The Grass Roots Are Growing Up and Up

Today we’re going to go just a bit off-topic and look at a post from Streetsblog Network member Aaron Renn on his blog The Urbanophile
about "The New Grass Roots." It examines in depth a few things that are
near and dear to our hearts here at Streetsblog and the The Open Planning Project, including the ability of the Internet to transform the public policy debate:

364313299_8bd39d49f2_m.jpgPhoto by aussiegall via Flickr.

The
notable thing is that someone who is grass roots can now get a message
out in a way that matters. If bloggers aren’t directly influencing
policy and decision making, they can at least be part of setting the
topic and parameters of civic discourse and debate. That’s an amazing
thing if you think about it. Even ten years ago if you wanted to be
part of something like that, you had to have a platform to do it from
(i.e., be part of the establishment). Today, if you have something
compelling to say, you can put it out there and with a modicum of
self-promotion, your audience will eventually find you. In
the past you needed a platform to get your message out. Today, your
message becomes the platform. That’s a radical sea change and I don’t
think we know the full implications yet.

In a second post
elaborating on how grass-roots networks and open-source economic
development models can help make better cities, Renn concludes:

[W]hat
does civic leadership need to do to take advantage of this? Partially,
the beautiful answer is Nothing. The great part of a bottom-up movement
is that it doesn’t require anything from the top. The types of networks
that are being created will generate their own value. Indeed they are
formed because they provide value to the people who participate…

So
while cities don’t need to do
anything to exploit these networks, they should certainly be
encouraging them to form. If these types of robust blogs, locally
oriented social networks, and open source support organizations aren’t
forming, that’s a big point of concern. On the other hand, civic
leadership should take care not to smother them with too much unwanted
or unneeded "help". Sometimes the best policy is hands off.

But
I do think there is opportunity for active collaboration between the
establishment, or what we might think of as top-down leadership, and
the new grass roots, or what we might call the bottom-up world.

One network that’s doing a lot of interesting work in this area is DIYCity,
"a site where people from all over the world think about, talk about,
and ultimately build tools for making their cities work better with web
technologies." They’ve got dozens of chapters in cities from Capetown
to New Orleans to Manila.

Our own national blog network brings together, literally on the same page,
more than 270 bloggers who write about sustainable transportation and
development issues. Take a look. If you know of a blog that should be
there and isn’t, click the "Nominate a blog" button at the top of the
page and fill us in. And if you’re a Twitter kind of person, you can always find us there.

  • marcos

    Internetworked media are contributory to grassroots politics, but the internet is still virtual, and virtual is still fake.

    Mistake the simulacra of grassroots politics and organizing with the real thing at your own peril; there are no shortcuts.

    As Cesar Chavez said, you’ve got to go person to person to build power and make change.

    -marc

  • Marc, something to consider. Locally oriented social networks facilitate connections that can move beyond virtual to physical. I’ve met dozens of people online that I now know “in real life”. And I’m aware of multiple traditional organizations that have spun out of these as grass roots startups in the real world.

    Also, do not underestimate the power of blogs to move the market. Often blogs in many cities are digging up the dirt that later on makes into the old media and onto the public’s radar.