The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

Rock Your Assets

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Lake Michigan Rainbow

This post is about cherishing and celebrating whatever is good in your city. In activist lingo, that goes by the name of “asset-based community development.” Put simply, it’s the idea that when you’re trying to improve your neighborhood, you don’t start out by listing all of its problems–trash in the streets, few local businesses, speeding cars, etc.–but instead, you begin from a place of plenty. You consider what your neighborhood does have going for it right now and build from that. For example, you might have trash in some of your streets, but you might also have a great park that kids love to play in down the block. You might have an active faith community, or families that have been in the neighborhood for decades, or a great art museum… When you start by highlighting your community’s assets, you can build your plan to make it better from those good things. You can rally the faith community to help clean up the streets. You can advertise that museum and get more bike or foot traffic from the surrounding neighborhoods. You can encourage food trucks to hang out at the park.

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One thing I have loved about my new community in Milwaukee is the way we really utilize one of our biggest assets: water. The city sits against miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and it also has a network of rivers running through it. Summer time means thousands of people are creatively enjoying the water in a myriad of ways. On any given day, as I’m heading home from work, I can look out my bus window and see boats chugging up the river towards restaurants and bars where boaters can actually dock while they’re eating or drinking. When I get home, I lace up my shoes and join dozens of people jogging, pushing strollers or biking along the many trails on the lake. I see couples lying on blankets in the fields along the lake, smiling as they read books or talk. I see families out barbecuing and playing music at picnic tables nearby. I see kids flying kites and seniors taking leisurely strolls. I see fathers fishing with their children on the docks. There are sailboats fanning out for miles from the harbor and birds flitting happily between the trees. (This winter, I even saw a fox running in the iced-over marina.) The Milwaukee Art Museum is situated on the lakeshore, with gorgeous views from its lobby. And every weekend, Milwaukee has festival after festival celebrating the city’s diverse ethnic heritage and bringing world class musicians to stages next to the lake.

Tugboat in Milwaukee

I have never felt truly at home in a city unless it had water. I sometimes think this is why my college town never sat quite right with me–it was in the desert. Milwaukee, on the other hand, is practically perfect for me. I think people who were born and raised here sometimes take Lake Michigan for granted. They talk about it like it’s just another building or park. But I am doing my best to celebrate it on every level and I love that so many people are here celebrating it with me.

Lake Michigan Ice

The design of Milwaukee’s lakefront could use some improvement. Currently it’s a vast network of large fields that often look empty–even if there’s plenty of people in them–because it would take the entire student population of University of Arizona to fill up even one of those fields. Big plans are in order to change this structure. We’ll see how those turn out. But whatever happens I think we’re on the right track in caring for this incredible city asset. The fact that people of all ages and backgrounds get to experience this lake for leisure, for exercise, for food and for beauty demonstrates how central it is to our identity as a city. Water is truly life. One of my college friends from out west recently visited and he was utterly stunned that this lake could be so vast that you wouldn’t even see the other side. It’s our Midwestern ocean, and while, I’m excited to be visiting another ocean (the Atlantic!) next week, I’m glad I get to call this one my home.

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What’s good in your city? What are you celebrating today?

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