When our studio put together the grant application process for Raising Places, many fundamental questions had to be answered that could affect the overall impact of the project. One questions was, “How do we define community?” We were going to ask communities to apply, but first we had to define what that even meant. This brought up other questions like, “What is an appropriate scale for us to work at?” And, “Would it be exclusionary if we allowed specific populations to apply as a community?”

After a great amount of deliberation and with the help of advisors from around the country, we decided to start at the neighborhood scale. To allow enough flexibility for applicants to offer their own definitions of community based on their context, we simply offered a starting point for how we define the idea. The intention was for applicants to set a small geographic target area - a district, neighborhood, or corridor - but the actual size of the community could then vary from site to site.

Maps with boundary lines drawn to mark the target area of each Raising Places community.

Selecting a geographic area

Because Raising Places focuses on the places where kids and families live, learn, and play, community was defined as a geographic area. We recognize that community can also be used to describe specific populations or groups of people. Identity and culture of people are dimensions that are important to a place. However, because Raising Places emphasized a place-based approach, we rooted our definition of community in a small geographical location. This was further supported by a growing body of research showing that kids’ experiences in their local environments (i.e. their neighborhoods) can establish the foundation for their development and successes.

We also asked that the chosen community have a recognized identity—either formally (e.g., neighborhood, ward, business district, reservation/pueblo, rural community) or informally (e.g., neighbor-recognized area, focus of an existing collaboration) and a clear boundary. During the pre-application workshop, design teams found themselves needing to align on a boundary and ensure that the geographic area selected was identifiable as a community for stakeholders. For example, the selected community in Hudson, NY is not a formally recognized neighborhood, however the area is belovedly referred to as “downstreet” by local residents. Pinning down a physical boundary also helped identify local assets and challenges concentrated within the community, without sprawling the focus.

Hudson community members coming to agreement on their boundary during the Raising Places pre-application workshop.

Accounting for contextual differences

The application intentionally left the definition of community open, so that applicants could determine the area that works best for their local context. Examples of appropriate geographical scale included neighborhood, ward, corridor, district (e.g. business, arts, historic), or census tract. It seemed that given time and funding constraints, an urban or suburban setting, a geographic area spanning a city, county, or region might be too large. We also recognized that in a rural or tribal context, the geographic area might be slightly larger, given the lower population density.

Furthermore, terminology referring to a geographic area might also vary. Our advisors at Enterprise Community Partners, encouraged us to be more inclusive by adding terms like “reservation,” “pueblo,” and “rural community” when describing types of communities that could apply. They also advised us to add the term “tribal” under place types, since some Native communities might feel that they don’t fit within the more common “urban,” “rural,” and “mixed” place types.

Geographical statistics for each Raising Places community, inlcuding place type, physical size and population size.

Identifying a small enough area that fit a short timeline

The nine-month lab-based process came with expectations for community engagement, rapid prototyping and creating feasible implementation plans. So, we asked applicants to consider if the geographic area seemed appropriately sized for this work as they defined the target community. For example, in Minneapolis, the Plymouth Avenue Corridor community is now testing a shuttle service that connects destinations along the corridor. Given the narrow geographic focus, the design team was able to test this idea on a small scale with limited resources. We expected communities to be small enough to offer focus while large enough to prompt multiple cross-sector projects by the design team. This is extremely visible in the SoMa community, with several projects focused on child-friendly open spaces, pedestrian safety, and land use planning. These projects are targeted towards a small geographic area, but also tie in with larger strategic planning initiatives that are currently underway within the greater SoMa neighborhood, the city, and even the region.

Images from the North Minneapolis design team's pilot implementation of a shuttle for the Plymouth Avenue Corridor.

Planning at larger scales certainly has a time and place. In fact, it is critical to maintain a big picture vision so that community development is happening in a cohesive and complementary way, rather than fragmented. We have found through this process, however, that starting from a small target area has been extremely effective in getting a committed and invested group of people at the table for focused conversations. As the process continued, the physical areas, involvement of stakeholders and impact definitely rippled out. The sweet spot lies just between zooming in to remain actionable and zooming out to be more expansive, with the flexibility to oscillate between these two scales.