Friday, January 30, 2009

Transforming Communities

When it comes to revitalizing neighborhoods or whole cities, a catch word in the lexicon is "transformative". We are looking for transformative change. Something big and permanent. More and more you hear people talking about transformative projects. I think of something as transformative if it does two things.

First is whether there is change beyond the scope of the project itself. Things may be great within the four corners of a project. But how is the project driving transformation of the community around it?

Second, and in a way related to the first item, is what has changed when it comes to us? Without a change in the quality of life and the thinking among the people in the community, there's no transformation. We may have spent a lot of money. We may have spent a lot of time in meetings. But if there hasn't been a change in the lives of community residents, we really haven't succeeded in reaching our goals of transformation.

The next thing is that plans are not transformational; zoning is not transformational; and, rules are not transformational. These are resources and tools, but not solutions. Here's an example.

I ride Metrolink. This week we had a lot of snow. At the station where I get dropped off to catch the train, workers have cleared the driveways and sidewalks of snow. Workers removed alot of snow; there's a financial cost to snow removal; and, 99% of the area is clear.

Somewhere on the shelves of the Metro administrative offices, there's probably a safety manual with procedures for snow removal. Plus, with this sort of activity, there's a certain amount of common sense applied. So good people operating plows and shovels cleared the roads and sidewalks. Yet there's a tiny defect in the results that has a big impact on the lives of Metrolink riders.

No one cleared a walkway from the area where people are dropped off from cars to get across to the sidewalk. Instead, people have to scale a two foot ridge of snow and ice to get to the sidewalk. That's got to be a bummer for someone in dress shoes. And totally unnecessary. A supervisor knows it isn't right. If there's a procedure for snow removal, it certainly doesn't call for leaving a condition like that. Hours of work done, but an important detail missed.

Now the snow is hard as rock. Done at the right time, it would have taken about ten seconds to clear a little walkway for people to get through. The point is that with a little additional snow clearing effort the situation would have tranformed for a lot people using Metrolink. It would have made a positive difference for people.

Okay, so enough about Metrolink and parking lot snow banks. Let's get back to the idea of transforming communities, and focus our attention on the planning process unfolding at the Arch. It seems that most people want the same thing.

We want something "transformative" to happen at the Arch, the riverfront, and downtown. We sense the opportunity. But how do we do it? How do we get there? There are a lot of different ideas.

The one issue that seems to be in agreement is the idea of connectivity. Improving connectivity might transform the Arch area and downtown. It's a key topic in the possible design competition for the future of the Arch.

Going back to the start of this post, what about the part about changing people? What is it about the way we do things in St. Louis that we might do differently as people trying to create powerful change? Are there things we can learn from outside St. Louis? Are there different ways of looking at the connectivity issues related to downtown and the Arch area which might result in transformative change?

A new acquaintenance has drawn my attention to a design competition involving a National Park site from the New York area. It's a case study we might be able to draw from to inform our St. Louis efforts.

Another challenge is how we define scope and time horizons. The jurisdiction of the National Park Service in downtown St. Louis is much smaller in area than the overall connectivity challenges facing the effort to reconnect downtown to the riverfront and the Arch. How can we effect transformative change without establishing the proper scale for solutions to the challenges? We can't. So we have to do things differently as people.

Individuals and agencies with overlapping interests need to work together to find common ground. Organizations like MoDOT, the Army Corps of Engineers and the City of St. Louis as well as the numerous private, public interest, and community groups all have a role. We need to work together as people and organizations, respecting our differences, yet driven by a shared vision of how to build a better community. A community that changes the quality of the lives of the people living in it for the better.

That won't be easy. Whoever thought transforming things would be? It is going to take a lot of work. For us working to transform the area connecting the riverfront, the Arch and downtown, we have to start with changing who we are and how we do things.

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