Exploring the streets for opportunities and delights

“Overall, I was surprised by how much I liked this. At first, I was skeptical, one, because my dad signed me up for this without asking. But I gave it a try and ended up liking it. It gave me a new perspective on the community that never would have seen. Thank you!”

Norte designed and launched its inaugural “Explore Your Neighborhood, Shape Your Community” course this fall. The program created opportunities for teens to learn more about community design and infrastructure, and the way these elements impact our experience of the community. This will, we trust, help them engage and learn how they can affect positive change.

The foundation of this course is a belief that when we explore our communities with curiosity, careful attention, and intention, undoubtedly, we begin to see things that we haven’t noticed. We then start to ask questions. What is this? Why is it here? How does it impact my experience of this place? Ultimately, as we continue to explore, we begin to see both what we like and appreciate, and how we might make improvements. The process becomes part of our own story and the story of our community and our role in shaping it.

For six Sundays, 24 students aged 13-18 gathered for 90-minute meetups. These meetups introduced them to the built environment, planning concepts, mobility challenges, and the role citizen advocates play in shaping solutions to community issues. In the end, students identified opportunities they’d like to champion and developed an action plan for change.

“The strength of the Explore Academy is to show teenagers that they are part of the community, have a voice, and can help to make it better through advocating and taking action on something that they strongly believe.“

The meetups incorporated six themes aimed at introducing the students to tools and ideas to help them engage with and see the neighborhood. On most Sundays, students spent half of the session exploring the surrounding area by foot or by bus, before returning to discuss observations and ideas. The two most popular meetups, week three and week five, incorporated longer student-led walks. In these walks, students proved proficient in applying concepts introduced in previous meetups. For example, they quickly learned to empathize with others when evaluating a space or a piece of infrastructure that is an obstacle or creates isolation.

The most popular exercise was the “Frame It” task from Meetup 3, The Experienced Neighborhood. The students were sent (in the pouring rain!) by bus to one of the more challenging spots in Traverse City and were asked to walk back. They were instructed to document the positives and opportunities for improvement with photos, using a blue frame to frame the former and orange for the latter. “Frame It” is a coding method adapted from a similar concept invented by landscape architect Isami Kinoshita in Toyko in his attempts to animate public life.

We trust that Explore Academy graduates will continue to pursue ways to impact their community positively. In the near term, students left with a plan of action on a specific opportunity identified during the program. Long-term, we hope that they took away a fundamental understanding that our communities are shaped by design. Each design element in our community represents a choice and value. We want them to understand that someone or someones made a decision. Because of this, another approach is always possible. Decisions can be influenced and can change.

Cities, neighborhoods, and communities are continually evolving. Our job at Norte is to help those who wish to shape them to understand those evolutions better. The skill to be developed is to observe one’s community by reflecting on personal experiences and those of others, researching the issue, then telling your story to shape the community. Done well, the impact will result in one’s values being represented in the community.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

– Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

“Explore Your Neighborhood, Shape your Community,” was made possible by a developmental micro-grant from League of Michigan Bicyclists. Norte developed the program over the summer of 2019 in partnership between Norte’s Advocacy program and Megan Olds of Norte Business Champion Parallel Solutions. We owe thanks to the support from TC West Senior High and TC Central High civics programs for offering the program as an extracurricular program. And, finally, thank you to the engaged and motivated students who made the program a success. We look forward to working with all of them in the coming years.

* The above quotes are from anonymous student evaluations