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2021 Engagement Workshop Video: Keynote Address by Lynn M. Ross

Day 1 featured welcome remarks and a presentation about 'Reimagining the Civic Commons'

Lynn M. Ross is a nationally recognized urbanist and the founder of Spirit for Change Consulting, where she works across sectors with organizations — such as Reimagining the Civic Commons — on a mission to create the equitable policies and practices that sustain just places.

She is introduced as part of the workshop's Day 1 opening remarks by Mike Watson, Director of AARP Livable Communities (Programs)

Watch the video by clicking the play arrow. Read the transcript below.

September 22, 2021 — Day 1 Welcome and Keynote Address 

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The presentation transcript was created by an automated transcription tool. Portions have been edited for clarity or length. Anyone looking to quote or use information from the event is advised to compare the text to the video recording.


AARP is working to make communities more livable for people of all ages.

But what is a livable community?

In a livable community, people of all ages can find housing that is comfortable and affordable.

It is also a community where residents can get where they want and need to go, regardless of whether they own a car.

It's a place where people can spend time in parks and public spaces that are vibrant, safe and healthy, so they can socialize with their friends and participate in fun activities.

A livable community ensures access to needed shopping and health care services.

It's a place where people can work or volunteer and be included in community events and decision making.

So what is a livable community? 

It's one where everyone can make their city, town or neighborhood a lifelong home.

MIKE WATSON: Welcome! We're so glad that you've joined us for the 2021 AARP Livable Communities Workshop: Engaging Older Adults, Why It's Good for the Community.

I'm Mike Watson, director of Livable Communities at AARP.

You'll see me periodically throughout this program to facilitate our speakers and, more importantly, help facilitate your engagement with our speakers.

We're so glad that you took the time to participate in this two-day virtual event featuring dozens of speakers discussing community engagement techniques, best practices and ideas and the unique contributions of older adults. This is the third year where we're diving deep on topics that are critical to communities through intensive two-day live-streamed events. Two years ago we were in person for two workshops on placemaking and rural livability. That feels like a lifetime, for many of us. And last year, we held a virtual discussion focused on transportation.

As we weighed topics to focus on for this year's workshop, a clear theme and a clear need emerged. Community engagement and the important role that older adults play in the process we all live. We think this topic is a very timely one. To share more about that it's my pleasure to introduce Nancy LeaMond, Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer and Executive Vice President for Community, State and National Affairs here at AARP.

NANCY LEAMOND: Hello, and welcome to the 2021 AARP Livable Communities Community Engagement Workshop. I'm Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer.

I oversee the teams that make sure the issues facing older adults get attention and action from our community, state and national leaders. Over the last year that's meant protecting those most at risk from COVID-19.

It's been a challenging stretch and it's not over. Many of you have been part of this fight, helping older adults in their families stay safe and healthy, addressing critical food and housing needs and providing information about how, when and where to get the COVID vaccines.

We've seen how communities can come together to help residents of all ages thrive. And I’ve been heartened to see an emphasis on engaging community members, particularly older residents, in a host of efforts listening to their ideas, as well as leveraging their skills and energy.

This kind of community engagement is that the center of AARP is work to create great places to live for everyone.

Every day, thousands of AARP volunteers help connect people to resources, mentor young people and organize to improve their communities.

And programs, like the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities and AARP Community Challenge grants emphasize the importance of addressing community concerns and empowering older volunteers.

Over the next two days you'll learn more about these efforts, along with other inspiring work across the country. Our expert guests will share how they are engaging older adults, why that is good for everyone and the broader lessons that they've learned from this outreach.

And perhaps more important, we will have the opportunity to learn from you. Thank you for joining us and contributing to this very important discussion.

MIKE WATSON: As Nancy, shared engagement is a fundamental aspect of a AARP’s approach on livable communities. It's at the center of our programs, including our AARP Community Challenge quick action grants, which have provided $9.3 million to 804 projects nationwide since 2017.

We've seen some incredibly inventive approaches: from community-driven listening to hackathons to focusing on accessibility and meetings.

You'll get to see several of these initiatives featured throughout the program.

Nancy also mentioned the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. And, as of today, this network represents nearly 600 jurisdictions, eight states, and one territory, who have enrolled and made a commitment to make their states, counties, cities, towns and rural areas more livable for all ages.

Members of the network undertake a five-year process of continuous improvement and that starts with listening to the needs of older adults and then building an action plan around those needs.

You'll get to hear from members of the network throughout this program. And as Nancy shared, we hope this experience is centered around your engagement and interaction.

As you know, we can't be in person and have some of those traditionally meaningful experiences like sharing a coffee or lunch table with a stranger and leaving with new ideas to take back to your community. But we do have the advantage of even greater participation from across the country with over 2,000 people who registered to join us over the next two days.

Plus, we’ll be working to replicate some of those experiences through the use of technology.

To that end, I want to go over a few critical elements of the platform, so that you can make full use of its capabilities and make our experience that much richer.

Throughout the pandemic, we've all gotten much more familiar with Zoom but we'll also be using several tools over these next two days, so I want to cover a few things first.

You should see the instructions for engaging and using Zoom chat, which allows you to send a message to everybody, or to specific attendees.

Let's get the conversation started there now, so please feel free to drop into the chat the community you're joining from.

You can use the chat for conversation throughout the workshop. I also want to familiarize you with some of the accessibility features today.

If you'd like to turn on closed captioning, please click on the CC button to turn on those captions and you should also see a speaker box on your screen with an American Sign Language interpreter.

If you have questions about the Zoom platform, you can email those to Again, that's

And, of course, please join along with other participants, by engaging with us on Twitter using hashtag #AARPLivable and following along on our Twitter handle @AARPLivable.

You'll see that hashtag and our Twitter handle on the screen throughout the event. We'll also be using the platform Slido for polling to facilitate your questions today and tomorrow.

So here's our first question: What state or country are you joining us from today? 

If you're watching along you can get a really good sense of the amount of people that are joining us and where they're joining us from.

Let's try one more question. Please tell us in one or two words: Why is engaging older adults good for the community?

Wisdom. Equity. Experience. There seem to be some clear themes and threads popping up. Also Inclusion.

I think we're seeing the richness of experiences that older adults bring to communities and a lot of the different values. We're going to be collecting all these throughout the conference, so please continue to participate.

It's almost time to hear from our first keynote speaker, Lynn Ross, who is going to focus on purposeful engagement. But before we hear from Lynn, we're going to share a video featuring some of the work of the age-friendly initiative in Macon, Georgia. Enjoy.


ROBERT WALKER: Macon is the heart of Georgia. It’s the heartbeat. We’re directly in the center, where [Interstates] 75 and 16 meet. You can get anywhere in Georgia coming through Macon. Age-friendly is designed for parks and facilities to be able to be used by all age groups from eight years old, all the way up to 80.

MICHAEL GLISSON: Age-Friendly is just that that whole lot idea of bringing people together. It doesn't matter what age, you know, to me, whether it be kids on their bikes or tricycles, even up to adults that are professional bike riders. You know we try to just bring everybody together by bringing different communities gather, whether it be Pleasant Hill, North Macon and down to South Macon and you know, we want to be able to connect everybody together.

ROBERT WALKER: Here is unique, we have a portion of this park which is considered passive, we have sidewalks, pavilions and then we have a portion that also that is considered multipurpose fields. We have softball fields, and then we also have our senior center here in this part so that allows our seniors that come to the rec facility to enjoy this park here and not be afraid of what we have here when it comes to being active.

ROBERT GLISSON: The parks have come a long way. I think now, especially because of COVID and the needs that kind of separate social distance.

ROBERT WALKER: No one moves to a city just for a job. That's one of the things they come for, but they also want to know what does that city have to offer.

SHON HACKETT: This is where I hold my fitness classes, especially this park, which is Tottenham Park. Because the terrain here is excellent, it has inclines, it has benches, it has a fountain that's very refreshing. It has the perimeter is all sidewalk, so it's very good to get your miles and without actually worried about the traffic.

ROBERT GLISSON: Neighborhoods are starting to take more pride in their green spaces. I think it's definitely something. We have an adopt-a-park program, it's really taken off. Neighborhoods are starting to invest a little bit more into these green spaces, because they understand how important they are. 

ROBERT WALKER: People have been excited about what we’re doing. Fortunately, I was able to take a part of SPLOST, that's a special purpose local option sales tax here and I was able to use that money to renovate parks and build some new ones. We also made the Community involved in that process, meeting with them, telling them, asking them what do they want to see here, what would they like to see in this park and we used that to tell a how we renovate and build that park. Well, we will able to take an underused piece of property on here in this park and we developed this take us 10,000 foot square skate park that’s been used since. We've had several competitions there locally.

GREG BROWN: Amerson River Park in Macon, Georgia, is this place for those to get out enjoy the outdoor atmosphere. And one thing I love about the area is that is equipped with walking trails, it’s accessible for all ages, you know just for people to get out and move, you know, to become a more healthier community.

UNIDENTIFIED: Not only this park, but the other many parks and outdoor spaces in Macon have come alive and because of these attractions and improvements, based on what resident said they need it again if the traffic is picked up, it has been perfect for COVID because it gave outdoor spaces, where people feel comfortable family friendly to come and participate.

ROBERT WALKER: We take pride in what we offer in the rec department and being able to produce park systems, open spaces, where people can enjoy it and it helps build the environment and build the community and make positive things happen.

MIKE WATSON: That was fantastic and it's really great to see that purposeful engagement, leading to public spaces that are built for everyone.

With that it's time to hear from our first speaker Lynn M. Ross she is a nationally recognized urbanist and the founder of Spirit for Change Consulting, where she works across sectors with organizations on a mission to create the equitable policies and practices that sustain just places.

Lynn spent some time with us earlier and shared some of her exciting work through the “Reimagining the Civic Commons Initiative” to transform engagement to be purposeful authentic and equitable. After her keynote presentation she'll also be here to answer your questions.

During the keynote please ask your questions and we'll address as many of them as we can after the presentation With that please enjoy this incredible keynote from Lynn Ross which lasts about 30 minutes.

LYNN M. ROSS: Good afternoon I’m delighted to be with you today and really honored to help kick off the 2021 Livable Communities Workshop, I want to thank AARP for the invitation.

They've really put together a terrific program over the next two days to really explore a critical issue: engagement.

My work at Spirit for Change Consulting focuses on co-creating the equitable policies and practices needed to sustain just places. And at the heart of that work is thinking about more equitable approaches to engagement.

But before we talk about that more I want to share with you that I’m coming to you from my home in Miami Beach, Florida, which is the traditional homeland of Tequesta, the Colusa, and the Taino. And today, the Miccosukee and the Seminole. I honor their elders past and present, as well as future generations.

I also honor uplift and respect the generations of African diaspora, and migrant people who have also helped to make greater Miami what it is today.

I was asked to spend my time with you this afternoon ideating on this essential question: How do we transform engagement to be purposeful, authentic, and equitable.

Well in order to answer that question, I have to ask another, which is: Are we ready to flip the switch on engagement as we know it and turn on a different approach? What if we flip the switch on engagement and turned off the type of check-the-box approaches that are transactional?

The type of approaches that don't honor lived experience and don't really listen to people.

The type of approaches that too often leave many voices out, including our older adults but also our children.

The type of approaches that value outputs more than outcomes. And the type of approaches that move on timeframes that don't align with what the community needs or wants.

What if we turn those off for good? And instead turned on an approach to engagement that focuses on co-creation, on co-stewardship, on building community power, and on an approach that sets equity as the intention for the process of engagement, but also the outcomes of that engagement.

What if we understood that authentic purposeful engagement could only move at the speed of trust? What would that look like?

Well, I think there are at least seven elements or principles, if you will, to that kind of engagement. Let me walk you through each of them.

The first is to center on lived experience. Lived experience is expertise, but too often we don't value it in the same way that we do other sources of information. And who has the most lived experience in our communities? It's our older adults.

When we don't invite or value the expertise that older adults can offer, what we miss out on is immeasurable. And let me say one more thing here, because centering on lived experience is both about respecting that expertise, as well as the actual time that folks take to participate.

We are very comfortable compensating for other types of expertise. Why not lived experience? We should never assume that anyone, especially our older adults, has the time, the resources or the desire to engage in a process without compensation.

Sometimes I think there's an assumption around older adults, especially those who are retired, that they have all the time in the world, and all the resources in the world. She will engage with us with no compensation. That's just not always true, and we shouldn't make that assumption.

Showing respect means that we honor the time and we honor the expertise. That can take many different forms. It may look like feeding people, ensuring that caregivers are available, providing translation services, providing bus or train fare and sometimes actually paying people.

It also means that we meet people where they are. And this is exactly what it sounds like. You go to them. We have to stop telling people to come to the place of our choosing at the time of our choosing to participate in a conversation that they have little or no role in shaping.

Now, this might mean that you meet people on the front porch or in a backyard, in the church basement or community center, at the regular block club meeting, maybe even the annual neighborhood street festival. It may also mean that your engagement process takes longer, because you were holding more gatherings. But that's okay.

We also need to listen first for understanding. Now, this is a bit of a lost art, even in one-on-one conversation, because too often we are listening to respond right away, to reach consensus, maybe to argue or persuade, sometimes to write a pithy social media post. But our first responsibility is to listen to understand and really hone in on why this information is being shared, why this story is being shared.

And in that listening, sometimes, the first thing you're going to hear about is the bad thing that happened last time or the promise that was not kept that last time. And this information may be shared with you with the tone of anger, or maybe even distrust.

Now, this is a hard one, but I really want you to normalize receiving that feedback and holding space for that.

It is not reasonable to ask people to come, engage in a new process in new blue sky thinking when those very same residents are still sitting in the harm and the mess that was created the last time they put trust in a process.

People need to express the harm. They need to express the hurt. They need to express the distrust and you need to receive that. And when you do, that is when trust can be built, and that is when healing can occur.

We also need to frame on assets. And what I mean by this is that every community has history, it has culture, it has beauty, it has amazing people and networks. But too often we approach engagement with a deficit mentality. We focus only on our interpretation of what's missing, what we think the community needs, how we're going to fill those gaps.

Let's stop that and let's reframe and lift up those assets and what's working. Now as an outsider, as a visitor to this community, those assets may not be immediately visible to you. But that does not mean they aren't present. You have to listen for that.

Now, if you haven't figured it out yet, what I’m really talking about here is developing a new practice for engagement, and that means you have to embrace new ways of working. So your old tools may not work at all, or they certainly won't work in the same way. You have to embrace flexibility in how you're working, in who you're working with.

I often talk to people about engagement, and inevitably someone will bring up the proverbial table of engagement, right, and what we need to do is just expand that table and add some chairs to the table or rearrange the chairs at the table.

I want to invite you to really interrogate the metaphor of the table and actually disrupt it. Tables don't magically appear. They don't magically set themselves. Every table of engagement is set by people, and too often the assumptions and the bias used to build that table, it goes unexamined.

So disrupt your thinking about the tables, because you can add chairs, you can expand it, you can rearrange the chairs, you can even change the menu, but if the material that the table was built with is rotten, the table is still going to fail.

And finally, we have to deliver on promises. We must honor what we learn in this approach to engagement. We have to deliver.

That also means we cannot put out plans and strategies we know cannot be implemented, whether that’s due to politics or finances or staffing.

If you are releasing a plan or strategy you know cannot be implemented, you have broken trust and you were not delivering. We really have to rethink that and figure out ways to deliver.

So what would this kind of engagement look like in practice? Well, I want to share some work with you that I’ve been engaged in for the last several years called Reimagining the Civic Commons.

Now I probably don't have to tell this audience that our public realm has always been important, but I think the events of the last 18 months or so has made the urgency of reimagining our civic commons, in the way that we engage people in those spaces, even more apparent.

As these headlines show, Americans have developed a deeper and, in some cases, a newfound appreciation for the value of the commons. In communities all across this country these public spaces are sustaining people of all ages in ways that we really took for granted, before the pandemic.

But at the same time, recent events have also underscored enormous and unacceptable disparities in access, in quality, and in the welcoming nature expected in our public realm.

Too often, these public spaces are not safe for everyone. They're not inviting to everyone.

So, as we continue this national conversation about the shape of our recovery, and what that could and should look like, we must uplift a welcoming, safe, robust civic commons as a universal right for every resident, in every neighborhood, in every city.

Why does this matter? Well, nearly every trend line in the U.S. shows that we are in the grips of increased economic segregation, social isolation and economic inequality.

And we know that these trends are made worse by our ongoing health, climate, social and economic crises. These trends are especially urgent for the most vulnerable in our communities, including our older adults.

It is no secret that our population is aging rapidly and the older adults are a growing proportion of our population, right? That is a trend that's not coming, it is happening right now.

And while our older adults are living longer, they are not necessarily living better in terms of health, in terms of the economic position and in terms of living in welcoming built and social environments.

Why is that? Well, we have designed our communities in ways that make opting out of public life easier than opting in. We issue more barriers to participation than we do invitations.

And trust in institutions is also in decline across the globe. So is our trust in each other.

Now I don't know about you, but I think that's pretty scary, because trust is the fundamental building block of society. It's fundamental for a functioning democracy; it's fundamental for the work that we do with communities; and it's fundamental for the equitable, age-friendly, just places that we all deserve to thrive in.

Now these decades-long trends of social and economic fragmentation, they may seem impossible to tackle. In fact, I believe this is the challenge of our time. It is also our call to action.

Our gathering places often come at the bottom of municipal budgets. They are seen as nice-to-haves but not essential. And when budget cuts hit, those places are the first on the chopping block. Now this has significant impacts on every member of a community, but for older adults it's especially concerning.

We know that as we age, having access to a wide range of active and passive recreation activities increases, right? No it doesn't. We need that to maintain our health and our well-being.

Barriers to access, disinvestment, lack of maintenance, limited programming, treating the public realm as an amenity instead of as critical civic infrastructure. All of those things are equity issues, and they are also issues that have an outsize negative impact on our older adults.

So, what would it look like for a community to put its civic infrastructure to work, to connect people of all backgrounds, to cultivate trust, to increase equity?

Well, this is the question at the heart of Reimagining the Civic Commons, which is a collaboration of the JPB, Knight, Kresge and William Penn foundations, alongside local partners, to revitalize and connect public spaces that exist in all of our cities.

We began this work in 2016 with our five demonstration cities: Akron, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and Philadelphia. Last year we expand it to welcome five new cities into our national learning network: Lexington, Macon, Miami, Minneapolis and San Jose.

With a focus on forming outcome areas, civic engagement, social economic mixing, environmental sustainability and value creation, our cross-sector teams are demonstrating that strategic investment in our civic assets is a smart way to start rebuilding both the physical and the social fabric of our communities.

We know that social fabric is so necessary for empathy and for trust to flourish, but also to help us to mitigate the multiple crises we face. And I just want to pause here on the slide because this outcomes orientation is truly what defines the work of Reimagining the Civic Commons, it is the secret sauce, if you will, of this initiative.

Thinking about public space is one thing, but intentionally co-creating and co-stewarding in robust equitable civic commons, where we intentionally share space with people whose lives are very different from our own, that is something else, and that is what we're trying to do with this work.

So the desire to achieve those outcomes truly guides everything that we do. It's really helped to inform a new way of working in a new way of measuring outcomes that has been co-designed. It has now been co-stewarded by our 10 communities as well as our larger network of partners.

This is public space work in service of more engaged, more equitable, more environmentally and economically resilient communities, where neighbors of all backgrounds, ages, identities and abilities can thrive.

Now I would love to share work that's happening in each of our 10 cities, because it's all amazing, but today I have time to take you to just one place, so we're going to visit Akron, Ohio.

And while we do that, I want you to keep in mind those elements for engagement that I discussed earlier, as well as those four outcomes for reimagining the civic commons, and I think you'll see, through that one case study, how they play out in a real place. So let's go to Akron!

With investments in the three neighborhoods, and the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail that connects them, the Akron Civic Commons is knitting together isolated communities through a collaborative reimagining of their public realm.

Temporary and permanent design features and regular programming is helping to reestablish Summit Lake as a place of civic pride in place. It's bridging diverse neighborhoods including Park East and it's fostering much needed economic development and public life in Akron’s downtown.

Through a wide collaboration that process silos, sectors and demographics, Akron is bringing people together to co-create an equitable public realm that fosters trust, that builds a sense of community and restores public life. I think the work at Summit Lake is an especially good example of this.

So just two miles south of downtown Akron on the towpath trail is a 100-acre glacial lake, Summit Lake. Now, in the 1920s, this was known as Akron’s million dollar playground. Thousands of people would come every year to the amusement park, on its banks they would come to swim, to picnic and to boat. However, after many decades of disinvestment in Summit Lake and its surrounding neighborhood, neighbors felt that the lake was dangerous and, in fact, in the early stages of these efforts, neighborhood residents requested that a fence be put up around Summit Lake. They saw it as a liability and not as a community asset.

I can tell you that when I first visited Summit Lake in 2016, there was one bench at the lake and it did not face the water. So that just gives you a picture of what was going on there.

Now, the project team knew that shifting resident perceptions of the lake, and what would be possible there, would be a key part of the restoration process. So the team began to work by meeting residents where they were and really listening to Summit Lake neighbors, both to understand their concerns, but also to hear their ideas for improving their own neighborhood.

And in that listening, in that holding a space, the team heard about decades of things being done to and not with, things promised, but never delivered.

To ensure that wouldn't be the case this time, the team's process has been centered on co-creation and co-stewardship. Residents, including many neighborhood elders, are actively a part of the core team for civic commons and they are truly catalyzing the work happening in this neighborhood.

So, instead of a fence, those early listening sessions led to some relatively inexpensive and early investments in prototype improvements around the lake. This included facilities for fishing, swings, places to sit, shade umbrellas, outdoor grills. Portions of the lake bank were cleared to create a new beachhead and provide more access to the water. Facilities for canoeing and kayaking were improved. Fences were removed from around the play space area to make that space more welcoming to all.

In putting resident ideas into action, the Akron Civic Commons really demonstrated and gave tangible evidence of the role that residents play as producers of their civic space. This active co-creation and delivering on promises generated trust.

Another early investment and prototyping led to the Summit Lake Nature Center. So, very early on, residents expressed a desire to have easy access to programming and activities that would help adults to reconnect with nature, while also providing opportunities to their children and grandchildren.

So Summit Metro Parks hosted a hugely successful pop-up nature center from 2017 to 2020 in the nearby reach opportunity center. But residents wanted to see a permanent investment and they got one. Just this July, the permanent Summit Lake Nature Center opened in a former tire factory pumphouse that sat vacant for decades. You can see it here in this in this picture.

This transformed space is now home to exhibits designed with the community that highlight its history, its people — including neighborhood elders — in the ecology of Summit Lake.

The center also builds on what worked during the prototyping phase, by offering a range of activities that appeal to people of all ages, including water-based recreation programs, as well as gardening opportunities. This approach is also yielding greater civic engagement, as residents really gain a renewed sense of agency.

After seeing the success at Summit Lake, residents proposed and then led the creation of a memorial garden in the neighborhood on a previously vacant lot. This effort was led by Suporia Finney, who initially envisioned a space for hands-on artistic approach to learning for neighborhood children, including her own. You see her in this photo wearing the Summit Lake shirt there. But after she had a conversation with her grandmother, Miss Shirley Finney, that vision for the garden expanded.

They wanted to create a special place for residents of all ages, so today the Growing Minds Memorial Garden is a place for community members to come together to celebrate, to craft, but also to honor neighborhood residents who have passed away over the years.

Here’s the garden in bloom on its first anniversary. I really think the garden shows the impact of fostering stewardship and advocacy for the civic commons. It's also a great example of what happens when residents are given the space and the resources to exercise their own power and shape their own places.

Another example of co-stewardship is the Summit Lake Youth Ambassador Program. This is a program that was started in 2020 to include two neighborhood youth and expanded this year to include 10.

This program offers paid part-time summer employment, where neighborhood youth learn teamwork, and also employment skills, while they engage in the public realm. They are engaged in things like picking up litter, painting picnic tables, planting flower beds. Importantly, participants in this program are guided in that work by community leaders like Grace Hudson.

Grace is a longtime resident of Summit Lake. She also serves on the Akron Civic Commons core team. And you can really think about what these young people learn, what they gain by working alongside someone with the wealth of lived experience and commitment to the neighborhood that Grace has.

The youth ambassador program and the garden are examples of what can happen, specifically when older adults are meaningfully engaged in co-creation and co-stewardship.

So, community members have come to see Summit Lake as their own, in part because they help to create it together and residents have developed a real sense of pride for Summit Lake.

In fact, a recent survey found that 92 percent of Summit Lake visitors believe the neighborhood has changed for the better; 72 percent of respondents reported that they participate in some form of stewardship or advocacy related to the neighborhood. That's up from 43 percent in the baseline survey.

So we have gone from a lake that had one bench facing away from the water to a place that is truly about connection: connection to the water, to nature, to history, to the elders, to larger community and to one another. And it all started by listening and then moving at the speed of trust.

Now there is no one model or reimagining the civic commons, and there's no one approach to authentic, purposeful, equitable engagement. But I hope in sharing the Akron story, you see how these principles for engagement, as well as the outcomes for civic commons, can work in practice, and I hope you'll be inspired to adopt some of this into your own work.

Now, our ambition for civic commons does not end with the 10 cities we currently operate in. We want to inspire and support every community that wants to reimagine those civic commons, and we have an amazing set of free resources available that I hope you will avail yourself to.

Now is really a critical moment for our communities, for our country. We desperately need approaches to engagement and to our public realm that help restore our democracy. Yes, I said democracy, because I, I really think it's quite that serious.

We need places where our paths cross with people of all backgrounds, ages, identities and abilities. Places where trust is cultivated and our empathy for others is bolstered.

But to create and sustain those places requires that each of us engage, maybe more deeply and differently than we ever have before.

But when we flip the switch on how we think about engagement, how we approach our communities, and when we ensure that our older adults are meaningfully engaged, I truly believe that we illuminate so many more possibilities for our present and for our future.

I want to thank you for sharing the space with me today. We're going to transition to Q&A, but before we do that I’d like to share with you a short video from my friends and Akron. So please enjoy this video and I’ll see you on the other side to continue our conversation.


If I had to describe Summit Lake a few years ago, I would honestly say depressing.

Abused and neglected,

People talked about how polluted the water was

There was one bench in this park that bench did not even face the lake

I didn't want to move over here ... but it changed.

When Civic Commons first came down here, I was not the least bit interested it kind of gave me a different perception and actually hear them say we want to know what the residents want, as opposed to coming in and saying this is what we're going to do.

Civic Commons came to this community and realized they had to earn the trust of the community.

We have to break this legacy of things being done to and not with things promised and not delivered.

What we're really doing is trying to bring back and revive that sense of pride and play

We didn’t realize what was hidden behind the bushes until Civic Commons came.

We realized, we were all in tandem, we all had the same goals; we just wanted to make a better space for everyone and we added seats, shading, lights. You can't know more than the people who live here

I see more children out playing in the neighborhood, families feel more safe for their kids being able to come down here, but you just see more people, and that’s really refreshing

Come on down for a guided canoe trip; come on down for s’mores fun.

Give us the opportunity to introduce you to the neighborhood residents, because I think once you actually spend time in the space, I think you actually might start to change your mind about it.

Partnering with residents to co-create what that rebirth looks like and needs to be can actually be a catalyst for a wider community development at the neighborhood level. You can't get anything done without trust.

It's embedded in the process to be inclusive. The invitation has to be something that we give often and not just to residents, but people outside of the community. This is the Civic Commons process.

Civic Commons really does define how you build trust. We're changing the world; we're doing that one neighbor and one neighborhood at a time.

Now, it's the place of community, it’s a place of friendship, it makes me proud to be able to say this is Summit Lake.

MIKE WATSON: Wow. Thank you Lynn, and thanks for sharing that remarkable work and for being here for Q&A. So now it's time to ask your questions of Lynn. We have Lynn here with us. Lynn thanks so much for joining us.

LYNN M. ROSS: Thanks for having me Mike. Great to be with you

MIKE WATSON: Wonderful to have you here. So now we're going to jump into Q&A. Remember please use Slido to ask your questions. We already have some great ones coming in, I was just looking at them. Let's go ahead and start off with the one that looks like it's actually one of the more popular ones:

What are the best options and strategies for small rural communities with limited resources?

LYNN M. ROSS: Sure. So it's a great question, thank you for that. I think the best options here are really to do what we've done with civic commons right to set outcomes.

Every process has limitations right whether that's a budget or staff or time.

But when you start with outcomes and you start with an engagement process that really centers on community I think you can have a real conversation, even in a rural setting where resources may be more limited, to really talk about what can be accomplished, I think the important thing is to make sure that you ultimately are delivering on promises.

And so, if you start the conversation, and you move at the speed of trust and really start with outcomes, I think that can help everyone engaged in that process really understand what's possible and what their role is in participating in the implementation.

MIKE WATSON: Fantastic answer. So, I’m just have even more coming in, so I’m going to jump right in. We're seeing a real clustering around how to best reach older adults, so let me ask this question of you:

How do you reach seniors who don't use the Internet, don't answer the phone if the number of the person calling is not in their contacts list, or are physically isolated due to COVID and maybe opt to throw out unrecognized mail as junk mail?

LYNN M. ROSS: So I think going back to the elements I talked about, right, meet people where they are, and so I think you have to go to the places where older folks are, that may even be a doctor's office right, so you have to get creative and relying on mail, relying on the Internet is not going to work, not just for older adults but for many people who don't have Internet access.

I think it's really about figuring out  where this audience is and then going to them and networking with other people who do reach them right, so if they are still going to a community center, if they are perhaps getting Meals on Wheels, connect with those organizations and help them to get the information to the older adults, about how to participate in what's going on and how they can participate in the program.

MIKE WATSON: Thanks, Lynn, so it's kind of on the topic of meeting people where they are, this is another one submitted a few minutes ago:

How do you define public spaces? We hear ideas like social infrastructure, civic infrastructure? Do you include libraries and grocery stores into the broader definition of public space that refers to parks?

LYNN M. ROSS: That's a great question, and when we talk about civic commons, we are absolutely talking about the full range of spaces in our public realm, so not just parks and open space, but our libraries, our community and recreation centers, our waterfront, trails, streets, sidewalks, any of those third space that we know are so essential to health and wellbeing for residents of all ages. All of that is what we consider civic commons.

MIKE WATSON: Another question here, really several questions around this, so I’m going to kind of lump them into one:

How can the framework of livable communities be brought to elderly people struggling with homelessness, moving into supportive housing, and remaining in that housing? How can new housing for homeless people help to facilitate this idea of a livable community?

LYNN M. ROSS: I think we have to, when we talk about livable, livable for whom, right? And if it's not livable to those who are most vulnerable in our community, then it's not livable at all.

We need to think about the range of strategies — from engagement to strategies that are about our physical and built environment like housing — that ensure that those who are most vulnerable in our communities have the resources that they need to be healthy, to be safe, to be housed.

It's really hard to think about some of the other things that we value in our community when someone is sleeping outside, right, and sleeping in a tent, when they really could be in a home. So we have to look at strategies like affordable housing, we have to look at wraparound services and make the community livable to everyone, but really focus in on those who are most vulnerable.

MIKE WATSON: Another question along those lines, Lynn: 

Too often, improvements to public space results in a rise in nearby housing costs. Does Akron or your other communities have a strategy in place for maintaining and creating housing affordability for existing residents, so that displacement does not happen?

LYNN M. ROSS: That's a great question and you'll remember in the civic commons outcomes that I mentioned, one of those outcomes is value creation. And what we know is that we are making investments into libraries, into public spaces and that value has to be retained for the residents and the small businesses that are already there.

We don't want to make these investments and become green gentrifiers, so many of our communities are embracing that outcome and are thinking ahead about a range of tools that help people who want to stay.

These spaces welcome everyone but, first and foremost, they are for those who are already there. That can look a lot of different ways. That can be putting a freeze on a property tax hike, that can look like a range of things, but you have to think about it at the start right, so you can't sort of make the investment into the public realm and then have it be successful and then realize, “Oh, we really should have thought about the fact that this was going to increase property values from the start.”

You know that you're going to attract this investment, so you have to implement the range of tools and bring along the right partners. That may mean bringing along some partners in local government — maybe even state government that can help pull on some different policy levers — to ensure that maybe a community land trust is set up, so that you're keeping the costs lower. There are a range of tools out there, but I think again, the key is to really understand that that investment is going to generate some of those issues and do your best from the start, to prevent gentrification and particularly displacement.

MIKE WATSON: Another great response. Lynn, I’m going to lump a couple questions here. I’m sure this, these are ones that you get often:

Is there something like the civic commons for smaller cities and small towns? And what can communities that maybe aren't part of the places where you're working directly learn from these efforts?

LYNN M. ROSS: Great question. Again, I think the key here is, regardless of the size of your city or the state of your existing community is really to center on outcomes. We welcome communities to adopt the four civic commons outcomes, and I will say in terms of learning and resources available, pretty much everything that we've developed, all of the learning that we've developed through civic commons, is available on our website, which has a range of tools that talks about the 10 places where we're working and how they're doing that work.

We also have a pretty extensive metrics program. That again is rooted in those outcomes. We have do-it-yourself tools, so if you want to apply those metrics to your work you can do that. We're also telling stories in real time so from the Civic Commons website, you can go to our Medium publication and hear directly from residents and other local leaders who are engaged in this work in communities of all sizes and hear what they're learning, what worked, what didn't work, and think about how that can apply to what you do.

From the outset of this effort, our goal was to inspire and support as many communities as possible and the reimagining of these spaces and so we've really worked hard to share those stories and those resources, but also tell you what didn't work as quickly as we can. Spend some time at to learn a lot more.

MIKE WATSON: Okay, great. Lynn, one of the questions here, I think one of the things we've all seen in this country, is about the real divide on a lot of issues:

How can we promote broad engagement in communities with strong and sometimes imbalanced divides that could be partisan or other topics?

LYNN M. ROSS: This is a great question, and this is a certainly a serious issue in our country, and every place. I think we have to remember that we actually do have more in common and more that connects us than what divides us. And I think when you take an approach to engagement, like the one I described, where you are centering on lived experience, where you are really honoring that time and honoring that space, I think you can create an environment in which people feel safe to express themselves.

Now, there have to be some ground rules right because we don't want anyone to participate in a process where they experience harm or disrespect, but we want that process to be as honest and open as possible. I think it's really on those who are organizing that space to set some ground rules about how information is going to be shared and to set some ground rules around respecting one another and respecting of differences.

Every process is not about consensus, right. I talked about listening to understand. When we focus on just listening to understand, It creates some new avenues to really figure out, okay actually, I don't agree with this person on these 10 points, but on this one area, we have a lot of commonalities and so let's focus on that.

Public space can be a great unifier in that way. Most people like public spaces, right? They like their parks, they like their libraries, they like their community center, and so I think you can use public spaces as an entrée to building trust and rebuilding those communication skills and helping people to see we've got more in common than we do differences. And that may help us overcome some divides in our community and beyond.

MIKE WATSON: Well, Lynn, I think those are all words for us to live by and it looks like we actually have time for one more question. This question is centered around environmental impacts:

Older adults are especially vulnerable when it comes to the impacts of the environment. Are environmental barriers addressed, such as secondhand smoke, when defining livable communities — and have you encountered this in your work with through the Civic Commons?

LYNN M. ROSS: We have to think about environmental impacts. We are all dealing with those. I live in Miami Beach. I’m dealing with climate impacts every single day and so again, just as I said, we can't have a livable community if we don't focus on our most vulnerable. We can't have a livable community when we don't focus on those climate and environmental impacts.

That is something we absolutely have to think about. In my own work it's something that is at the center of what I do. When we talk about equity, we absolutely have to understand that there are significant disparities when it comes to environmental impacts. And when we don't address those, both the past harm that was created, the current harm and then making sure no new harm is created, we're not getting to equity, so it has to be at the center of the conversation.

MIKE WATSON: Lynn, thank you again. We have so many more great questions coming in. I wish we had time to get to them all. Thank you again for joining us today. This has been so wonderful.

Page published October 2021

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