In many communities, it can be tough for citizens to map out their desired utopia in planning scenarios. It’s often difficult to see beyond the issues that are at hand.

That’s according to Andrew Howard of Team Better Block, who was recently featured in Episode 304 of our Transforming Cities Podcast. Thinking on a large, grandiose scale when it comes to urban planning can be problematic. Talking about a large trail system to connect the city is great, but what about people who just want a crosswalk in front of their house?

Those challenges are what made Howard’s focal point grow smaller as his career matured. Rather than looking at entire regions, his view became more granular.

“We started to slowly realize that it's not just making the place but it's how you make it. And that people want to be involved in the creation of place,” he said on the podcast.

Organizations like Team Better Block are using alternatives to the typical design and defend urban planning methods of the past in order to better their communities and make residents a part of those improvements. In many cases, these collaborative community processes do more than traditional planning methods.

Ensure planning is inclusive and takes the needs and desires of everyone into consideration.

One of the most important components of building a community is making it inclusive. That seems pretty straightforward, but a majority of planning processes focus on capturing the needs and wants of younger people in the community.

While many planners are chasing millennials, it’s crucial to chase older adults too, said Danielle Arigoni, director of AARP Livable Communities. This initiative supports places that are making efforts to become more “livable and age-friendly for people of all ages.”

Arigoni said that opening up community discussions about age-friendly design is an important way to get more people involved and interested.

According to Livable Communities, a livable community is one that is “safe and secure, has affordable and appropriate housing and transportation options, and offers supportive community features and services.”

These resources enhance personal independence, allow residents to remain in their homes and communities as they age; and foster residents' engagement in the community's civic, economic, and social life.

In addition to housing and transportation needs, AARP Livable Communities also focuses largely on creating safe, vibrant public spaces. According to Arigoni, in order to include older adults, it is important to create a communal space that brings people together.

She gives Bethel, VT as an example of how a downtown can be transformed into a dynamic, vibrant place inclusive of multiple generations. Temporary commercial pop-up shops and maker spaces attracted older adults that wanted to be employable, or start a new business. It’s a way of funneling those interests in a public setting that allows them to engage with the community.

In Buffalo, NY, Arigoni said an underutilized space near an elementary school was completely transformed in one weekend. By bringing together the community, people of all ages designed crosswalks and put in elevated gardening boxes.

“Go to where people congregate. Some towns and mainstreets there’s a building, block, location people feel a connection to.”

So with AARP, creating better communities have come from smaller steps that have great impact.

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Incubators and pop-up spaces can encourage participation and new ways of thinking

A collaborative community process can look like a variety of things. In Pittsfield, MA, it looks like an incubator space. Called Tyler Street Lab, this space allows a number of great things to happen. Organizations that want to get into the neighborhood and grow there have the opportunity to start without huge overhead costs.

In short, it gives organizations and individuals experiences that wouldn’t normally be accessible. Kate Lauzon, core collaborator and community outreach coordinator, said that Tyler Street Lab has also given individuals in the community a place to share their skills and learn from others.

Tyler Street Lab was originally intended just to be a pop-up space, said Lauzon. In fact, it was partly inspired by a Better Block collaboration with the city. It created colorful walkways, alleyways, and pop-up areas for businesses. The quick success of Tyler Street Lab had its leaders seeking out how to keep it a permanent community fixture. Goodwill was originally its fiscal agent, but now the City of Pittsfield is acting as its interim agent until Tyler Street Lab can self sustain.

Tyler Street Lab has been a successful, innovative space because it lets the community decide what its function is. A resident of Pittsfield created an area for her autistic son, called the Gaming Lounge. The town didn’t offer any safe spaces for him to play, so she created it at Tyler Street Lab, and it ended up growing out of the space within a month. Now, it has a number of kids with a wide variety of ages that use the space as well.

Ultimately, this valuable asset wasn’t created from a development plan, but rather an individual who saw the need for her son, and others like him, to have a safe, public space in the community.

Reimagine existing infrastructure to improve what already exists

When we think of a public space in a community, a nice park or plaza usually comes to mind. But have you ever considered a basketball court?

Project Backboard is a nonprofit that renovates and beautifies public courts across the country. Lines are redrawn and hoops are refreshed, but the actual surface of the court is painted into a beautiful work of art.

By transforming a public basketball court into a colorful, inviting area, Project Backboard is inspiring change in the ways underutilized public spaces are used.

A safe, fun spot for people of all ages to shoot hoops and engage with others can help strengthen communities by forming more relationships, and bringing others together in cleaning and painting the court with Project Backboard. Additionally, it transforms dilapidated spaces into vibrant ones.

Stuck? Start small

Though incredibly different in practice, these groups impact communities in ways that conventional urban planning can’t. A recreation area for those with Autism, a painted basketball court, a temporary pop-up shop; these are the components of a community that everyone can use. Open, safe, inviting public spaces that allow neighbors and strangers alike to meet and form new connections.

Large scale planning is, of course, crucial to urban areas. We need big picture. But what the big picture sometimes can’t narrow in on, is where organizations like these pick up.

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