1. Involve the community and empower its ideas with experimental prototyping.

Tactical urbanism is a way of complementing city processes by rapidly testing, sharing, and scaling new citizen-sourced projects. Local participation is key to placemaking. By finding creative ways to generate concepts and buy-in, new projects, from public art installations to redesigned bus stops, can proceed with trust and end up giving more agency to the community. After Gray Area Foundation for the Arts moved into SF’s Tenderloin district, Executive Director and Founder Josette Melchor told us, “We realized the city wasn’t going to do anything to solve the street issues. In response, we developed the Market Street Prototyping, which invited the community to redesign the streets themselves.” A total of $25K was invested in 25 prototypes that were developed over 3-6 months and deployed through a weekend street closure permit. The street festival allowed 5,000 citizens to experience redesigned sidewalks, with everything from new concepts for street lighting to public urinals developed by artists. The festival led to Living Innovation Zones, a program where neighborhoods can apply to become testbeds for new ideas, which has spread to other cities.

2. Direct attention and energy to neglected public spaces.

Revitalized downtowns can draw a lot of attention, yet focused efforts in underserved areas are often overlooked, wasting the potential for a significant ripple effect on the community. For example, Alex Beltran from San Bernardino Generation Now told us about bringing in over 100 artists to paint murals in a local park (“some were graffiti artists from competing crews, but they worked together”). She said, “Many residents were shocked to see how the park was transformed, and where they once avoided it, now felt comfortable going there.” Generation Now also cleaned up an old abandoned building, formerly a water department, and with the help of local leaders, turned it into a community center drawing crowds to its affordable theater shows and art classes (Wine and Paint Night is a hit with young people).

Jeudy Mom, Director of the Compton Initiative, explained that beautifying his Compton neighborhood helped foster trust at a time of changing demographics (“from mostly black to mostly brown”). He noticed that the longtime homes of his elderly neighbors, their families having moved away, were falling into disrepair, and they had no one to help. “We organized thousands of volunteers from churches, schools, companies, and the community to paint homes, schools, churches, plant gardens and make other beautification efforts in Compton. Now, every quarter we have more than 1,500 volunteers, including students who make the trip to volunteer over spring break. Church and college groups from across the nation participate,” Jeudy said. “Working on this very intimate level, neighbors helping neighbors, has eased tensions.”

3. Connect the voices of progress and share stories of hope.

Philip Zelikow, the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia and an early expert on localism, told the Atlantic in 2016 that “There are a lot of more positive narratives out there – but they’re lonely, and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.”

Often, entrepreneurs and innovation centers have taken up the task. But more and more, traditional newspapers are finding a role to play, not only as localism’s natural storytellers, but as its new protagonists. Tony Berg, the publisher of The Kansas City Star, told us, “We now have to reshape our model and think, how can we put a journalist in a position to make a difference in this city?”

The Star has developed a Maker City section, which will connect entrepreneurs, inventors, makers, and civic-minded enterprises and foundations. They will profile “Maker of the Week,” local Maker Spaces, and entrepreneurs who create jobs, while also giving space for guest blogs. Furthermore, as Tony said, “We’ve been able to sit down with the communities in Kansas City and ask, what is our new role in reflecting community priorities and facilitating moving those priorities forward?” These co-creation sessions resulted in initiatives such as citizen science and the revamping of bus stations across the city, particularly in the area west of Troost (which has traditionally been ignored). The Star is just the first adopter of a vision that, through the McClatchy Company’s newspapers, is spreading to cities across America.

4. Gather the community and its resources (perhaps in a familiar place).

In the 21st century, the information and services that people rely on to thrive as citizens are rapidly changing, and they need a place to go to find it. Historically, libraries were places to be alone with a book – but they’re now hubs of public information and services of all kinds, becoming vibrant community centers.

John Szabo, City Librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library, told the story of finding new ways to serve unique local communities. LA libraries started with adult literacy, STEAM and other programs for kids, ESL courses, information about citizenship, and access to computers for job searches — all relevant topics for most residents. Then, they did a major outreach program to understand the special needs of each neighborhood that were not being met elsewhere. As a result, each library now provides a variety of specialized services that, depending on the location, can include citizenship classes, connecting the veteran community, hands-on help with resumes and interviewing, helping job seekers research companies, and online coursework towards high school graduation. These libraries are now informal places to host meetings on local issues. The Annenberg School’s Center on Communication Leadership & Policy Director Geoffrey Cowan, pointed out that just as newspapers are becoming virtual connection centers for civic reinvention, libraries are becoming important physical ones.

5. Everyone: run for office!

A powerful way to help shape local government is to become part of it. As the past year has underlined, there is a revival in local politics; people with no political experience are running for office and winning. We’ve seen that in their communities, Americans are ready for new ideas and new leaders.

A few years ago, Alex Beltran wouldn’t have dreamed of running for office in her hometown of San Bernardino. One of the oldest communities in California, home to a mixed-ethnic workingclass population that is majority LatinX and African American, San Bernardino was in a leadership crisis; the city declared bankruptcy in 2012. In 2013, a group of young adults founded Generation Now to fight for their city. “We came together and shared our ideas, but the council did not take them up,” Alex told us. “It was this situation, in addition to the many problems that our local government does not address, that gave me the courage to run for city council.”

Alex went door to door, talking to voters about the opportunity to build a more responsive local government. And she came about as close to winning as one can. 30 long days later it was determined that she lost the seat by eight votes. Eight votes: the importance of registering voters and getting them out to vote cannot be overstated. The California midterms saw similar races across the state – long waits before final results; winners flipping back and forth; and in many cases (e.g. Josh Harder in California’s Central Valley) the new upstart won by a narrow margin. So, everyone: run for office and tell your friends!

6. To kickstart economic development, connect your city’s strengths and build what it’s missing.

Our conversations identified three related requirements for effective local economic development:

  • Education that’s tightly aligned with industry needs
  • Places where people are inspired to work and learn together
  • A community that believes in positive change

In every city, the recipe is similar – but the ingredients will look different, and some might have to be made from scratch.

In Fresno, entrepreneur Jake Soberal who is the CEO and Co-Founder of Bitwise Industries saw a nascent tech industry – some startups, but no incubator where they could co-work and share ideas. Potential talent – the children of migrant farm workers who’d been told tech jobs weren’t possible for them – needed access to programming classes at a low cost, and a practical path to the workforce. The local community, with deep roots in agriculture and the self-image of a broken city, was mistrustful of shiny new ideas. So Jake created Bitwise, a 250,000 sq. ft. training and innovation center downtown that doesn’t represent a new Silicon Valley, but rather an improved Fresno. Bitwise operates in constant conversation with the community, putting tech offices next to nonprofits, and inviting kids and families to tour its facilities and watch performances in its theater space. In 5 years, Bitwise’s Geekwise Academy has graduated 3,500 students in Fresno that reflect the demographics of the community exactly. It builds connections with local industries – agriculture, health care, government – to discover what coding skills are needed and ensure its graduates succeed.

Larry Frank, President of Los Angeles Trade Technical College, told us a similar story of how in LA, they’re making rigorous workforce development classes available free of charge to residents who might not otherwise be able to afford such education, as a way of making sure that the talent capacity in the city is prepared for jobs of the future. This is, in turn, generating a new culture of hope and enthusiasm: “I would not underestimate the power of being able to say, “Community College is free,” Larry said.

7. Use interactive media to tell your city’s story in unexpected ways.

To reach the people in your community, they have to hear your message above the noise of national dysfunction. As Joseph Unger, Co-founder of Pigeon Hole Productions, a Virtual World Building and Creative Infrastructure Co., pointed out, “creating your own media channels is a powerful way to connect with others outside of the mainstream media.” With Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, and other apps, “we’re all capable of making our own CNN story every day… that is a form of pure power – creating your own audience and monetizing that value, and then using that value to create action.” Joseph has gone a step further with world building in video games, making virtual reality simulations of real cities that players can explore and enhance. The games are a low-risk way for the community to work together and test solutions, generating the trust that’s essential to making progress in the real world. Some of the best ideas to come out of these games are now being applied in real life.

8. Inspire action with data that pinpoints local issues.

The more focused and specific a problem is, the more actionable it becomes. Christina Altmayer, Vice President of Programs for First 5 Los Angeles, told us about learning this lesson when her organization was trying to mobilize support for investments in early childhood. She started collecting data on kindergarten readiness to help rally support for her goals, and she quickly realized that sharing the most specific statistics yielded the most direct results.

When she told people that that 50% of children in California weren’t ready for kindergarten, this figure was too broad; it wasn’t clear how anyone could make an impact. So she mapped the data to specific neighborhoods, which made local parents, school districts, and civic groups take interest. She went further by piecing out data that showed a correlation between kindergarten readiness and future property values and taxes, attracting the support of the business community. As a result, cities are now acting: Mission Viejo made it a policy that every child in the community gets a library card at birth, and Santa Ana decided to convene educators to improve investments in early childhood.

this project developed in collaboration with