Moving America Forward

How a Barn-Raising Mentality Can Work in the 21st Century

July 18, 2014
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How a Barn-Raising Mentality Can Work in the 21st Century
Baltimore’s Power in Dirt volunteers make signs for community gardens. Power in Dirt/Facebook
What's the best way to get something done in your town? Involve everyone, says Garreth Potts.

The idea of barn-raising probably brings to mind images of the countryside and endless miles of fields dotted with farm houses.

But Garreth Potts is reshaping the concept of a barn-raising as a way to grow community projects across cities.

Potts is a German Marshall Fund Urban and Regional Policy Fellow, and he just finished a fellowship during which he analyzed how cities fund and organize community projects. These assets — including parks, gardens, recreational centers, libraries, museums and civic centers — generally rely on city resources. But through his research, Potts discovered how volunteers and other funds can provide that extra touch.

From this work, Potts created a toolkit: “The New Barn-Raising,” (and started a nonprofit, The Barn-Raising) which ditches an individualistic role or responsibility in favor of a more communal one where everyone is invited: residents, local government, non-profits, businesses and unions. Potts believes that coordination between all the parties improves these community projects and supports increased innovation. To determine the level of involvement of the government and other groups, Potts’s plan is to have the voters decide.

Potts’s inspiration came mostly from his observations of the Duncan Street Community Gardens in East Baltimore, as well as gardens in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Detroit.

DON’T MISS: One in Five Baltimore Residents Lives in a Food Desert. These Neighbors Are Growing Their Own Produce

So, what did he learn?

1. Volunteers are a vital, but they can’t do everything.  For many projects, you need a city staff to oversee and organize and use volunteers for manpower. Ultimately, it’s a joint effort.

2. Don’t underestimate the nonprofit. These organizations are knowledgeable and can provide extra money for a project. For example, in Baltimore, a partnership with the city’s branch of ToolBank USA means access to necessary equipment for their community garden that would otherwise be hard to get.

3. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not invincible. While NGOs do have power and resources, they are not infinite wells. If NGOs were expected to fund every underfunded project, it would require a large increase in donations.

To see the remainder of Potts’s suggestions, click here.

While we may not be holding literal barn raisings in our neighborhoods, Potts’s alternate version will provide the same benefits: community cooperation and beautification — just minus the hay and cows.

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