Closer groceries and cafes make us better citizens?

Amenity Proximity and Social Goods

This spring, the American Enterprise Institute put out research looking at the importance of living in proximity to what they describe as “neighborhood amenities”. These include cafes, grocery stores, restaurants, parks, libraries, gyms and entertainment venues (think everything from bowling to movie theatres). With a rule of a 15 minute ride from these items being close, they made three groups: high, middle and low amenity proximity.

Their finding: folks in America living in high amenity proximity areas (these can be urban or rural) are more trusting, less lonely, believe their community is great and safe, more interested in their neighborhood happenings, chat with neighbours, etc.

More to the point, they found this is true controlling for an individual’s social class, education, gender, race, political ideology and community type.

This seems pretty intuitive, though it doesn’t say much about the conditions that may cause high amenity proximity into being. Certainly amenity access can be symptomatic of social and civic conditions that encourage inclusion and feelings of community.

But even then, an analysis at the individual level doesn’t speak to neighborhood effect. This may say that individuals experiencing low socio-economic inclusion can feel differently when they’re in a highly active neighborhood that has strong resource support, individuals and families with strong roots and optimism about the future of the area, and responsive institutions and civil organizations. But how might a low inclusion, high-amenity neighborhood fare?

What this made me think more about are the mechanisms by which amenities are driven, (for example, gentrification or on the other hand, strong institutional investment), and how might those mechanisms and systems that drive amenity dispersement be underlying drivers of inclusion and exclusion. Can government service intervention still fail, and could gentrification possibly succeed in generating positive social outcomes for a broader swathe of our society?

  1. This feature from the National Recreation and Park Association (“Place-Based Design and Civic Health”) could be read as an argument for how the nature of and act of developing a riverfront park in Detroit is an actual driver for civic health, and not just an indicator.

  2. In a similar yet different vein, this Joseph Rowntree report (“The Social Value of Public Spaces”) argues that yes, public spaces can promote social inclusion, but this definition of local public space should and could include street markets and vendors, car boot sales etc as opposed to a predominant focus on metropolitan urban renaissance projects.

  3. Finally, this paper on neighborhood income and facility maintenance raises the point that while, yes, facilities and community center amenities may be present in a number of neighborhoods, their maintenance and functional accessibility is heavily moderated by the neighborhood’s income leve.

  • What’s the ladder theory of civic engagement? What might it mean, how is it now popularly understood, what are its potential strengths and what are its pitfalls as a model for understanding individuals and their communities? Expect a post from Farrah touching on this … coming next week!

  • Thoughts on electioneering, current battles and challenges in our approach to electoral inclusion.

  • Expanding our thinking around non-citizen civic engagement to other groups and civil society organizations.What’s the ladder theory of civic engagement? What might it mean, how is it now popularly understood, what are its potential strengths and what are its pitfalls as a model for understanding individuals and their communities? Expect a post from Farrah touching on this.

  • Thoughts on electioneering, current battles and challenges in our approach to electoral inclusion.

  • Expanding our thinking around non-citizen civic engagement to other groups and civil society organizations.

If you think of feedback, suggestions, or people we should meet, please get in touch! You can email us at: 1stpersonprojects@thedifferenceengine.co

First Person Projects: Back from the Break

Well, it has been a wonderful hiatus for us all, and we’re coming back at you this summer/fall that much more refreshed and engaged for it.

As much of a break as it has been, we also feel that much more affirmed in the importance of the work ahead. Recent and continued developments in America and globally on voting rights, citizenship, protest and engagement, constantly have been bringing us back to questions around many of the mental models and systems at play in our approach to and understanding of these issues. So while there was some unplugging, didn’t really manage to let any of this go!

What to expect moving forward from us? We’ve had a lot of good feedback on some of our analysis pieces and the analogous research, food for thought, posts. So we’ll be doing more of that. And continue to share what we’re learning and how we’re making sense of it.

Here’s a little roughly-formed bit to close a pre-hiatus loop on a discussion around savings and political engagement, and thank you for staying engaged with us!

One all too common feeling about savings, and it turns out, systemic social challenges, is that it can feel paralyzing. Many folks who talked about saving, felt that their situation was so dire, and so impossible that barring a lottery ticket and/or an incredible series of raises, they weren’t in a position to take on their financial situation. So acutely did they feel it that the act of doing a little, whatever piecemeal step it was, just makes the problem feel that much more insurmountable. One of the striking things here was this way by which small bits of progress made goals feel that much more distant. So what might be seen as incrementalism is really a disheartening and demotivating experience.

Conversely another group, felt that while before they felt they needed more of their life in order to begin savings, described that barrier as wholly self-imposed. That if they knew then what they knew now, they could have been in a better situation. The best version of this is quite motivating, but another is also possible; a frustration at now being limited to only so much because of immutable past error and missed opportunity.

To me, these modes ask if it may be worth considering them a bit in terms of what we believe is possible and what we believe is within our reach. And maybe to map them onto different kinds of acts altogether. If I had some notion of wanting to improve the park in the neighbourhood I’m in, I might find it impossible and paralyzingly to try and take on the municipal bureaucracies and organizations that seem built to frustrate and irritate any good intention. But I might find later that picking up a piece of trash or two, and then meeting the lady who encourages me to join her community garden was much more fulfilling and productive. And I’ll still rue my wasted days of going to board meetings that went nowhere. Though I wonder, how does one wisely engage in civics?

  • What’s the ladder theory of civic engagement? What might it mean, how is it now popularly understood, what are its potential strengths and what are its pitfalls as a model for understanding individuals and their communities? Expect a post from Farrah touching on this.

  • Thoughts on electioneering, current battles and challenges in our approach to electoral inclusion.

  • Expanding our thinking around non-citizen civic engagement to other groups and civil society organizations.

If you think of feedback, suggestions, or people we should meet, please get in touch! You can email us at: 1stpersonprojects@thedifferenceengine.co

Trying to Save, Trying to Vote

Getting some positive responses on our analogous research, so we’re going to share more!

In this ongoing series of analogous research and alternative mental models for civic engagement, we developed a set of four characters that emerged through research on people and their savings behaviour and feelings towards savings. We’ll look at two this week and two next week.

No Clothes

One pattern that emerged was folks who self identified with saving and being financially responsible. But this group of people didn’t actually have much or any savings, any plans or structures to save, nor any practices. They certainly felt fine - (or remembered feeling fine until, all of a sudden, they weren’t) - and also didn’t feel comfortable identifying as someone who didn’t quite have their finances under control.

This kind of discrepant identity and behaviour is an interesting way at looking at some folks who are unlikely to vote. They don’t feel like they don’t belong, and they don’t believe that they ought to be grouped with individuals who don’t vote as a social category, but it also is the case that they don’t vote. Anecdotally, this kind of identity, and the ensuing shock when things go wrong, seems to capture a certain experience of some individuals with the 2016 election.

Against All Odds

Another character type were individuals and households, often facing incredible barriers to financial inclusion, who, nonetheless were doing their best to stay financially secure. A really inspiring bunch. But none of them felt great about themselves, or their determination in the face of adversity. Which was understandable, but also visibly draining.

Many voters still don’t feel like they’re doing a good enough job. When asked about their voting behaviour, they’ll sheepishly admit that they haven’t really followed a campaign, don’t know all the major policies of a particular candidate, and in general, feel like they’re “bad voters”. Not too dissimilar from an earlier discussion about “bad fans”. But it’s worth noting that for most people, voting is actually pretty hard. You’ve got to fight multiple times over, from being registered as a voter, staying on voter files, finding a polling station, scheduling it in a day … these may seem like duties, but they’re also quite hard! And some people do feel good about just voting, wearing their sticker proudly. But for others, it’s still tinged with guilt.

In both cases, we’re finding it interesting to look at these corresponding cases of self-presentation and identity. Their interactions with the culture and discourse of voting is pointing us to look at how similar challenges are being addressed in the financial sector. More on that to come…

  • A lit review of our findings around immigrant civic engagement.

  • Approaching the “Ladder of Participation” as referred to in civic engagement discourse. Where it works and how it doesn’t, and contextualizing our own research in terms of that model

  • Deep dives into some of our qualitative work done to date in analogous fields and around voting and not voting during the 2018 midterm elections

Thank you to all those who have already dropped a line and shared your thoughts. And thanks in advance to sharing this with anyone else you think might be interested.

If you think of feedback, suggestions, or people we should meet, please get in touch! You can email us at: 1stpersonprojects@thedifferenceengine.co

Where does the civic lie?

Exploring non-traditional civic participation of immigrants living in the US

Is civic participation on the decline? Or have we yet to understand and find the means to measure new forms of civic engagement? Check out this weeks piece providing some key observations from our pilot study looking into participation by New York City non-citizens.

In a recent research pilot of ours, we took a closer look at civic participation by non-citizens. Ruling out voting we were curious to understand the ways and degrees to which immigrants can get involved in the democratic process as academic research indicates a significant difference in participation based on an immigrant’s citizenship status,. Despite the fact that many activities are open to immigrants in the US. Here are some of our initial observations:

Transactional nature of community engagement

We noticed a strong transactional component in the way non-voting immigrants engaged with their communities. Feelings of being integrated and having a voice within one’s community usually started with local businesses: consumer activism (voting with your wallet), patronizing local businesses and building relationships with local business owners (such as being on a first-name basis), as well as being recognized and greeted by neighbors–– were often first cited as stories of fitting in locally. Enrolling in clubs or associations (such a community gardens or coops) was less frequently referenced.

Focus on the ‘hyperlocal’

Stories of community surfaced by the research often presented a strong focus on the ‘hyperlocal’. Participants defined ‘neighborhood’ as the group of houses forming a contiguous block, and the ability to form part of that ‘neighborhood’ was conditioned on whether or not one lived within that block. Spending time in local shared spaces and businesses (restaurants, coffee houses), building local routines (such as ‘jogging through the park’ or ‘running across a set of streets within the neighborhood’) were often cited by participants. For instance, we noted that participant stories never referenced one’s professional circle.

Identity as immigrant

There was a clear tension between ‘proving yourself as a local’ and pressures to fit in on the one hand–– possibly exacerbated by the felt ‘guilt’ from gentrifying–– vs. on the other hand needing to reaffirm one’s cultural heritage and engaging in practices and behaviors symbolizing attachment to country of origin. Besides stories of ‘hyperlocal’ mentioned above, participants referred to expat communities where they joined cultural activities from ‘back home’ (national holidays, specific foods, music and movies). This led us to identify a paradox–– or at least a fine line, when it comes to balancing one’s identity as a newcomer within a community and connection to roots within country of origin.

Rebuilding informal structures

While structures of support and ties to community often go unnoticed at home seeing how they usually evolve organically, stories surfaced by the research portrayed participants placing more effort and intentionality in rebuilding these informal social structures within their new communities (forming or joining a friends group, meeting new people, enrolling in classes or activities locally).

  • A lit review of our findings around immigrant civic engagement.

  • Approaching the “Ladder of Participation” as referred to in civic engagement discourse. Where it works and how it doesn’t, and contextualizing our own research in terms of that model

  • Deep dives into some of our qualitative work done to date in analogous fields and around voting and not voting during the 2018 midterm elections

Thank you to all those who have already dropped a line and shared your thoughts. And thanks in advance to sharing this with anyone else you think might be interested.

If you think of feedback, suggestions, or people we should meet, please get in touch! You can email us at: 1stpersonprojects@thedifferenceengine.co

Becoming a Sports Fan and Being a Voter

As we mentioned last week, Farrah has written this analysis of the paper here: Lessons (and Questions) from the Women’s March. Check it out and let us know what you think!

Continuing a bit on a previous mail out on analogous research, another area we spent some time studying was sports fandom as it related to how people think about voting.

A couple highlights came up from how people think about sports and fandom. The first is around family and place. Sports fandom is often something that has a personal familial connection: I started watching this sport with my (usually) father, and it’s a way to stay connected with him. Or: I follow the local teams and when the city is all cheering for them, it’s a fun and important way to talk with and connect with others around me… This latter led to some amusing stories of faked fandom - the learning about a sport in order to keep a conversation going during a playoff run or World Cup event, or tolerating it at the bar in order to go out with everyone.

A second element coming from this is a sense of tiers of fandom. There are levels of fandom, indicated from being a ‘bandwagon fan’ to a die hard, and ways by which people elaborate and authenticate their fandom. Some even say “I’m not a real fan” - typically because of a belief that to be a fan means to be a die hard. My favourite example of this was someone who watched basketball, primarily a single team, knew many of the players’ names, knew of past playoff runs, but didn’t identify as a “real fan” because they both hadn’t been to a live game, and didn’t own any memoribilia, and hadn’t followed them much the few months.

This actually mapped really well to how many people talked about their experience of voting. Many voters interviewed, or individuals who identified as voters interviewed, talked about not being “good voters”. They voted, but didn’t know all the candidates, voted, but didn’t know the major policies, or just hadn’t ‘followed much of this past election’. And they talked about this bashfully and with a bit of shame, as if they had really failed their democratic duty because they hadn’t spent more time researching and following the election. In one case, someone said with shame that yes, but they hadn’t donated or volunteered at all this past campaign.

Sports fandom can in some cases unfortunately be quite toxic and inhospitable. Inclusion can become something that has to be proven, and Our discussions around voting have an unfortunate parallel. We take cues in both cases from a small minority of participants for what constitutes “good” participation. When, in truth, casual fans are important for sports, and showing up to vote is the biggest part of the challenge.

This doesn’t just stop with voting. An example to concretize this comes from some research cited by Lucy Bernholz at Stanford, when, looking at Americans who participated in a rally, speech or protest. 20% of Americans did so in the past couple years, and of that 20%, 80% of those folks identified as a “non-activist”. Certainly it’s a bit of a stretch for someone who attends a protest to immediately identify as an activist, but maybe that’s part of the problem. Part of the beauty of sports fandom is its capacity for inclusion and identification … certainly not all of the million plus folks who went to the Toronto Raptors championship parade were “true fans” but also, they all can and could identify as fans through that act. Missing watching a game doesn’t make them less of a fan, nor does not seeing a game live, but those are experiences that, as part of being a fan, become more valuable and cherished. You can go to a game and become a fan, or become a fan and then go to a game. How can civic engagement map onto or even follow a similar model?

Expect a longer post at some point on all of this, but just something to think about!

  • Work on how we understand civic engagement by immigrants. A backgrounder, as well as some analysis from our pilot study in the area looking at participation by New York City non-citizens.

  • Approaching the “Ladder of Participation” as referred to in civic engagement discourse. Where it works and how it doesn’t, and contextualizing our own research in terms of that model

  • Deep dives into some of our qualitative work done to date in analogous fields and around voting and not voting during the 2018 midterm elections

Thank you to all those who have already dropped a line and shared your thoughts. And thanks in advance to sharing this with anyone else you think might be interested.

If you think of feedback, suggestions, or people we should meet, please get in touch! You can email us at: 1stpersonprojects@thedifferenceengine.co

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