You and I all want to be good citizens. Many of us think we are good citizens too – we vote, we’re politically engaged, we participate in surveys, our social media feeds are full of active causes. But when was the last time you (or I) actually actively participated in a local decision about our neighbourhood or community outside of formal voting? For most of us, its rare.
The reasons for this are complex.
Its not because we don’t care (we do).
And its not because the issues don’t matter (they do).
It is perhaps the opportunities to participate, to co-create neighbourhoods, are limited, or exclusive, or time-consuming, or hard to access. Surveys, common observation and the content of the media all show that many or most of us are losing the desire, the will and the means to be active citizens.
This has consequences for cities and neighbourhoods. When we don’t know how to participate in local democracy, its easy to succumb to a level of public indifference.
It starts with the small decisions – the height of buildings or the types of activities that are planned for a local park. This public indifference then starts to influence the bigger decisions – how our local taxes are spent, that 20 story building being built next door to you (which you now hate).
And then global events. Trump. Brexit. These campaigns have been, in part, enabled through a level of public indifference towards the bigger issues. It is a time of growing global unrest where we need strong and inclusive communities. When our local communities are strong, we are more able to exercise democracy, to organise, to withstand change, to resist.
Active citizenship is critical for urban resilience. Its critical for placemaking. Without a clear voice from local communities, we risk creating cities that are driven by policies that don’t understand or acknowledge local intelligence. This results in places that are not inclusive, that might prioritise infrastructure and technology, but lack culture, equity, diversity – and everything that makes places authentic.
Active Citizenship Perspectives via Y-Active
Active citizenship is often talked about in policy terms, with regards to participating in local democracy. This is important. But it equally extends to local community organising, to shaping local places or simple activities like getting to know your neighbours.
In 2017, we need active citizens more than ever, and it starts at home. We are more able to build the type of society that we want to see, if we play an active part in shaping it.
Here are some examples to pursue this year:
Walk, don’t Drive
Walking is one of the simplest ways to cultivate community. Its hard to get to know people when driving past at 40km, but walking past is humans scale.
The benefits of volunteering are enormous, including making us happier, healthier and more connected. It can even lower heart disease! One of the key benefits is local ownership. When you put time into something, you buy-into the project, idea, cause or initiative leaving you more engaged and involved. This is easy to say in theory, harder to fit volunteering into your week in practice. But a recent Harvard Business Review report shows that people who volunteer feel like they have more time than those who don’t.
Get to know your neighbours
Get beyond the filter bubble and get to know people from different beliefs and perspectives to learn from and share with each other. Recent research shows that one in three Australians don’t trust their neighbours. Its not that two thirds of people are not trustworthy, of course. This perception of distrust starts from a lack of local of relationship and understanding. Our lack of local knowledge then fuels our indifference.
Get involved in local democracy
Be a conscious citizen. The decisions made about our local neighbourhoods, and local tax expenditure affect us. Whether its building heights or local services, we have lots of opportunities make our voice heard through our local council. Local participation helps build a citizen culture that brings enormous benefits for democracy.
Plan a local activity or event
Street parties and local events are a great way to get to know your neighbours. (If you can get around the permitting process). Not sure how? See what other citizens like you would recommend through these resources from The Neighbourhood Project.
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