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Mini-Me (the little guy pictured above) never understood the waves of economic, social, and cultural change that were integral to his childhood community, but understanding them became a personal and professional challenge that has lasted a lifetime.
I came to believe that the better we know and understand our communities, the better we will be able to defend them and effectively envision what we would like them to become.
Much of my subsequent placemaking efforts have involved what has become known as community action research: engaging communities in asking and answering their own questions with a view toward empowering them to act on their new knowledge. To that end, I worked with neighborhood revitalization efforts in my hometown of St. Louis for about fifteen years and then for another fifteen years with small towns in Minnesota through a volunteer design organization (still alive and well) called the Minnesota Design Team.
Why bother with community action research?
Just like uncovering the archaeology of our childhood can free us to discover and enjoy hidden dimensions of ourselves, uncovering the natural and cultural heritage of our communities can help us uncover overlooked and rewarding resources.
Back home again in Missouri, I participated in the Governor’s DREAM Initiative to help Missourians envision their own Main Street revitalization as well as the Canton visioning process that helped an entire community create a shared vision for the future. Serious community action research greatly informed these efforts.
You and your community have a tremendous resource for community action research in the new Community Commons website and resource database developed by my friend and colleague Dr. Chris Fulcher, co-director of the Center for Applied Research and Environmental Systems (CARES) at the College of Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources at the University of Missouri.
I strongly encourage you to explore the Community Commons website, and learn how you can use it in true Show-Me style to answer your community’s key questions.
Landscape architect Randy Hester helped a North Carolina fishing community to examine throwaway ‘fish-heads’ as natural capital for new businesses and industry, while the Minnesota Design Team helped tiny Embarrass, Minnesota, begin to value and build upon the old Finnish farmsteads scattered throughout their depressed mining town to foster renewal in tourism and the arts.
What are your fish-heads and farmsteads?