City on 'right path' with community projects

JANINE RANKIN
Last updated 12:03 03/04/2014
jim diers
FAITH SUTHERLAND/Fairfax NZ
TOGETHER: Community development expert Jim Diers.

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The Pied Piper of Seattle's neighbourhood movement is urging Palmerston North community workers to step back and give people the power to create their own strong communities.

Department of Neighborhoods chief Jim Diers urged more than 100 people at a seminar in the city yesterday to stop writing the agenda, and support community-driven projects.

Diers has 38 years' experience in community development and local government, and encouraged the inspiration behind thousands of neighbourhood projects in Seattle.

One of the most successful was the creation of the Fremont Troll in 1990.

The giant sculpture crouches under the George Washington Memorial bridge, clasping a Volkswagen Beetle. It has become a tourist attraction in a problem area that used to attract only dumping and drug dealers.

Diers said the idea was off-beat enough to make him worry about the future of a US$150,000 (NZ$174,000) matching fund the local council had set up by a narrow 5-4 vote to support community fundraising for projects.

But in the second year, encouraged by results, councillors voted unanimously to increase the fund to US$1.5 million. It had now supported 5000 projects.

Diers said Palmerston North was already on the right path with its placemaking activities, helping groups with ideas to improve public spaces and create a strong sense of community.

He said community spirit often grew out of adversity, such as after the Christchurch earthquakes, when people discovered there was no substitute for knowing their neighbours.

Communities like Lyttelton, which had established a "time bank" to encourage people to exchange their skills and time with one another, had "taken the aspirin half an hour before the headache".

"People discover what is really important - it is each other."

But Diers said community workers could not do it for neighbourhoods. When people depended on organisations and professionals to meet their needs, they felt powerless, and nothing happened.

They shut themselves away, did not know their neighbours, did not vote, and did not act as citizens.

Being "grim and determined" would not help lure those people out, nor would invitations to meetings. "Why have a meeting when you can have a party?"

Having fun together was a better way to discover people's gifts and passion to make things happen.

The seminar ended with groups coming up with ideas for projects to make Palmerston North a better place.

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Some of those suggestions included transforming parking wardens into parking fairies, setting aside vehicle lanes for cyclists on "casual Fridays", making Takaro Park a better place to play, and looking after the Manawatu River and its tributaries.

- Manawatu Standard

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