3 Key Lessons from Encouraging Communities to Generate Change
What makes a place great?
This is the age-old question for community development. At first glance, it seems nearly impossible to pin down a single answer. But consider some of your favorite places; what about them makes you want to go back? Is it the connectivity of the place’s design? Or maybe the unique shops and gathering spaces it holds? Or perhaps it’s the feeling that when you are there, you are part of something bigger than yourself – a true community and team.
At Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), we considered this question and decided to take it a step further by sharing the responsibility for creating a great place with the community members themselves. Instead of relying exclusively on an outside perspective to determine which projects to support in a community, we wanted to make sure the people themselves had the opportunity to be involved in the changes happening around them – a practice commonly referred to as placemaking.
Placemaking is a community development approach that centers itself on the people, providing them an opportunity to come together and support their community’s assets while at the same time strengthening their bonds with one another and creating a place where people want to live, work and play.
Adopting this approach as we assist communities throughout Michigan is how our Public Spaces Community Places program was born.
Public Spaces Community Places (PSCP) is a combined effort between the MEDC, the Michigan Municipal League and Michigan-based Patronicity where local residents can use crowdfunding to be involved in the development of strategic projects in their communities. Projects successfully funded through these grassroots efforts are then backed with a matching grant from MEDC.
The success we have experienced with this initiative since it began in 2014 has been incredible. Because of the truly collaborative nature of this program, we are proud to have a 97 percent success rate for projects achieving their crowdfunding goals.
MEDC has used a modest budget of $1.4 million to generate more than $10 million in private investment to improve communities throughout the state. During this journey, we have learned some important lessons about the tremendous impact placemaking can have on any community, regardless of its size or ZIP code; applied anywhere, these lessons can help make a place great.
1. Community buy-in is vital.
When people are brought in at the beginning of the decision-making process — when a community has discovered the need for a new park, a hiking trail or a food kitchen — they will naturally buy into the project’s success. Rather than operating in a silo to identify a project that could benefit the community, community members work together as co-creators to share in the development, transformation and success of a project, from start to finish.
The culture of inclusion that forms by valuing the input and involvement from community members throughout the process not only makes ultimate success more realistic, but it helps guarantee people will become invested in the space and be motivated to care for it long after it’s completed.
A perfect example of this coming together of a community is in the city of Portland, Michigan in 2015. The town originally planned to apply for a $10,000 matching grant through the Public Spaces Community Places program to build a gathering space for local residents to meet up and host events. But after a community meeting took place to discuss the potential of the project, that crowdfunding goal skyrocketed to $50,000. At the end of a dedicated fundraising and grassroots efforts, a quarter of the town’s 4,000 people had contributed funding to the effort. The final result was the Red Mill Pavilion, which today serves as not only a gathering spot for community events, but is a crown jewel of the town.
2. Great ideas come from within.
When people in a community are given an opportunity to step up and take ownership of the quality of their place, they will. Placemaking programs like Public Spaces Community Places not only challenge people to be responsible for the change they want to see, but it empowers them to see their ideas as being achievable.
Instead of looking around and thinking to one’s self about what could be done to make a certain place better, our program urges folks to share their ideas and begin building support from the ground-up. That’s how a group of neighbors and volunteers in Brightmoor, Michigan, succeeded in transforming their neighborhood’s food desert back in 2015.
Located near the northwest border of Detroit, the neighborhood of Brightmoor long existed without any grocery stores nearby, despite local residents having limited access to transportation. The need for increased availability of fresh, healthy foods could not have been clearer. What’s more, the group already acquired the building and the equipment needed for the project; now all they needed was additional support to update the space to meet the community’s needs.
Enter Public Spaces Community Places.
Thanks to the efforts of a dedicated group called the Brightmoor Artisans Collective, the community was able to exceed its target goal of $30,000 to create a true farm-to-table experience for the Brightmoor community. By having the opportunity to not only share their idea for eliminating the food desert in their neighborhood, but to see the Brightmoor Community Kitchen become a reality, this grassroots, citizen leadership helped to bring their neighbors together over fresh, homegrown food.
3. Philanthropy is for everyone.
All it takes is a quick internet search of “philanthropist” to find a collection of billionaires like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey and Warren Buffett either boasting of their good deeds or being showered in praise for them. But philanthropy does not require riches. This is perhaps one of the most heartening lessons learned form our Public Spaces Community Places program; whether you can contribute $10, $25 or $100, every single dollar matters. You don’t have to hire an expensive grant writer or have a fancy title to play a part in improving your community. Philanthropy can be for everyone.
PSCP democratizes public funding by making it accessible to everyone, and encouraging members of the community to play a part in securing that funding to improve their shared quality of life.
Ultimately, putting people at the center of community development efforts not only benefits the end result, but it helps strengthen the bonds between those people and their place, as well. Our PSCP program is a testament to the incredible things that can happen when a community makes the choice to invest in itself and works together to be the change it wants to see. At the end of the day, what makes a place great can include many things, but they all stem from a fundamental core: the people who call that place home.
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