Thursday, December 6th, 2012

What Are You Doing For Your City?

What are you doing to make your city a better place to live? I mean it, what are you actually doing?

It’s tempting to think that if we read (or even, like me, write) an urban blog, vote, or write the occasional letter of protest that we are doing our part. But while words, protest, and lobbying are important, they are not nearly enough.

Instead, I’ve tried to challenge myself to try to find ways to actually do something tangible, physical that contributes to civic improvement. Something beyond just my words. I was a long time free software contributor, and am glad to have been able to participate that way. I also helped drive the creation of the Indianapolis neighborhood map and online architectural tours. But that’s frankly not a whole lot.

On the other hand, if everybody challenged themselves to take on at least one personal project, whatever or however small it might be, our cities would be much better places. Many neighborhoods could benefit from just having someone committed to keeping their own block free of trash. Or may a guerrilla gardening project at some lonely, pathetic stretch of dirt on a city right of way. There are a million things that are within our grasp to actually do ourselves to make an improvement. We aren’t always dependent on somebody else to make things better. We can make a start in our own back yard.

So I’d like to challenge all of you to do that. What’s your project for improving your city? And I’ll also challenge me, as I don’t have much going on at present and haven’t made much of an impact since I moved. As we come to the end of the year, let’s all plan to make a tangible difference of some sort where we live.

Topics: Urban Culture

23 Responses to “What Are You Doing For Your City?”

  1. Josh S says:

    What a great post!

    If you live in Chicago, I strongly encourage you to look up your local public school and consider joining the Local School Council. It’s an elected position, though you can be appointed if there is a vacancy. I joined as a community representative a little over 2 years ago, and couldn’t be more thrilled to be part of my community in this way.

    While there are only 2 community representative positions per school, the vast majority of schools in Chicago have vacancies in their community rep spots. For more information, see , attend a meeting (they’re open to the public), or contact your local neighborhood school’s principal.

    If you want to improve your neighborhood, work on improving the schools! :)

  2. Walker Evans says:

    My wife and I both serve on several local committees, commissions and boards of directors here in Columbus (Columbus Historical Society, North Market Board Authority, Columbus 2020 Economic Development program, Columbus Chamber Small Business Council, just to name a few). We see it as a bit of a “hobby” with the goal of giving back to the community in a meaningful way.

    On a smaller scale, I also like to wear my Columbus “ambassador” hat whenever I can. With an office Downtown I regularly assist people with directions, advice on parking meter usage or anything else I get asked. Today I helped a recent transplant locate our bus system’s main offices so that she could buy a pass. Feels good to help other people when you can, and hopefully adds up to making a better community through good samaritan duties.

  3. Jake Krohn says:

    I’ve been fortunate enough to be associated with this group in Pittsburgh since its inception in 2005:

    The idea of a bottom-up approach to litter control isn’t new, but few cities have been fortunate enough to have a champion in the project like our founder, Boris. I’ve since moved away from Pittsburgh but I still contribute from afar by moving electrons around in their favor.

    If neighborhood groups are looking to get on top of their litter problem, the Citizens Against Litter model is a good place to start.

  4. Adjoa says:

    My aunt and her daughters pick up litter in their neighborhood just because. They don’t get paid for it, don’t ask for money or help. They just do it. Things like that inspire me.

    I want to do something in the realm of climate change educational outreach for my city and beyond. It’s December in Minneapolis and there hasn’t been snow. That’s alarming to me.

    Thanks for this incentive!

  5. Mike says:

    I am always donating and “upcycling” as much of my stuff as possible to local charities along with donating my time and money. I live in Toledo, OH and we seem to have a very strong presence of thrift stores and charities. My girlfriend and I always make it a point to visit new businesses, especially restaurants, and we make sure to spread the word if appropriate. Recently I’ve joined The Future of Toledo, a young leaders group dedicated to making the city better any way we can.

  6. Rob says:

    Well, my website…

    The trouble is, now I have a brand-spanking-new child. Which *is* way to help my city, but to the detriment of other projects!

  7. I co-founded Bike Walk Lincoln Park, a citizens group that works to make walking and bicycling in our Chicago neighborhood more safe, pleasant, convenient and fun! It’s been a lot of work, but so worthwhile. You get to a point in your life when you realize the sayings about “Be the change you want to see” are truly a call to action.

  8. Josh Lapp says:

    It may sound silly but I always make it a point to stop and pickup trash on the sidewalk. My hope is that not only will I clean up a little piece of my city but someone will see me do it and start doing the same.

    I also have made it a point to help visitors and people new to the city find good places to eat and check out. I’m frequently surprised how often I run into visitors but I always do my best to direct them to the local restaurant or bar or park so their experience in Columbus is special, not just another trip where they stay at a bland hotel and eat bland chain food. And I want them to leave Columbus saying “Wow, the people there are so nice and they really helped us find that cool spot. I can’t wait to come back.”

    I think the one of the best things people can do is invest in a city’s neighborhoods. I’ve bought homes in the city to rent out in the hopes of not only making money but improving neighborhoods. And I work for a non-profit developer. Even a simple choice like attending a neighborhood meeting, inviting your neighbors over for dinner, or taking public transit can help you connect with the people of your city and therefore the soul of your city.

  9. david vartanoff says:

    In my trade (electrician) I specialise in upgrading older housing stock. Goodbye knob & tube, hello up to date. On the volunteer side I work with Grid Alternatives putting solar PV on low income housing at no cost to the residents. I am active in advocacy at my local transit agency–trying to get them to do better.

  10. chris godlewski says:


    I live in a rural town about 1 hour away from two major cities. Obviously I would think more civic minded people and projects are located in these environments. What would you suggest I participate in within a rural community? Or would you suggest I travel and participate in the larger community? I would love any ideas!! The peculiar part is I am a city guy living in a rural area so maybe rural citizens are not very civic minded? And I want to make a difference but not sure how to go about it.

  11. Wow, great list.

    Chris G., I’d actually say rural folks are more civically engaged than those in the city. Out in the country you can’t rely on a lot of services, so you have to provide them yourself. For example, if a storm drops a tree on the road, the first guy who gets there with a chain saw in his truck is likely to be the one to saw it up and get it out of the way – not the county highway department. Also, there’s a huge tradition of neighbor helping neighbor.

  12. costanza says:

    Josh S, you are exactly right. You want to see your property value skyrocket in Chicago? Improve your local CPS school. Look what’s happened with Coonley, Waters, Bell, and Burley school areas.

  13. Rico says:

    I have to say that ever since moving from a rural small town to a relatively wealthy suburb, I have become less civic minded / active. I used to be the first person to help jump a car, cut up a fallen tree, as a kid I visited elderly neighbors, etc. But I rarely do any of that anymore.

    For me a big part of it is that I live in a building with lots of section 8 residents, and their bad attitudes, loud cursing, littering, and loud music have killed any desire for me to help the less fortunate.

    The last few times I helped some of them get their car running they didn’t even say thank you. So now if I see that their car isn’t running, I’m just thankful they can’t power its stereo.

    I still volunteer in the city time to time, but for events that raise money for disease research and such.

    Maybe its time to move

  14. Bruce says:

    Growing tired of hearing why doesn’t the city or parks department do this or that, last May I started a community cruiser bike ride that meets one evening a week in good weather.

    While our city has numerous training rides sponsored by bike shops this was designed to attract the new or casual bicyclists who doesn’t own spandex. Our first season was a success. We started with 5 riders and on some nights had 30 or more. Ages ranged from new parents pulling their kids in carts to cyclists in their 80’s.

    We are looking forward to 2013 and spring.

  15. urbanleftbehind says:

    Costanza, re: Coonley, Walters, Bell and Burley

    It would be a true accomplishment if the improvements at these 4 elementary schools could scale into a single, tight boundary high school. As it stands now, do many of the eighth graders post graduation flee for the suburbs, go into private and parochial high schools, or spread out amongst the selective enrollment public high schools (e.g. Northside, Payton, Young, Lane)?

  16. Chris Barnett says:

    I helped start, and will continue to shop at and serve on the board of, a cooperative urban grocery in a low-income neighborhood and (former) food desert:

    I will volunteer for Keep Indianapolis Beautiful’s Greater Indy Cleanup whenever it involves whacking invasive species (honeysuckle, mulberry, tree of heaven) from our urban waterways:

    I will continue to be involved in watershed and groundwater protection efforts:

    I will advocate for a funding mechanism to improve public transit in Central Indiana:

    I’d guess everyone else’s big city has organizations like these (or the white space to start one). Cities also have community centers and community recreation programs that need volunteer readers, teachers, and coaches. And don’t forget Big Brothers Big Sisters.

    Also, pretty much every big city has a Habitat for Humanity affiliate. You can give money (and help persuade your employer to do so) and occasionally volunteer to swing a hammer; it’s not a lifetime commitment.

    I realize that this is a long list of organizations. The reality is that volunteer organizations make cities better. Most importantly, they allow an individual’s efforts to be magnified. (In current buzzwords, they “leverage individual contributions to maximize community impact”.)

  17. I started a blog. It doesn’t sound like much, but it pulls you in, then you start to care, then you meet others who are like minded. Its a process :).

  18. costanza says:

    urbanleftbehind: “As it stands now, do many of the eighth graders post graduation flee for the suburbs, go into private and parochial high schools, or spread out amongst the selective enrollment public high schools (e.g. Northside, Payton, Young, Lane)?”

    Yes, all the above

  19. J. England says:

    this may seem minor, but some years back I was familiar with the auto shop programs at inner city Indianapolis I.P.S. schools Tech and Manual.They had no real shop manuals and some of the poor kids would bring family cars in and try to get them in safe driving condition, which requires a specific vehicle manual. They were told to go to main downtown library and xerox appropriate page @ 25c per page. The school system was hoping for a federal grant to buy an expensive computer based auto info system – “real soon now”.I bought approx. 1500 new and used shop manuals and, with RR coworkers (ConRail, now CSX)bound them all in clear 3M plastic. We also donated $750 twice from ConRail although IPS really didn’t want the money, nor ever said if it was used. When Manual H.S.shut down the auto shop, about 800 of the manuals “disappeared”. We also brought in shop supplies – penetrating oil, hydraulic jack lube, hand cleaner, safety goggles, other supplies that IPS couldn’t seem to get from Congress.If you want it done do it yourself.

  20. Pete from Baltimore says:

    I dont get to do much volunteering these days.Since my job keeps me busy 7 days a week. But from 2005 to 2010, i used to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, at least once a week, every Saturday.And sometimes also during the week[2009 was a slow year for my construction business. So i volunteered a lot that year[about 70 days]

    I myself liked our local Habitat For Humanity chapter, because it focused on fixing up whole blocks of abandoned rowhouses in Baltimore.So it wasnt just about helping someone get a home[although that aspect was important as well].It was also about fixing up various neighborhoods.Including some that were within a five minute walk from my house .

    Sadly, i could only volunteer a little in 2011.And not at all this year.But i have also tried to keep volunteering at my local City park. A volunteer group plants trees and helps maintain the park[which i often walk through every day to work.I live about 100 feet from the park]

    So if anyone here wants to help improve their city, may i recomend Habitat For Humanity. And one they also check to see if their local city park and/or public library has a “Friends of…..Park/Library” organisation. Many of the library volunteer organisations are made up of older women.So they often like having a younger man to carry books during the bi-yearly used book sales[to raise funds for the library]

    And in Baltimore, i never,ever, run out of trash to pick up .Whether its on my block, my neighborhood , or in the park. Not only does the trash look awful, but the used syringes on the ground can harm children .And the trash sends a message to drug dealers that they can openly sell drugs.Since the residents dont care about their streets.[the dealers also hide their drugs in the trash] Thats why i try my best to keep my block and neighborhood clean.

    It doesnt take too much effort on my part to spend 5-30 minutes a day to clean up my street

  21. Alan says:

    This is precisely the culture we are trying to cultivate on Neighborland

    We’re now live across the US, but we’ve been active in New Orleans for over a year. People share their ideas for improving their city, or their neighborhood. Usually there is a group of folks who are already working on it that you can get involved with. Other times, its time to start that side project from scratch. Turns out that its a lot less daunting when its clear others are doing it too.

  22. Miles Berkedge says:

    Sept 10,1976, Croatia Blew Up Grand Central which took a quarter century to repair

  23. Miriam says:

    Well, my blog is embarrassingly defunct (though I predict it’s decaying corpse will rise again) but that’s largely due to my preoccupation with producing FIGMENT Geelong (, the international debut of a large scale interactive arts event which will be March 23 -24 2013 in Geelong, Australia. FIGMENT started in NYC in 2007 and has spread across the country, but we are the first non-US city to take up this awesome event that hightlights, celebrates and inspires ever more ingenuity, creativity and collaborative expressions of ‘what else don’t I know?’.

    Check out to see if there is an event near you or to start one!

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