EDITORIAL: the best GOOD Ideas for Cities
This past Tuesday, a bunch of smart folks got together to discuss three specific problems facing Richmond. Will any of their ideas become a reality? Or was it just another chance for Richmonders to get together and pat each other on the back for being so creative?
This past Tuesday, a bunch of smart folks gathered at the Virginia Historical Society to discuss three specific problems facing Richmond. It was all part of GOOD magazine’s GOOD Ideas for Cities program which travels about the nation setting up shop and pooling the collective smarts of local creatives to solve local problems.
GOOD partnered with the Capital Region Collaborative (a group in charge of identifying regional issues) to come up with three problems facing the Richmond area. They were:
Business and Development–“The James River is a critical resource for the region. The City of Richmond has recently announced a comprehensive plan to revitalize the riverfront in the city that includes parks, trails and community gathering places. With this plan in mind, how can we leverage the James River and Canal Walk as an economic driver that brings not only people, but dollars to the region?”
Culture and Tourism–“The Richmond Region is rich in history, the arts and entertainment opportunities, but tourists often pass us by when traveling along I-95 and I-64 on their way to other destinations. How can we make the gateways to our region more attractive and encourage travelers to exit the interstate and visit the Richmond Region?”
Education and Economy–“There are some vibrant elementary schools in the City of Richmond. However, middle schools can be another story. Some parents send their children to private schools starting in middle school and other parents stop showing up. The community is often more interested in volunteering in elementary schools or high schools. How can we keep the community involved with the goal of improving our city’s middle schools?”
About sixty people were parceled out into three groups, each tasked with tackling one of these problems. They had about four weeks to do so, after which the groups would present their findings to an audience made up of the public and (hopefully) some of the city’s decision makers. Everyone would walk away inspired and hopefully ready to get to work on some actionable solutions.
Some full disclosure here: not only was RVANews a media sponsor for this event, but I was a member of the Culture and Tourism team. A double whammy!
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Rather than go through and exhaustively list all of the ideas presented at Tuesday’s event, I thought I would highlight the ones that appealed to me the most. If you’d like to see a full list of the ideas you can check out this post on Richmond.com or visit GOOD’s website when they post the actual group presentations later this week.
Pop-up an RVA business
The first group was asked to think about bringing people and dollars to the Canal Walk and the riverfront. They decided that one of the obstacles to attracting actual humans to the river is the lack of businesses near the river. Easy to solve right? Just get more businesses down there!
But have you ever tried to actually start a business? It’s a morass of confusing terminology and a web of links to a trillion different city departments. Here’s the current page from the city designed to “help” you start your new business. This could be SO MUCH better!
The team suggested creating a very straightforward, easy to use resource (Pop-up RVA) that laid out the simplest and quickest path to getting your new business up and running. They suggested focusing on mobile and cart-based business, as those would be easier to “pop-up” down by the river.
Light Tape everywhere
The second group, my group, had a lot of ideas to improve the impression of Richmond people get as they zoom through the city on I95 (especially those travelers heading south coming from the north). One of the best ideas was to create public art installations using Light Tape.
What’s Light Tape? Oh, just the coolest stuff ever! Did you see the new Tron movie? Those super cool costumes were all made with Light Tape. And the best part about Light Tape (other than making stuff look like Tron), is that they are a Richmond-based company! Their office is right across the street from Movieland.
Imagine hiring an artist to create semi-permanent Light Tape installations under all of RVA’s I95 overpasses. That would be something that everyone coursing through the city (and it’s a lot of people that drive through Richmond every day) would remember and actually look forward to seeing–unlike the current viewscape, which I’d rather forget.
Why do we call them “middle” schools?
The third group was given the hardest problem: what do we do about Richmond’s middle schools? While the other two groups were kicking around fun ideas about the river and public art installations, this group had to wade through a controversial issue that’s twisted together with history, race, and class. I did not envy them.
But, one of their ideas was both clever and easy to implement. Let’s stop calling it middle school and call it junior high.
The message to students would change from “Hey kid, we’re putting you in this middle-ground holding tank until you grow up and head on to the big leagues of high school,” to “Hey kid, you are already growing up! We expect you to continue your progress as you gear up for the big leagues of high school.”
What kind of impact would this have? I have no idea. But I loved the change in message.
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Talk talk talk talk talk talk
A couple weeks ago, RVANews columnist Marc Cheatham wrote about the cultural renaissance Richmond is experiencing right now:
I take great pride in the city and the progress that it has made, particularly in the last 15 years, with the reduction in violent crime and a growing city population. I am truly excited about the renaissance of art and culture that is starting to take place this summer. Richmond has a real opportunity to rebrand itself as a hotspot for art, music, and culture.
I, like Marc, really do think that this is a special moment in time for Richmond. We need to take advantage of the momentum created by things like Art 180, g40, and the RVA Street Art Fest. We need to start implementing creative, diverse, and good ideas throughout the city.
So will any of the ideas shared on Tuesday become a reality? Or was it just another chance for Richmonders to get together and pat each other on the back for being so creative? I don’t know. I’ve heard some negative feedback from the event, but I’ve also heard of some people who were inspired to finally start their own projects.
And ultimately, that is how this GOOD event can be successful. Not by fixing middle schools in a handful of meetings, but by encouraging people to stop being complacent, stop complaining, and get involved. If you’ve got an idea you want to see become a reality DO IT. As Jesse Thorn said: make your thing!
Now is the time!
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When I lived in Va Beach I went to Plaza Junior High School. Which is now called Plaza Middle School.
Smart people, good people but creative people? Not sure about creative, because creatives try, do, experiment leading to success or failure. Regardless of your area of expertise, creativity is a verb, it’s doing. RVA groups study, ponder, brainstorm, talk and endlessly meet, but it stops when it comes to the doing. Doing may mean failure. Failure is success because then you know what not to do next time, or how to tweak that failure into success. Commissions, committees, special task forces and other groups, let loose and endorse doing not talking and studying. Every student of a problem at some point takes action. I KNOW it’s in us to do it.
I’m right on board with your call to action for people to make their ideas a reality. A few of us from the JamesRVA group are hoping to continue meeting to flesh out these ideas in a real tangible way. It can sometimes feel like Richmond has a lot of naysayers and not a lot of doers. It’s nice to see more folks picking up the momentum and realizing change only happens when they start to move. Thanks for doing this great re-cap Ross!
Thanks for the link to Richmond.com Ross! Nice coverage sir!
My mother a non-Richmonder brought up a great point. If we could make Light Tape a reality, the entire US would know about it via social media and news coverage. It might make RVA a tourist destination to more than just drivers on 64 & 95. It could also show how we are actively trying to improve the city.
The Light Tape idea is great. As for Pop-up Down by the River, repairing Norfolk Southern’s bascule bridge across the Kanawa/James River Canal would allow boat passage. There could be a line of boats from Great Ship Lock to 17th Street selling everything from produce to fresh fish to thrift/shop clothing — sort of a floating flea market of ship shops. Start it as a once-a-month feature and watch it grow!
While I appreciate the effort the “creatives” gave to the schools issue- what a disappointment. Coming from being submersed in the issues facing RPS at the moment, and one of the few middle class hold outs for middle school families in RPS – I am surprised at the lack of creativity on this one. Kids don’t have any problems with the name of their school. We have silence on our city’s diversity issues which needs to be embraced, not silenced so we can make some headway. Oh, and let’s make a sweeping effort to not cut funding. This group made a seemingly lighthearted gesture at this one. Maybe next time the call can go out to the creatives that have some investment in schools, like the ones with children, and that want to support public education, with many parents in the trenches fighting to change testing standards, lobbying for education at the GA or raising money to supplement creativity projects that touch our students surely we can do better.
Don’t forget what Ross said at the beginning:
“Rather than go through and exhaustively list all of the ideas presented at Tuesday’s event, I thought I would highlight the ones that appealed to me the most.”
Ross didn’t mention all of the ideas presented, just one from each presentation. There were many other ideas discussed.
As Ross said:
“If you’d like to see a full list of the ideas you can check out this post on Richmond.com or visit GOOD’s website when they post the actual group presentations later this week.”
Molly – I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m hoping you actually saw the presentation and know that just changing the name was not what we suggested — that’s just all this article pointed out. We suggested changing the entire concept of Middle School and physically joining it with high schools. We also suggested doing a comprehensive community assessment to realign nonprofit energy and integrate sustainability projects where community members teach skills and students can do projects in the community in return (i.e. making it community based rather than by the bizarre school district shapes which is how things are decided now). In fact one thing we specifically demanded of our team was that we NOT simply think about this as a way to bring white parents whose kids end up in private schools, but rather improving the schools for those who already go there.
Frankly we couldn’t just go after school budgets or merely suggest to not cut funding — yes, we all want that, but that’s just gainsaying for us to just use our only 8 minutes of presentation time to say we should not cut funding and lobby at general assembly. This was about different ideas than just lobbying, which is obvious and not creative.
Lastly, you might want to look at who was on the education team. We had team members who are actual mentors in the middle schools who shot video for us so we could have a better understanding, we had non profit leaders currently working on huge initiatives in RPS, we had teachers, experts in generational differences and more… most of us are also parents.
I’m not saying we blew anyone’s doors off with our ideas, but holy crap we did way more than just say change the name.
Burt, your idea is brilliant, if only city leaders could relinquish their control to allow these types of things to happen. Street vendors? Produce! Thrift shop flea market….oh I can see councils eyes spinning- more licenses, hoops for vendors to jump through, regulations, restrictions “concerns”…that’s a big part of the problem.
actually cindy, as a participant i found the most enlightening aspect of this to be how much the city wants to cooperate and enable creative citizens. i think one of the biggest things standing in the way of change happening is misperceptions of city intransigence. the city doesn’t necessarily have the capital or people to do all of these things themselves, but they clearly expressed a desire to enable and work with us to move some of these ideas forward.
Am I the only one to feel that the negative comments – here, and in other forums – are just another example of RVA’s ability to suffocate change? Not that anyone, or any city, can actually suffocate change. But they can sure get a good cut-off-air effort going.
The event on Tuesday was an exercise. Those of us who were involved do care, very much, about Richmond and its future. We were asked to come up with ideas without considering how to get those ideas funded, but we did want to come up with solutions that had legs, that had strong potential for adoption.
In the 10+ years I’ve lived here in River City – after 27 years in NYC – one of the biggest issues I’ve noticed here is the entire community’s willingness to indulge in “we can’t” thinking based on an “we’re just Richmond” mentality. Leaving that behind would be awesome. All it would take is … just stop thinking “we can’t”.
Maybe we can’t do everything. But we sure as shootin’ can do plenty.
So … let’s DO it, shall we?
Evan, I am encouraged that the city finally wants to “enable and work with” rather than discuss and regulate ideas to death. I am all for creative change and exchange in RVA.
The government recently launched the “Together for Tomorrow School Improvement Challenge” which invites higher ed, community organizations, and businesses to submit proposals to work together to strengthen the lowest performing schools – I’d be willing to bet some RPS Middle School are on the list. It would be great to see the innovative ideas that came out of the charette be put into action via this challenge: http://tft.challenge.gov/
Kudos on all of the hard work – I LOVE the Light Tape Idea!
Here’s a thought on schools: send your kid to a city school, join the PTA, show up at your kids school to volunteer, help the kids who need it.