Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Pinpointing areas of change in cities for big impact

April 24, 2014, 8:51 a.m., Posted by Stephen Goldsmith

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Stephen Goldsmith is director of the Center for the Living City and an associate professor at the University of Utah. Through a partnership with Knight Foundation the center is publishing an English edition of “Urban Acupuncture,” a guide to help civic leaders tackle community challenges written by Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. Photo credit: Chelsea Gauthier.

Walking from the Bus Rapid Transit stop toward Jaime Lerner’s office a few blocks away last October we were struck by the civility of Curitiba’s streets.

One of Lerner’s many legacies is his attention to streets, their multiple uses, their democracy, and as urban activist Jane Jacobs described them, “the ballet of the sidewalks.” Our observations, magnified by contrast with the auto-dependent North American cities where my students live, were about to become part of our conversation with Lerner. Today, Lerner is an internationally renowned architect, working with a team of young practitioners in an office he refers to as “a clinic.” He consults on projects in cities worldwide, and 15 of my university students from multiple disciplines had been invited for coffee with him to talk about urban ecology. As we rounded the corner to his building, elegant as it was modest, we were about to have a transformative conversation.

Stepping into the boardroom dappled with light through walls of windows, we were at once reminded of Lerner’s love of design. Sculpture, paintings, furniture, books, a well-worn wooden conference table, the scale of the room, the smell of coffee, this room was now set as a stage for star-struck students to talk about the dramatic differences they observed on the streets of Curitiba. They had seen films about the city, but today there was a palpable sense of connection to Curitiba and its people. When Lerner walked into the room, his warm voice welcoming us as fellow workers, we began collecting wisdom and memories.

“Don’t,” insisted Lerner, “get stuck in your own bureaucracies.” Getting mired in the inertia of municipal planning practice was something he knew how to avoid, and his legendary transformation of Rua XV de Novembro (15th of November Street) is an iconic example. Lerner wanted to turn this auto-centric street into a people-centered place and, not wanting to wait for a lengthy study and design process to interfere with his experiment, ordered his public works department to close the street and pave it with cobblestones the following weekend. The street has been closed to automobiles ever since, and is a bustling place of commerce and culture. It is also an example of Lerner’s concept of “Urban Acupuncture,” which is the title of Lerner’s book being published this fall with support from Knight Foundation.

Learning Lab gathers ideas on promoting community engagement

April 23, 2014, 12:13 p.m., Posted by Carol Coletta

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Photo credit: Marvin Shaouni.

Our mission at Knight Foundation is to help people become informed and fully engaged in the lives of their communities so that democracy will thrive. 

But what does it mean to be fully engaged? Does it mean helping a neighbor?  Wearing the colors of your favorite local sports team? Attending a neighborhood festival or local arts event?  Volunteering for and donating to good causes? Staying current on local issues? Expressing your point of view on social media or in a letter to the editor? Voting in local elections?

It could mean all of that and more.

But for argument’s sake, we can likely agree that sure signs of full engagement in a community would include knowing that a majority of community members who are eligible to be citizens are citizens; who are eligible to vote are registered; cast a ballot in local elections and feel informed about their choices; and feel responsibility for the civic commons and express that in a practical way.

Unfortunately, we know that few communities attain this level of engagement. One sign is most telling: While voter turnout in presidential elections rose to 57.5 percent in the 2012 election, the typical turnout for recent mayoral elections in large U.S. cities is a mere 25.8 percent.  And the future doesn’t look particularly promising, with market research showing that today there is very little overlap between those who always vote in local elections and young, college-educated citizens.

What can be done to nudge behavior to encourage engagement?  Rather than the exception, how can robust acts of citizenship become the default behavior?