Who are the people in your neighborhood? No, really. What can you tell me about them?
When most of us were kids, we knew our neighbors. But these days it’s a different story—for a couple reasons.
1.) Globalization: The script of settling down in your twenties in a neighborhood with like peers is changing. Someone moves next door and has a different religion, background, ethnicity, language. There’s a lot there you may not relate to, and so feel less inclined, and have less opportunity, to get to know.
Globalization also means you may be more likely to travel about and not be so domesticated. So the idea of getting acquainted with who you live near can be less attractive given our more fluid lifestyles. This is funny, actually, because humans started out as nomads—as fluid as can be, and it took great social evolution and ingenuity to create agriculture, animal domestication, and organize cities. Now, it seems we’re establishing the best of both worlds with a newfound fluidity to our domesticity. As such, cities are becoming less a tank to hold people and more a dam to see people come and go.
2.) Technology: It used to be that your neighborhood was the main outlet for social interaction. But today, we’re less compelled to start a relationship based solely on the fact that someone lives near you when we can just turn on our computer to a wide selection of people who, chances are, offer you more similar interests.
So cities are changing and so is the way we interact with them and our neighborhoods. And with that in mind, I went back to Mayor RT Rybak’s office. This time, I wanted to share with him these ideas and how they apply to Minneapolis. Because a city that keeps these ideas in mind can better progress today.
We—the mayor, myself, and his aide (a young man with glasses and a mat of curly, light hair)—talked the talk. I brought up my point that cities need to recognize what it means to be a city in the modern world. With the Internet and ease of transport, one doesn’t have to rely on neighborhoods for friends or on their city for identity. They just don’t mean what they used to. Do you think Mexican immigrants moving in to my neighborhood identify as “Minneapolitans”? Myself recently returning from China (and uncertain of where I’ll be in 12 months), how do I view my relationship with “my” city?
After recognizing this new dynamic—this distancing or reshaping of the city/citizen order—cities should come up with new ways to reach out to the citizens, to fill any voids. Compel residents to stay connected with the happenings of the city, to help shape the city. Let residents know you’re there for them—not in terms of hand-outs, but accessibility. Grant the citizens a new respect and a relinquishment of the power residents had, in the past, readily bestowed upon their municipality. This may test local politicians as they don’t want to give up their position as the masters of the citizens. But not only is it good that they do let go of that power, they must so that the city stays strong. Because without the citizens’ participation, a city can go downhill.
To reach out, cities ought to use the very factors responsible for replacing the old scripts—technology. The ease with which the citizens can drift away from a relationship with a city is the same way they can stay connected.
Rybak perked up with this point, by actually pointing out the other side: cities are also the beneficiary of how technology connects citizen to citizen within a city, for example Match.com, Meetup.com, etc. It’s a neat addition to the ideas that I brought up. Cities are smaller with technology, and we can connect with places and people within the city that we normally wouldn’t. This is true and speaks to this new dynamic, but it doesn’t detract from the issue of connecting city government and citizen, nor does it really help a neighborhood stay tight.
So addressing this first part, I continued. Rybak had to step away, so I said to his aide that similarly the City needs to reduce any blockage that prevent citizens from wanting to stay connected. People are less willing to forgive a local government, to have it remain in their good standing, once it does something to offend them. It’s easier, under this new dynamic, for citizens to view things as citizen vs. city. Like a bad relationship, we close doors of trust and cooperation and open ones of suspicion and assumption.
Here’s an example: this new dynamic often means lowered recognition of the city ordinances and laws. The city may find it opportune to ticket people and collect the cash (especially with budget cuts), but this only wedges further the citizens from the city. The city should be doing the opposite and attracting people to the collective by using technology to inform its citizens more effectively.
So in the spirit of both using technology to help the citizens and remove a wedge, I first suggested to Rybak that the city should remove the use of tickets and fines from the general budget. This would reduce citizen suspicion that people are ticketed for fund raising. From our first meeting in December, he indicated no interest in doing that, so this time I suggested to his aide that the city offer something to the people; use technology to give citizens a better chance to know what these common unknown offenses are. Write an article, and let it go viral, on the five most common traffic infractions committed in the city. The mayor’s aide applauded the idea and agreed to let me write the piece. This is forthcoming…
For the city’s part, I was happy to have discovered just prior to this meeting that Minneapolis already is offering technologically convenient methods to connect with citizens: text message and email alerts during snow emergencies. But I’m guessing very few people utilize this. (I didn’t know about it until I came up with the idea myself and researched to find it is already implemented.)
So given this evolving relationship between citizen-n-city: how can residents be more compelled to connect? Methinks that informing the citizens of how to avoid getting ticketed is a good start.
And regarding our more immediate environment, our neighborhoods: how can we stay connected in this arena? Because though we may not need our neighbors in the same way as our parents did, we’ll always have in common that most integral factor: the place we call home.
In my next post, I’ll talk about a neighborhood meeting I attended. I went to see about an idea for a festival in my multi-cultural neighborhood here in Minneapolis.
to new plateaus,