By Eve Picker
It’s often thought that community development and revitalization can only come from major projects, substantial policy changes, or top-down adjustments and actions. But there’s another powerful way to change and revive communities, and that is through incremental development. The concept is a simple one, rooted in the idea of starting small and building upon small successes.
Interestingly, when it comes to urban design, the idea of incremental development is based in ecology. In the field of ecology, scientists look at how species of trees or plants naturally promulgate through an area or forest over time. This doesn’t happen all at once, but the growth gradually spreads until you can see the entire species throughout the area.
From this idea comes the concept of urban patch dynamics, which simply takes these basic ecological theories and applies them in urban areas. Rather than being dependent on big projects or favorable policy changes, urban patch dynamics relies on small changes, happening in patches and gradually over time, to create major changes across a community.
Starting small leads to big
The best way to understand how powerful incremental development can be is to look at some case studies. Once such example is in Indianapolis, where Urban Patch, led by Justin Garrett Moore and his parents, is working to improve the neighborhood that he grew up in. The process and philosophy that guides Urban Patch is grounded in incremental change.
The Moores began by being committed to starting small. Their first step was simply to buy vacant houses in the neighborhood, fixing them up, and renting them out. Their idea was that if this worked, they’d keep repeating it as long as it was successful. So far, they’ve improved 8 houses and 9 or 10 lots. As you can imagine, when this amount of development is concentrated in one neighborhood, it begins to have a noticeable impact across the community.
As part of their philosophy of incremental development, Urban Patch has worked to take many different actions – no matter how small the action might be – at the same time. The idea is that these small actions will combine to create a big impact. With that concept in mind, in addition to revitalizing houses and lots, Urban Patch has also led tree-planting campaigns; provided free trees to people in the community to help rebuild the tree canopy; and supported community gardens, artwork, and murals.
A community together
Central to their strategy is the importance of involving the community in the changes that are taking place. They understand that projects like community gardens and tree planting can help to involve all members of the community and invest them in the development. These seemingly small projects give Urban Patch the opportunity to get to know the people in their community, talk with them, and, perhaps most importantly, listen to them. For Justin and his parents, understanding the community that they’re partnering with and listening to the needs of members in that community is an integral part of their work and one of the things that has helped lead to their success.
Right now, Urban Patch is working with a local neighborhood development corporation and a community developer to revitalize a three-block vacant area. Obviously, this is a larger scale development, but one that has been made possible by the incremental strategy effectively employed by Urban Patch for the last eight years.
The work that Urban Patch is doing in Indianapolis provides an inspiring model for the impact that small changes can have. Listen to an interview with Justin to learn more about his work and the power of incremental development.