for the better part of thirty minutes. Maybe that sounds like a waste of time to you. But it doesn’t to me.

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

At Strong Towns, we know that small, incremental investments (little bets) offer a much better way to build a successful city than putting our hopes into large-scale expensive projects. So yes, it may seem silly to care about a small strip of sidewalk and grass on the end of a neighborhood street, but what if the transformation of that little section of land brings new people into a neglected area of the street and connects it with the adjacent neighborhood? And what if the presence of those new people and new connections encourages entrepreneurs to open businesses near the public space? And now those business owners have a new livelihood and income stream, and vacant spaces are filled…

That’s the power of a small investment. Maybe (probably) all of that will not happen and something in between (a couple new businesses, a shot at success) is more likely. And if it fails completely? It was a little bet. We’ll try again with something new.

I know full well that a spruced up public space in my neighborhood isn’t going to solve America’s immigration problems or infrastructure crisis. It’s not even going to solve the problems of poverty and crime in my city. But it's not worthless. And it's activism on a scale that everyone is capable of and equipped with the tools to do.

We ought not to let the immenseness of the problems facing our nation paralyze us into inaction. Yes, there is work we can do to change national politics, but there is also so much work to be done close to home, and we have a much better chance at getting it right. Whether that's work on immigration issues that impact your community or on a small public space that might make your neighborhood a more pleasant place, keep your eyes open for what needs to be done and don't wait for someone else to do it for you.

(Top photo by d-olwen-dee)

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