Idle hands are the devils play things, so the saying goes. We know what this means for a person- nothing good comes from boredom, and like I regularly rant about- places are like people. Therefore the same thinking should be applied to our communities at large and allow us to understand how civic apathy takes hold. When a community ceases to progress and people can no longer find ways to get involved- apathy seeps into the cracks and takes hold of the idle resident. People are by default, civic-minded, but that resource is far from inexhaustible.
Residents want to care, residents try to care. Residents have an inherent interest in working to make the place they call home, better. Every year a certain percentage of residents will attempt to demonstrate their care for their community by trying to do something to improve it. This is a civic gift and an opportunity. The benevolent nature of the resident should be cultivated and and rewarded. This desire to make the community better should be fostered and rewarded. This is how we create fully engaged, proud and civic-minded residents.
Instead, so often we squander these opportunities. We tell people ‘it can’t be done’. We tell them, ‘that’s against the rules’, or tell them they have to wait. We tell them the commission will have to review that idea in 6 weeks to determine if it is possible. We all learned what “maybe” means from being kids. When you ask your parents to do something fun and they said “maybe”, you knew damn well you weren’t doing anything fun. When you ask the city for permission to do something and they say “maybe”, you know you aren’t getting permission.
The cliche about idle hands is spot on, because we all know it to be true. When we are busy, we stay focused, we feel productive, we have no time for trouble, we experience a sense of accomplishment. It takes effort to accomplish something, but we always feel better for it.
Residents want to make their city better, they want to see improvement, they want to feel like they can bring about change. What’s more rewarding than feeling like you’ve made your community a better place to live? People are community minded by nature and when given the opportunity, they will act in this fashion- but they have to be given the opportunity.
Humans don’t default to what is best, but to what is easiest. This is our nature. Going to the gym would be better, but watching Netflix is easier. Getting up early is better, but staying in bed is easier. Showing up to the latest council meeting is better, but scrolling through Twitter is easier. Just as we all must develop our own tactics to overcome this “easier” inclination, in order to improve, cities must do the same.
Just like watching Netflix and ordering Uber Eats, saying “no” is easier. It is easiest for local government to say “no” to whatever comes before them.
Resident – “We want to host a block party.”
City – “No.”
Developer – “We want to build multi-family housing.”
City – “No.”
Business owner – “We want to put tables and chairs on the sidewalk.”
City – “No.”
See how easy that is. It takes nearly no effort, and saying no doesn’t require any follow-up. But as I pointed out earlier, what is easy and what is best, are two very different things.
In each instance, saying yes, and doing the work required would have been better and would have improved the community. As mentioned above, civic-mindedness is not an inexhaustible resource. People will only try so hard before they give up. People will only be told “maybe” or “no” so many times before they take the hint. A municipality cannot foster civic engagement by constantly shouting, “You can’t get engaged here.”
Our cities need civic-mindedness. They need people that want to get involved and care enough to make them better. Our towns require people that want to see them progress and improve. You know what your town needs?
The block party champion – the social dragonfly that feels alive around other people and wants to bring everyone together as much as possible to strengthen the bonds of community.
The local developer – the builder that envisions something better. The person that knows our built environment shapes our actions and our thinking. The builder that wants to restore the beauty your town already has and start adding more places that can make people proud.
The entrepreneur – the business minded individual that sees every problem as an opportunity to improve peoples lives while making some money.
The designer – The free-thinker that understands numbers aren’t the answer to everything and that art and creativity have the ability to lift up people’s lives in a meaningful way.
You know what your town has? Each and every one of these people already. All of them live in your town right now, but they have been shut down, and told no, and ignored and put off. They are still in your town, but they have been beaten back by bureaucracy and feel unappreciated. They have sunk back into the recesses because they were jilted by their community.
“We don’t want help” is a terrible message to send. When cities say no to the local developer or the local artist, they are broadcasting “we don’t want YOUR help.” This isn’t the intention, but loud and clear, this is the message. The best way to foster civic apathy, is in rebuffing all the people that care enough to try and help, by saying “nah, we are good, we can do this without you.”
I am fortunate enough to work with incredible people, and on a Zoom call last month with Joe Borgstrom of Place + Main Advisors in Michigan, Ben Muldrow of Arnett Muldrow in South Carolina, and Chet Clem of Lyme Properties in New Hampshire, we came up with a plan to help combat this issue. Chet told the story of the shirt he wears when he attends local commission meetings and the shirt simply says, “damn it, do it!” And with that, an idea was born.
Action is the enemy of apathy just as idle hands are the devils workshop. We can’t plan our way out of apathy, we can’t fundraise our way out of community malaise. We aren’t going to economically develop and tourism our way out of civic idleness. There is only one way, and that is by fighting our way through it. We have to take action, we have to get involved, we have to put in the effort to accomplish something. Or to put it simpler, Damn it, Do it! We just have to do it.
Being community minded isn’t typically a career, it’s a passion, and passion- like a fire, needs a little fanning.
Downtown Happy Hour and Proud Places are launching Damn it, Do it Day! On June 9th, 2021, we are asking all of you to give back. Do something special for your hometown, whether or not you think it deserves it. A community relationship goes both ways, and you have to give to get. So on June 9th, we are all going to GET CIVIC!
It doesn’t matter how you chose to do it, but we are asking everyone to take action. Let’s see if each of you can’t be the catalyst in your community that helps beat back idleness. Let’s see if we can’t make a dent in civic apathy by showing people how great it feels to get involved. Remind them, that while Netflix and Facebook scrolling are easier, they can’t hold a candle to feeling a sense of accomplishment.
Do something- anything- to make your community better. Clean up trash on your walk, pick an empty lot and find some friends to help you clean it up, pull weeds on your Main Street, clean around City Hall, because it is your City Hall. Throw a block party, even if you aren’t allowed! Find a piece of legislation you want your city to adopt and meet a council person for coffee to discuss it. Mow an elderly person’s lawn in your neighborhood. Shop local. Post positive things on social media about your town. Doesn’t matter what you do, but on June 9th, Damn it, Do it!