Arts & Culture

Revitalizing Communities Through Magic, Awe, and Inspiration

Could these be the new tools of development for the 21st century?

Magic, awe, and inspiration. We haven’t used these words as part of our economic development vocabulary, and they are probably anathema to most economists, development officials, and urban planners. And yet, most of us can point to pivotal times, people, and places in our own lives that have changed us, almost as if by magic: a teacher who inspired, a book that opened new worlds to us, a neighbor with a special gift of attention. Seemingly small events creating ripple effects that produce long-lasting changes. Can we deliberately find spaces in our communities to promote the possibilities for magical, awe-inspiring encounters to take place? And can we use this strategy to enrich our thinking about development and expand our toolkit for creating positive changes in our communities?

I believe that we not only can but must do this urgently. In fact, many economists, philanthropists, and academics today are questioning the very term “development” as it applies both to our efforts internationally and domestically. They are asking: development for what, toward what goal, and for whom? These questions are legitimate, not just for the so-called developing world, but also in the United States, arguably one of the most developed countries in the world. As we reflect on what development means, we have to confront the question that Dr. James Doty, founder of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism, asks in his Huffington Post essay after pointing out that the United States consumes more than a quarter of the world’s resources but is plagued by loneliness, depression, and anxiety: “Why do so many in the West who have all of their basic needs met still feel impoverished?”

To answer this question, we need to step away from economic and development orthodoxies, and bring non-economic words and levers such as awe, inspiration, magic, compassion, and human connectedness into the conversation. You can call this a post-development agenda and a post-development vocabulary.

Early efforts to shape this agenda are already emerging, albeit outside the confines of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, city halls, and many development agencies. These efforts are often hyper-local, emergent, and not easily planned or directed. They’re not necessarily permanent or institution-based. Instead, they’re scrappy, focused on getting things done with little or no money. They may not look like traditional development projects, as each one has a unique flavor, but they have one thing in common: They are changing people’s lives on a micro scale—block by block, person by person, community by community. And they’re not shy about using words like inspiration, awe, and love when they talk about how they came into being and what they’re trying to do. Examples include Freespace, which converted a vacant warehouse in the Central Market area of San Francisco into an experimental space for civic innovation, art, and learning.

Another example: Quesada Gardens Initiative, started more than 10 years ago in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco—one of the poorest and most crime-ridden areas of the city. A resident who was tired of watching drug dealing, prostitution, and other illegal activity on her block started planting a small strip of flowers in the weed-filled median. Soon others joined her, planting flowers and food in vacant lots, backyards, and community spaces. Since 2002, under the Quesada umbrella, a total of more than 35 such projects have appeared, including gardens, public art, and education projects.

In a different domain, Science Hack Days bring together hundreds of science enthusiasts, spanning disciplines, organizational affiliations, ages, and levels of expertise to work on any science project that inspires them. The tasks and duties aren’t assigned as they would be in traditional work settings or schools. Participants self-identify their expertise and choose how they want to contribute. Results range from the humorous to quite serious: a robot reading Twitter sentiments, a piece of software for converting particle accelerator data into music, a platform for analyzing the location of public transport in the city. The most important outcome of Science Hack Days (and in other meet-ups, maker spaces, and community labs), however, may not be the actual products but rather the inspiration for participants to learn more and contribute to science.

Initiatives like these focus on very different domains—science, art, gardens, and civic innovation. But all of them share similar characteristics. The changes they aim to make are not necessarily grandiose (at least not at first); instead, they try to achieve something very specific. It’s not that they can’t achieve scale, but scale is not the focus. The focus is something that resonates and fits within a particular community or block.

They also don’t use the language of economics and development; they use “radical hospitality,” “openness,” “magic,” “inspiration.” These efforts don’t require huge investments; sometimes they require hardly any investment at all. They are small, fluid, and open to experimentation. Rather than “development efforts” meant to “develop” a community, they are fun, porous, accessible undertakings that open their doors to participation. As such, instead of creating dependencies—“I give you money, you deliver outcomes” scenarios—they entice people to join with playfulness and blur hierarchies so that everyone can be a valuable potential contributor. These kinds of initiatives are not about creating institutions but intrinsic changes in those who participate; they inspire people to engage in science, create art, and learn.

Finally, they provide spaces that encourage serendipitous encounters, and thereby create the potential for new possibilities, connections, perspective, and discovery.

I don’t want to suggest that these efforts are a panacea for all of our urban and community problems. I don’t believe in panaceas. And I certainly don’t advocate abandoning infrastructure projects that provide clean water, sanitation, and serve other basic needs. But I do believe that at a time when we need to seriously rethink the traditional tools and lexicon of economic development, these initiatives signal a new, more cost-effective, and more impactful approach to building thriving communities.

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  • BY Jo Cavanagh

    ON November 11, 2013 12:05 PM

    Marina you are talking our @FamilyLifeAU language! We would add words like trust and relationships, caring, connection and transformation as essential “ingredients” for bringing people together to empower belief and action for change and helping each other. Thankyou for this article.
    Jo Cavanagh

  • BY Dan Bassill

    ON November 12, 2013 07:28 AM

    I have long believed that volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs are spaces where miracles can happen, and where little battles and victories are won and lost every day. Unfortunately such programs are not equally available in all neighborhoods where they are needed.

    In 1993 when I created the Tutor/Mentor Connection in Chicago, no one had a master database of existing non-school programs built around tutoring/mentoring and no one was yet using maps to show where programs were most needed, or where existing programs existed. Thus there were no master marketing strategies helping programs throughout the city get the operating res9urces, ideas, attention and support each needs to remain an island of hope in a neighborhood.

    Since then I’ve been building the database and using maps to show where programs are located and integrated these into year-round communications intending to increase support for these programs. Map stories can be seen at and a searchable database can be found at

    The work I’ve been doing is still poorly supported, yet I offer this with the suggestion that intermediaries in any city could be creating map/directories showing existing spaces described by Marina Gorbis, and in doing so could help raise the awareness and resources needed by all of these organizations to do their work from year to year. 

  • Richard Hill's avatar

    BY Richard Hill

    ON November 14, 2013 02:35 PM

    I enjoy the organic metaphors of “flourishing” and “cultivating” which I am hearing more frequently for urban community development.

  • BY Evan Weissman

    ON November 21, 2013 10:25 AM

    Thanks for this article. Someone suggested I read this because of the work we’re doing creating Civic Health Clubs at Warm Cookies of the Revolution. I really enjoy your perspective and think it’s spot on. Thanks!

  • BY

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