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Culture

5 Ways to Engage Your City 

by Jes Howen McBride

February 26, 2015

A friend recently asked me what she could do to “engage” her city, to become familiar with the political pulse. Thanks to mass media, it’s easy to connect to popular culture, social circles, and global causes, but sometimes it’s harder to “dig where you stand” and engage in local government where you actually live. Our built environment, set in concrete and steel, evokes a false sense of permanence, but cities are changeable! And they change by people getting connected, speaking up, and telling decision-makers what they want. You don’t need to be super political or rich or influential; sometimes you just need a problem to solve.

Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms is a great example of this principal. I first learned about Tara through researching the recent history of urban agriculture in Los Angeles. Her story is at the center of a wave of changes that have happened in the past decade for urban farming in L.A. However, she didn’t set out to be an activist. She was simply working hard at a craft that she loved, encountered a problem, and realized that she could change her city. And she did.

Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms. Photo Courtesy Silver Lake Farms.

It was the late 2000s and Los Angeles residents were breaking all sorts of laws, from composting to rescuing bees to gardening in the sidewalk, just to mention some of the more heinous acts. Tara’s farm also had been cited for growing organic flowers on her property with the intent to sell them off-site. Though relatively small-scale, this “commercial” activity was illegal according to the zoning code.

Instead of accepting the nonsensical situation, Tara tilted her lance at the windmill of Los Angeles City Hall and charged. Fortunately, she did not have to charge alone. She met up with like-minded people and formed the Urban Farming Advocates. Armed with an identity, a website, and growing ranks of supporters, Tara and the agricultural community convinced city council to pass the Food and Flowers Freedom Act, changing city law so that folks could grow produce on their land to sell in the community.

I love this story of community change, mirrored in countless large and small successes across the globe, because it starts with people just doing what they are passionate about, no political agenda, no quest for fame. They come up against a barrier and, instead of tolerating the status quo, they envision a better social, physical, or political environment and lean in. It may or may not be you who leads the initial charge, but if we are engaged in the happenings of our city, we can all be part of the supporting ranks of local issues and, together, influence the changing tide in our communities.

Starting from scratch can be challenging, especially if you are new to a city. Originally born in Los Angeles, Tara grew up in Europe and returned to L.A. as an adult. She relates to the overwhelming feeling of being new in an enormous city. “I had no idea I could make change; I had no idea of my own power,” she said of her former self. Fortunately for the urban farming community, Tara and her fellow advocates never let that stop them.

So, if you've already abandoned your New Year’s resolutions, or have mastered them and are looking for a new challenge, here are five simple ways that you can engage your city this year:

Read local news

This sounds obvious, but it’s probably the most important. Through weeklies, blogs, public radio, and the Los Angeles Times, the Food and Flowers Freedom Act was significantly advanced by letting fellow residents know about the existing problems, possible solutions, and public events. Maintain a well-balanced media diet, using larger syndicates to research national and world news and local sources to keep your finger on the pulse of your city.

Follow city representatives and agencies on social media

Politicians, public agencies, and a surprising number of city departments often attempt to use some combination of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I mean, if the Bureau of Street Services is oversharing, definitely unfollow. But seriously, these individuals and institutions want the public to know what’s going on and are often the first to share local news before it hits the media outlets. It’s also an easy way to find like-minded neighbors and groups via their Facebook comments, retweets, and pins. 

Put your local representative on speed dial

Whether or not you voted in the last election, elected officials are interested in what you have to say. As Tara puts it, “City Hall is there to work for us!” She recommends seeing yourself as a stakeholder; you don’t have to be a home- or business-owner to have a stake in the future of your city. Make a recurring appointment in your calendar to give your representative a call. Weigh in about an issue or idea you are currently pondering, like "thanks for putting in that bike lane" or “I strongly oppose the caffeine tax that was proposed last week.” If you are following local media or your representative’s Twitter account, you’ll definitely have topics to talk about.

Get involved in a community organization.

One great thing about living around other humans is that we are all obsessed with different things. As one person, you don’t have to get involved in every issue in order to contribute to your city. If you are not already involved with a local organization, pick an issue you find interesting (i.e. biking, urban agriculture, homelessness) and find a group of people who are doing things about it. Read their news, check out their projects, volunteer, donate, whatever level you can manage. Choosing an organization will also help you keep apprised of what local government is doing to address the relevant issues, which will further guide you about what to ask your representatives for.

Show up at a public meeting

You actually have to get off the couch for this one. Public meetings are, for better or worse, an integral part of local government in the United States. Much of the time they consist of an unrepresentative group of residents ranting about why change is bad. We need positive voices to speak up for good changes. It’s a unique opportunity to address city officials and representatives face to face, and, if you’ve been doing your homework on the issues, your voice will be heard.

In Palm Springs, California, the words above the entrance to City Hall read “The people are the city.” Not the laws, not the bureaucracy, the people. Those words should be written above every City Hall, not just to remind the representatives and officials who they work for, but to remind all city residents of the power they hold. You may be like Tara, identifying a problem and leading the charge to change it. Or you may be like her advocates, moved by the issue and willing to join in support. Either way, being engaged in your city is essential to changing it. 

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5 Ways to Engage Your City