on developing engagement outside the university

Posted by on Oct 4, 2009 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | 2 Comments

A conversation I had at IgniteLansing last week got me thinking about an interesting application of the method of Engagement Scholarship that I learned all about at the National Outreach Scholarship Conference. I was talking with Steve Purchase (@stevepurchase), who mentioned to me that he was going to start working for one of the local developers on how to make his buildings more green. We talked a little bit about how developers might also consider understanding the cultural heritage of the buildings or areas which they are developing. This could be beneficial for a number of reasons: your new residents would move to town understanding the historical significance of a building or place, the local community may learn more about the space, and so on. I’m certain that a good deal of this does happen, but the more explicit, I think, the better. Certainly, it would be a good PR move, considering the ability to say, “hey, we’re preserving this structure that has meant so much to this town” and so on.

The Outreach conference, however, began to expand my thinking on the amount of impact a developer could have on the community they inhabit. What if, when a developer gets plans to renovate a new building, they approach the local community and ask what it is that they could do to make the community better? The developer has an enormous resource at hand: space. They are developing a building. They have purchased land. What if the community is in need of a community center, or a place where neighborhood meetings could be held, small classes taught, or a day care, or a small library with free internet access and computers? Certainly their are numerous logistical issues, but it seems that this could be a win-win scenario for one that could be a little hairy. How often do we hear about the developers who move into a town, alienate the community, and bring in upper class residents who don’t know the community, and don’t seem to care?

I should be more explicit when I discuss “community”. By community I don’t mean the local government, or the big business downtown. I mean the people who live in the homes next to the building or space that is being developed. This is an exercise in trusting them to tell you what could make their lives better; if government or businesses would like to pitch in, great. But this is about working on equal ground with the community. This isn’t charity, it’s a partnership.

This would be a chance for the developers to make a positive impact on the community to not only future residents but those already living there. It would show the new residents or businesses that this is what people who work or live here do: treat the community with dignity and respect, and work with them, not against them. Instead of moving in a new community, they are integrating new people into an already existing community. And, of course, it would give the community a new and positive space for them to prosper. I’m not suggesting that some developers don’t bring positive things to communities. There is little doubt that the work that has happened in Lansing has been greatly beneficial. I just hope that even more can be done, and that community engagement might be the way to do it.

What are your thoughts? I am no business man, I am an archaeologist, so I have no clue if this would be doable. I can imagine there must be some sort of tax write off, though….

  • Steve

    Nice Article. Speaking as a complete neophyte in this realm, it appears at least like this sort of thing is starting to catch. I live in the Motor Wheel Lofts downtown Lansing. The adjacent building houses the Lansing PD North Precinct (as a tenant) and includes a gym that is often open to the public for basketball and is the home to a basketball camp for Lansing neighborhood kids.

    In a way, I think development can parallel the evolution of social media. Early examples (myspace, facebook) were about connecting to people, but really in the context of self promotion. At its best Twitter, and now Facebook) is about fostering a conversation. Hopefully this conversation is productive.

    Developers always have had to connect with a community in as much as required to get a project permitted and off the ground. The next evolutionary step would be to sincerely engage (and this is not to say it doesn’t happen already) w intriguing ith a community in a two-way conversation that produces value for the project and the community. Might not always be possible, but the possibility is intriguing.

  • Steve

    Nice Article. Speaking as a complete neophyte in this realm, it appears at least like this sort of thing is starting to catch. I live in the Motor Wheel Lofts downtown Lansing. The adjacent building houses the Lansing PD North Precinct (as a tenant) and includes a gym that is often open to the public for basketball and is the home to a basketball camp for Lansing neighborhood kids.

    In a way, I think development can parallel the evolution of social media. Early examples (myspace, facebook) were about connecting to people, but really in the context of self promotion. At its best Twitter, and now Facebook) is about fostering a conversation. Hopefully this conversation is productive.

    Developers always have had to connect with a community in as much as required to get a project permitted and off the ground. The next evolutionary step would be to sincerely engage (and this is not to say it doesn’t happen already) w intriguing ith a community in a two-way conversation that produces value for the project and the community. Might not always be possible, but the possibility is intriguing.