Don’t Solve the Problem…

Instead, create the opportunities within which the problem will be solved.

Time and time again I encounter situations where people just “fix” things, or so they think, without understanding the systemic implications of their solution. In other words, they tackle  the problem with a specific solution, but there is actually no way to implement their ideas, or their solution creates other problems that just spiral out into additional despair and frustration.

Certainly the thing they are trying to fix needs to be addressed, but that does not dismiss the need for a workable, sustainable, connected solution. In the same way that applying pesticides kills more than the pests you are aiming for, we can opt to instead apply organic compost which will strengthen the soils and the plants to resist the pests. We can discover ways to bolster the entire system.

I was part of a Presidential Advisory Committee in diversity for our college president in the late 1980’s.  We made sure to put the focus of our work not on the numbers or percentages, but on the outreach to increase the potential for diversity. In what way can we make the communication, out and in, different than it has been, so that our candidate pool for admissions becomes more diverse, so that we have the opportunity to increase diversity on campus? In what ways can we additionally use the experiences of current inner-city and minority students to understand the obstacles that exist, and address those obstacles?

By looking at the issue systemically, we created a process that not only increased diversity, but improved our outreach overall about what made (at that time) RPI great. We opened new lines of internal communication to address issues that certainly were faced by minority groups of students, and which actually affected all students. We created summer programs that engaged a wider variety of high school student and improved the overall student average performance at RPI. This is an example of a systemic approach, rather than settling goal percentages and tracking. A systemic approach achieves many co-benefits.

I recently met with some people concerned about Lark Street in Albany, NY.  Lark has a vibrant history as the artsy/funky part of our staid government-centered city. It has a long track record of art festivals, community activism, and inclusion. Local stores, vegan food places, hand crafted goods, and organic wines are all part of this street. Unfortunately, it has also become a festival-based community, only comfortably activate when the streets are closed to cars and there is a promoted event that invites pop-ups, and a carnival atmosphere, along with disruptions to the local residents. 

I suspect it is a hard place to own a business as the rest of the time the street is nearly empty of people, and there is a large number of vacant storefronts, and some key restaurants that have recently closed their doors. 

Our discussion started with the homeless situation, and how discomfort is increasing as more and more homeless are begging on Lark, and a few have even become belligerent when their appeals are refused. The discussion revolved around a few thoughts. How could the police be more engaged? Should we be advising people not to give money to panhandlers, so they learn to not traffic Lark Street? These are definitely solutions to the problem, but are they creating opportunity? No.

How about trying to find a root approach, one that does more than just “fix” the homeless issue? Basically, what are we really trying to do? 

I have a friend who moved to NYC soon after college. When she came back to Troy, NY to visit (this was in the early 1990’s) she said she felt incredibly unsafe in Troy, because there were no people out on the street. It felt dead, and scary, unlike her active home in Greenwich Village, NY. So what if one of the real issues with Lark Street is that is is not a busy enough place, normally, on not-festival days. How do we address this, what can we discover about Lark Street, and how can that discovery benefit the current point-source issue of panhandlers and safety? 

Creation of diversity and character strengthens the community just as compost supports the resilience and health of the soil in your garden at home.

If we want more people out on the street we need to make the street more appealing. Here are a few thoughts that all intertwine.

  1. Cars always make city streets less people friendly. We need people to get to Lark Street, however, so how do we control the cars and help this very linear street become more a street of pools and eddies that engage people? Think of a stream. When it moves fast it can erode the sides and can create debilitating flood situations when that speed is abruptly stopped. When it moves slowly, the nutrients carried by the water can get into the soil, and the meandering brings life to the edges so grasses and marshes proliferate, providing a natural buffer in times of flood. So let’s slow traffic by diversifying the street edge. Maintain both side of the street parking for one block, then no parking and creating wider sidewalks on the next block, and so forth. Maybe even pick the blocks with the current, successful food places so that they can expand onto the sidewalk in the summer and fall.
  2. Character is not created by providing ubiquitous signage identifying the neighborhood. The neighborhood nodes should inform the character. Think of nature, again. Each square foot of ground is significantly different in the species it contains than a neighboring square foot of ground, yet many square feet together still make up that forest or that field, with a clear character of place at human scale. Is there a way to not only let each business define how it wants to make its presence known, but to encourage that in ways that can activate the street? If you have strands of lights, artwork, tables, signage, plantings that are present and differently applied at each store, the street itself becomes an adventure.
  3. Businesses and people do not react well to demands, rules, or punitive measures. For change you must have three things in play: the ability, the motivation, and the trigger. Start with a reward system encouraging the street presence of the businesses by a congratulatory write-up in the local paper for visible improvements to the street. Sure, define the guidance aspects if you want to encourage lighting, or artwork, but do it in a positive “reach for this” way. Then get even just one business that does amplify their street presence, say a wine bar with some lights and a few window boxes and a sidewalk table or two, and then you have an example for emulation. You have created the motivation of the reward, the trigger for other businesses to follow suit, and the ability to do so is evident because that one business already did it. It is exciting, also, that diverse approaches are possible, because then each business can identify the improvements that feed their own purpose: a garden center can have a display of wares, a skateboard shop can have a practice rail, a wine bar can have some tables and music.
  4. Regarding connection with the panhandlers – This one will always be harder to address head on, but know that an active street is safer and more engaging for everyone. is there a way to embrace the homeless as part of your community?  In our society we often want beggars to “go-away” but 1) they usually can’t, and 2) what does “away” mean, anyway, and 3) often they want an opportunity to be present and useful and we are restricting that chance for them.  Can we put out our deposit bottles to help them with cash, and to help us with recycling? We do this at our urban home, and chat with our “bottle lady” whenever we see her. Can the planting boxes on the street house small vegetable patches, and can you encourage your homeless neighbors to weed and to eat from these vegetable patches? I know that some homeless people do not want to or cannot engage and be useful, and that is a struggle, certainly, yet we should seek to create the opportunities for everyone, when possible.

When we look at a problem and try to “fix it” we so very often eliminate the opportunity for sustained and accepted success. If the approach to Lark Street, for example, were focused on eliminating the homeless there may be a small short-term increase in business traffic as people feel more safe, but it would require continued constant attention to the problem, including police presence, threat of punishment, potential altercations, and a reinforcement of us/them with would certainly adversely affect the spirit of a community based in acceptance. Kind of like the constant reapplication of pesticides to a monoculture yard or pristine and manicured garden. And it would not benefit the businesses or the community directly.

By working on the systemic issues, and activating the street in a variety of ways, the system itself becomes more robust and resilient, able to react well to the constant changes of city life.  Creation of diversity and character strengthens the community just as compost supports the resilience and health of the soil in your garden at home. The success will sustain because you have fed and supported the vibrance and strength of the underlying system itself.

Feed the system, and be greener,


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