Are we Hungry for Thriving Communities?

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Members of the Holla, Neighbor! Block Watch in Pittsburgh loading up mulch for a beautification project

In her memoir, Hunger, Roxane Gay writes of romantic relationships, “…it’s a shame that the measure is what is not so bad instead of what is thriving and good.” That insight caught my attention because it’s true for so many people. No doubt, we all have friends or family members who stay in relationships that “aren’t so bad.” Honestly, I’ve been there myself. It’s what we call settling. Or perhaps not realizing we can expect more.

But the other thing that speaks to me about Gay’s observation is that it’s true at the community level as well. Too many communities—too many residents—accept what is not so bad rather than demanding and working for what is thriving and good.

In my work, I talk about trails as contributing to vibrant, thriving communities. Even the footer of my website mentions my commitment to thriving places. But it is so easy for communities (trail towns or otherwise) to accept “good enough.” I see it all the time. Sometimes we don’t even notice the slide from vibrancy to not so bad (and then, sometimes, to unacceptable). Those of you in the community development field in Pittsburgh remember Aggie Brose. Aggie co-founded the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation in 1975.

I remember hearing Aggie talk in the early 2000s about how we tend not to notice the decline of our physical spaces because it happens so gradually. She used the example of a grocery store’s neon sign. You see the sign every day and one day a letter is burned out and a month later maybe another and you don’t even notice. The same is true of litter accumulation. When we’re moving through a space on a daily basis sometimes we stop seeing the details, especially if we’re driving. That’s why so many communities do self-assessments and are encouraged to try to see their town through the eyes of a first-time visitor. Better yet, they can have non-residents participate with fresh eyes! In Kentucky, a part of the trail town designation process is having a group of first time visitors visit and share their impressions.

Getting back to the idea of thriving versus “not so bad,” we deserve thriving communities and we have to work for them. Over the last year or so, I’ve been working alongside some neighbors to establish a block watch. Unlike some block watches that have an eye on crime, we are looking at beautification and community building. Our work together started with an unsightly rail wall that was overtaken by invasive plants, litter, and a 100-foot line of sagging caution tape, put up by a nearby property owner to deter parking.

Alone, we tolerated the state of the wall. Maybe some people didn’t even take notice to it. But once we started talking we were on to solutions. What stands out to me about that situation is that we gathered as neighbors and acknowledged that we deserved more. We deserved (and are working toward) a thriving place. I hope that your community is, too!