To Enact Change, Focus on the “Why” before the “What” and the “How”

I turned right on Bolton Road… and it all started coming back. I passed the abandoned kennel, the towering walls of kudzu, the empty streets, the giant landfill, the rickety old rocket ship play structure and the Hottie Hog’s (the only restaurant within miles, categorizing this area as what is sometimes referred to as a “food desert”). These were all landmarks with which I had familiarized myself over two weeks last summer as part of Atlanta 2.0, a pilot course on urban planning and Atlanta.

 

As a part of this course, we were tasked to identify flaws in the Bolton and Riverside neighborhoods, choose an area we wished to help and devise a plan to fix the problems we had targeted. My group from last year suggested turning an abandoned lot into a food truck park and replacing the fields of invasive species with a useful park that could serve as an aesthetically pleasing community-gathering place. However, despite all of our conscientious plans, when I recently returned to the area a year later, it was as if we’d never passed through, with our heads full of ideas for change.

 

Regardless, this course last year opened my eyes. I learned what qualified a public space as “bad” or “good” and picked up on certain techniques others have used to transform the former into the latter. Being back in these neighborhoods, I began to realize that my home in Marietta is also somewhat in a “food desert,” like the neighborhoods of Bolton and Riverside. This type of characteristic is something one doesn’t notice until one starts purposely looking for it, in an active search to identify an area’s flaws. To me, my area is simply home. It is what it is and I don’t make any effort to change it, yet I was shocked that the residents of Bolton and Riverside hadn’t taken action to fix their little corner of the world. Realizing this hypocrisy has led me to better understand now why the projects we attempted to put in place last summer failed. My peers and I had lofty goals, and we recommended sweeping measures that we felt would solve the issues we identified, but we failed, in some instances, to fully take into account the key problems facing the Bolton and Riverside communities.

 

However, now I realize that the key to innovation and successful change is to understand the customer’s needs, something that this year’s group learned early on. They put a greater focus on identifying the true underlying problems of this neighborhood, which go further than its lack of food options or infrastructure. Simply put, the area of Bolton and Riverside lacks a sense of community. As a member of the Home Owner’s Association for a subdivision less than 5 minutes from Main Street said, Bolton’s biggest issue is that no one wants to go there. The area has fallen into serious disrepair but no one wants to fix it because they don’t see the allure or any potential dividends in doing so.

 

This lack of community engagement is what this year’s group of Atlanta 2.0 students is trying to change. This summer, I had the fantastic opportunity to sit in on their final presentations and hear their proposed plans to revitalize the area. Most, if not all of the plans focus on a sort of “pre-vitalization” to draw people to the neighborhood and to convince its inhabitants and store owners/potential investors that this area is worth saving. Using temporary and relatively easy preliminary steps such as recycling older tires to be used as planters, organizing a Farmer’s Market, and setting up mini green spaces known as “parklets” on the corner of deserted streets, the students participating in this course intend to elevate the public space.

 

It’s a noble goal, to craft a place where residents want to be, to make it more beautiful, more sustainable and more functional. This new approach focused on first creating the desire for change within the community (the “why”) and I was struck by how business-like it seemed. Even as a newly inaugurated intern for a local company, I’m well aware that in business, the customer is king. It appears that this applies to many other facets of life. In returning back to Bolton and Riverside, I’ve witnessed the importance of having the right intentions in everything you do. If it’s not what’s wanted, change is useless, and can even be a nuisance.

 

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