Placemaking for the Least of These

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Fair or not, we live in a world of assumptions, perceptions, and caricatures. For example, on Monday was the first day of the semester at Warner Pacific College. One of the classes I'm teaching is called Bicycles, Equity, and Race: Urban Mobility in Portland. Even with a class full of mostly Portlanders the assumption is that bicycling is a white hipster thing and not for minorities. True or not, right or wrong, those are the perceptions even for locals.

In conversations about urban planning, urban design, or placemaking the assumption is that these kinds of activities revolve around trendy mixed-use development in the city center, urban infill projects, new bike lanes in gentrifying neighborhoods, and the like. Is it? Does it have to be? If not, whom else could benefit from this?

Last week I finished reading Colonias in Arizona and New Mexico: Border Poverty and Community Development Solutions. It was a fascinating book and helped me learn more about the state of colonias in this borderland region that I've been engaging in for my work through Intrepid. There are numerous definitions and examples of colonias, but the definition below sufficies:

The term "colonia," in Spanish means a community or neighborhood. It is definedas a residential area along the US-Mexico border that may lack some of the most basic living necessities, such as potable water and sewer systems, electricity, paved roads, and safe and sanitary housing. Colonias have a predominant Latino population where 85 percent of those Latinos under the age of 18 are United States citizens.

The common theme throughout the book revolved around the struggle in these communities. That could take the form of inadequate housing, lack of access to clean water, lack of access to home financing, lack of access to education, lack of access to jobs, and more. In many ways these communities don't even "feel" like your typical small town America even though they are just as American as the small town in Iowa I grew up in. The "foreignness" of these colonias make them feel as though they are not part of the life, culture, and economy of the rest of the country. But they are. However, they have limited access and opportunities.

As I've visited a number of these colonias on both sides of the border and worked my way through the book my mind continued to drift back to this idea of placemaking. One can contend that on some levels a sense of place (and the civic pride that accompanies it) is missing. Even back in my home town there is a sense of civic pride pertaining to historic buildings, a beloved town square, and a rallying point around the local schools. But in most of these colonias there is no such thing.

What would or could it mean to engage in placemaking in these kinds of communities? I'm not saying we'll wave a magic wand and "poof" everything will be great as new facilities are created, community is fostered, and soon the economic engine is humming. Colonias in Arizona and New Mexico spells out clearly the difficulty in mobilizing people in colonias, establishing trust, getting buy-in, finding long-term advocates, and so on. But the question that haunts me, and colonias are representative of this, is what does it mean or look like to participate in placemaking in struggling communities whether urban or rural?