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Start with the Petunias: A Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper Approach to Community Action

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar:

You’ve just finished a great community design or planning process. Hundreds of people participated, you came up with dozens of brilliant ideas for fixing your Main Street or revitalizing a run-down park, you drew up spiffy designs, and everyone is jazzed.

There’s just one problem: you don’t have the money to do much of anything. And your volunteers are tired. Oh, and you don’t even really know what to do first. (Make that three problems.)

We get it. You’re not alone. So where do you start? With the petunias.

Welcome to the school of Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper community action (“LQC”). When you’re just starting to implement designs and projects you need to build momentum, earn some quick wins, and make the most of every single dollar and volunteer hour. That means picking some ridiculously easy, cheap, and non-controversial projects that you can get done immediately and that will help build support for something bigger.

“Many great plans get bogged down because they are too big, too expensive, and simply take too long to happen,” writes the Project for Public Spaces (PPS). “Meanwhile the high cost of missed opportunities for economic development – and public life – continue to add up.”

Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper thinking and action can change all of that.

Here’s how it works: Forget trying to raise five-, six-, or seven-figure sums to implement all of your streetscape improvements right away. Instead, go spend $15 at a garden center, grab a helper, and transform one weedy corner with some new planter boxes. Once people see what a difference that can make, it won’t be hard to get $100 bucks and enough volunteers to create a sidewalk café for a day, showcasing the potential of the space. And when people see how cool that is, it won’t be long until you have $1,000 and to buy some tables and chairs and create a pop-up pedestrian plaza. And if that works? Then you think about shelling out more money and making it permanent.

Fun, right? But more than just fun, LQC is actually cutting-edge strategy. By choosing the right actions first, and testing things in an experimental and incremental way, you can have a surprisingly large impact while saving resources and building support for longer-term actions. LQC lets you hone in on the actions that will actually work the best for a place and the people who use it. And it lets you actually make places livelier, prettier and more functional fast – long before you could accomplish traditional big-budget projects.

On the December CommunityMatters conference call, in partnership with the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, you’ll learn about the LQC model and how to apply it in your town.

PPS recommends a three-phase process:

  1. Start with amenities (like seating or gardens) and public art, which can quickly transform a space and encourage people to return.
  2. Then add events and “interventions” (such as temporary bike lanes or street closures) that can help test design solutions before fully implementing them.
  3. Finally, use “light development” (adaptive reuse, temporary structures, and building facelifts) to make changes quickly and relatively inexpensively. 

But, there are somewhat messier stories from real communities that have moved from ideas to action.

Take Elkhorn City, Kentucky. Tim Belcher, a local attorney and President of the Elkhorn City Area Heritage Trust, has helped bring two Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design workshops to this town of just over 1,000 people. Elkhorn City wanted to find ways to increase tourism and economic development, and they focused on two of their biggest assets: whitewater paddling (they are located on the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River) and theater (they are home to the renowned Artists Collaborative Theatre). The community honed in on key action steps, experimented with small programs and events to build momentum, and leveraged that early work to attract more funding and complete more projects than many cities 50 times their size.

Still not sure how your community’s long-term plans can be transformed into a quick-and-dirty to-do list? Hundreds of other communities have paved the way, and their ideas are there for the taking. Start with "Spontaneous Interventions”, an exhibit at the recent Venice Biennale. Brendan Crain, Communications Manager at the Project for Public Spaces, was a member of the curatorial team for that project and will join us on the line to share LQC lessons and ideas from around the world. You can also get great ideas and advice from the Tactical Urbanism guides (Volumes 1 and 2). 

So go ahead. Put that plan back on the shelf (for the time being) and just go buy some petunias. Read up on Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper community action at the Project for Public Spaces. Join us on December 12 to learn how to make your community stronger in a flash. Register now here!

Think you have this LQC approach in the bag? This call is for you budding experts, too!  Tell us about your Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper success when you register for the call. We'll ask a few people to share their story on the line!

This call is the first in a three-part series co-hosted by CommunityMatters and the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD). The series is designed to help any community move from a design or planning process into taking action.  

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