16 Ways to Make Your Neighborhood Safer, Greener and Fun
From Italy to Luckenbach, Texas, practical ideas for improving your hometown
The ideas below are from the Great Neighborhood Book, a collaboration between OTC Senior Fellow Jay Walljasper and Project for Public Spaces. Walljasper is a Minneapolis-based speaker and consultant about how to strengthen communities. PPS is a New York-based group that for 35 years has helped people around the world improve their communities.
1) Dare to Dream
Your imagination is the most important resource in transforming your neighborhood
From the southeast side of Seattle comes uplifting evidence for the important roles that a clear community vision and a vivid sense of imagination play in improving neighborhood life. The Columbia City district was founded in the 1890s as a new suburb around a rail station and was later absorbed into fast-growing Seattle. Although rundown, the neighborhood had a distinctive historic character which boosted community-led efforts in the 1990s to revitalize the area. But one half-block stretch of its downtown proved stubbornly resistant to change. Even while substantial improvements were being made throughout this working-class and ethnic community, merchants could not be persuaded to open up businesses in these particular buildings. The shop windows remained boarded up, giving the neighborhood a blighted look despite all the progress.
“The buildings had been empty for twenty years,” notes Jim Diers, a local resident who at the time headed up Seattle’s innovative Department of Neighborhoods. Finally at one local meeting, he recounts in his compelling book Neighborhood Power, “someone suggested that if the community couldn’t attract real businesses, they could at least pretend.”
And that’s exactly what Columbia City residents did. Working with artists from the Southeast Seattle Arts Council they painted the communities’ dreams upon the plywood covering the windows: an ice cream parlor, a toy store, a dance studio, a bookshop, and a hat shop.
“The murals looked so realistic that passing motorists sometimes stopped to shop,” Diers writes. “The murals also captured the imagination of a developer and several business owners. Within a year, everyone of the murals had to be removed because real businesses wanted to locate there.”
Columbia City saw its dream come true in the form of a new Italian deli, a brewpub and a cooperative art gallery, which itself grew out of a town meeting in which local where local residents offered visions for the neighborhood.
Neighborhood Power: Building Community the Seattle Way by Jim Diers (University of Washington Press)
2) Take the Time to Enjoy Your Surroundings
Slowing Down is the first step to a great neighborhood—otherwise you’re too busy to enjoy it
You can live in the greatest neighborhood in the universe but if you can’t take the time to stop in the cozy corner coffee shop, wander over to farmer’s market on Saturday morning, chat for a minute with your neighbor in front of the grocery store then you might as well live on the dark side of the moon. And chances are, if too many people in your neighborhood have the same busy schedule, then things won’t stay great for too long.
Making the time to appreciate all that’s going on all around each day is one of the best investments you can make. Think twice about signing up for another class across town. You could learn quite a bit more exploring around your home each evening. Trade the treadmill and stationary bicycle for a sidewalk and bike ride. Cancel your cable bill and spend the savings at local diners and taverns, where you’ll get more important news, far more interesting stories and even more opinionated sports coverage. Whole new worlds will open up and you’ll feel more relaxed to boot.
A number of cities across Italy came to realize how importance the pace of life is in keeping their communities vital, and launched the Cittaslow movement, known internationally as the League of Slow Cities in 2000. Associated with the burgeoning slow food movement, more than 100 cities (in Brazil, Norway, Sweden, Japan, Greece, Switzerland, Great Britain and Canada as well as Italy) joined the network united in the belief that the good life is an unhurried experience. Proudly displaying the Slow Cities logo around town, they pledged to:
— restrain racing traffic by limiting automobiles and promoting leisurely transportation alternatives such as bikes and pedestrian zones;
— encourage businesses, schools and government to improve the quality of life by allowing people to take time off for a long midday meal;
— promoting good food by sponsoring farmers’ markets and preserving local culinary traditions;
— curtain noise pollution and visual blight by limiting car alarms, outdoor advertising and unsightly signs.
“We are not against the modern world,” explains mayor Paolo Sautrnini of the slow city of Greve in Tuscany. “We just want to protect what is good in our lives and keep our unique town character.”
“Slow Cities league”: www.cittaslow.org
3) Stir Up a Little Hope
Any neighborhood, no matter how far down on its luck, can be lifted up by positive action
The biggest problem for struggling communities is despair as everyone—inside the community and out—loses faith that anything can change. The goal then must be to crack through that sense of hopelessness, showing that change is possible.
North Philadelphia, among all the struggling communities across the U.S. , stood out as one of the saddest. Vacant lots strewn with rubble dominated the landscape just as you see in photographs of bombed-out Berlin at the end of World War II—a testament to the economic, social and psychological devastation of local residents.
That’s when Lily Yeh entered the picture. She was an art professor at the Philadelphia School of Fine Arts, whom a friend consulted about what to do with a particularly grim stretch of abandoned lots near his dance studio. Yeh was shocked at the state of the neighborhood, and didn’t quite know where to start. But she knew something had to be done so she began cleaning up the trash, which drew the attention of local kids who wanted to know, she remembers, what “this crazy Chinese lady” was up to. Soon their parents were watching too, and Yeh realized she had some collaborators for what was to be the most important art project of her life. Soon everyone was involved in cleaning up the area, painting murals, and creating an “art park”, which the became the pride of the community.
Twenty years later, this predominantly African-American neighborhood is still poor, with 30 percent unemployment but hope is returning thanks to the Village of Arts and Humanities. That’s what the small art park in a vacant lot has grown into—a tangible symbol of renewal that encompasses 120 murals, numerous sculpture gardens, mosaics, community parks, performance spaces, basketball courts, even a tree farm. Six buildings have been rehabbed into workspaces for Village projects with local residents getting on-the-job training in the construction trades. A daycare center has been established, along with a new initiative, Shared Prosperity, to tackle economic conditions in North Philadelphia.
The neighborhood now gathers every summer for an annual theater festival, with plays written by young people drawing on their own experiences in North Philly. Several have been performed as far away as Mexico and Iceland.
The Village of Art and Humanities has changed how residents of North Philadelphia think about their home—and how everyone else does too. Philip Horn, director of the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, notes it, “changed the perception of the [wider] community from ‘there’s something wrong with these people’ to ‘ there’s nothing wrong with these people’.”
“Village of Art and Humanities”: http://villagearts.org/
4) Better to Ask Forgiveness Than Permission
How a Dutch neighborhood pioneered an innovation now sweeping the globe
Traffic calming has swept the world over the past 20 years. It’s based on the rather simple idea that cars and trucks don’t have exclusive ownership of our streets. Streets are shared public space also belonging to people on foot and bicycles, in baby strollers and wheelchairs. Reminding motorists of this fact, traffic calming uses design features such as narrowing roads or elevating crosswalks to slow traffic and assert pedestrian’s right to cross the street.
This idea has altered the literal landscape of urban life in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Germany and Australia as people move about their cities with more ease and pleasure—and it’s now taking off in other parts of the world.
The origins of this ingenious idea can be traced to Delft, Netherlands, where residents of one neighborhood were fed up with cars racing along their streets, endangering children, pets and peace of mind. One evening they decided to do something about it by dragging old couches, planters and other objects out into the roadway and positioning them in such a way that cars could pass but would have to slow down. Police soon arrived on the scene and had to admit that this project, although clearly illegal, was a really good idea. Soon, the city itself was installing similar measures called woonerfs (Dutch for “living yards”) on streets plagued by unruly motorists.
One can only imagine the response of city officials if these neighbors had meekly come to city hall to propose the idea of partially blocking the streets; they would have been hooted right out of the building. But by taking direct action, they saved their neighborhood and changed the face of cities around the world.
5) A Community Renaissance is Easier Than You Think
How Dave Marcucci’s frontyard bench transformed his suburban neighborhood
It doesn't take much to start a renaissance in your neighborhood. In fact, as Dave Marcucci discovered, a simple bench can do the trick. After attending a PPS training course in 2005, Marcucci came away inspired by the idea that every neighborhood should have ten great places. He returned home to Mississauga, Ontario determined to make his house, which occupies a prime corner lot, one of the great places within his neighborhood.
Marcucci started by tearing out the fencing at the corner of his front yard. As he got to work landscaping the area and constructing a bench, he received a lot of quizzical comments. “Why don’t you build a bench for yourself in the backyard?” He would answer,” the bench is for you.”
When the bench was finished, Marcucci and his neighbors threw a street party. The bench soon became a place where everyone in the neighborhood came to sit. Older people stop to rest on it during their evening strolls. Kids sit there as they wait for the school bus in the morning. Families out for a walk use it to take a breather.
The complications that Marcucci first anticipated have not come to pass. The bench has not been vandalized, nor has it attracted negative uses. It was installed without approval from the city, but no one has demanded to see a permit. “There have been no problems!” he exclaims. “It’s worked out really well. I’ve met my neighbors, and other people I’d never met before. It’s added a really friendly atmosphere to the neighborhood. You sit on the bench, and as people walk by, they stop and talk to you!” The bench is so popular that later that fall, a homeowner around the corner from Marcucci added his own bench for the whole neighborhood to use. —By Ben Fried
6) Reinvent the Village in the Heart of the City
The remarkable renaissance of Boston’s Dudley Street shows the promise of a lively business districts to restore a community’s spirit
In the 1980s, Dudley Street in Boston's hard-hit Roxbury district seemed an unlikely candidate to become a symbol for urban resurgence. It suffered from all the usual problems of inner-city neighborhoods—poverty, crime, drugs, unemployment, racial discrimination, inadequate public services, rundown houses, poor schools and redlining. On top of that it had its own unique and daunting problems. More than 20 percent of land in the neighborhood was vacant, thanks to widespread arson—a lot of it committed by landlords seeking to collect insurance money. Many of those lots became dumping grounds for truckloads of trash from garbage haulers who used the neighborhood as an illegal transfer station. With many African-American residents and immigrants from the Caribbean and Cape Verde Islands, ethnic and language divisions hindered efforts to organize the community to stand up for its interests.
But, against all these odds, Dudley Street now stands as a shining success story of how a neighborhood can turn itself around. Dudley Street itself, once blighted, is now a bustling main street sporting a Town Common, complete with a farmer’s market; the Vine Street Community Center, featuring a technology skills lab, gym, youth center, and dance studio; and locally-owned shops and restaurants.
Even though this is inner city Boston , you get a feel of one of the old-fashioned villages New England is famous for. Instead of tidy frame homes behind white picket fences, it’s rehabbed rowhouses. In the place of a corner soda fountain stands the Ideal Sub Shop featuring a taste of the Cape Verde islands, a former Portuguese colony off the coast of Africa. Conversations may be in Spanish, Cape Verdean Creole, or the melodious rhythms of the Carribbean, rather than a gruff Yankee accent. But it still resembles the idealized America many of us long for, where kids stop off for candy at Davey’s Market after school and folks gather for summer evening concerts at the bandstand on the town common.
The Dudley Street business district is the heart of this revived community. It all began in the mid-1980s when the local Riley Foundation expressed interest in helping the neighborhood, and drafted a typical plan inviting outside experts to come in and help the poor “underprivileged” folks. But those folks would have nothing of it—if they could not run the redevelopment plans themselves, they weren’t interested. The Riley Foundation courageously agreed to fund a community-led revitalization effort, and that’s how things got rolling.
In a series of vision sessions, residents expressed their hopes of creating an urban village—a concept now in vogue among urban planners but quite unexpected from poor and immigrant people, who are supposed to care only about “practical things” like affordable housing and new jobs, not worry about frills like urban villages. “These people didn’t get their ideas from academics. What you have here are a lot of people here who grew up in the rural South and the Cape Verde Islands and the Caribbean,” says Gus Newport, who helped carry out the community’s vision as director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative….”They don’t want to live in tall buildings. They want to know their neighbors. They understood all by themselves that they wanted to get back to the village.”
At community meetings, residents’ dreams for Dudley Street were recorded on big sheets of paper and taped to the walls. “People Walking. People Talking. People Laughing. Saying Hello to Everyone We Meet.” was a typical comment, along with “I want affordable housing and schools with beautiful green playgrounds.”
The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative was formed in 1985 to make this vision into reality, and over the past twenty years it has gradually boosted the revitalization of the Dudley Street business district and created the Town Common, as well as building new parks and playgrounds, constructing 400 new homes, rehabbing 500 others, and bringing hope and opportunity back to Roxbury in form of an urban village.
“Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative”: www.dsni.org
7) Take a Stroll
The Latin custom of an evening walk is good for your health and for the vitality of your neighborhood
We all know that walking is good for us. It sheds calories, tones muscles, and clears our minds.
But taking a regular walk is also beneficial for your neighborhood. This basic human instinct—to get out of the house to see what’s going on—is the glue that holds most great communities together. The classic example are the Latin lands where an after-dinner stroll—the passegiata in Italy, the paseo in Spain and Latin America, the volta in Greece—is as much a part of the culture as sunshine or siestas. In towns and even large cities, people amble around the same set of streets each evening. The shops are usually closed so the purpose is not shopping and errands but to connect with their neighbors and enjoy their surroundings.
Writer Adam Goodheart described this scene near the main square of the Italian hill town of Eboli. “I realized that I kept seeing the same people, but in different combinations. Here came a blond woman pushing a stroller. Next lap, she was arm in arm with a younger woman and the stroller was nowhere to be seen. Later, they’d been joined by an old lady who was pushing the stroller. Next, they were surrounded by men, jackets draped over their shoulders…”.
The words passegiata and paseo translate into English as promenade—and the idea translates too, according to Christopher Alexander, a former Berkeley Architecture professor who has devoted his life to scientifically studying what makes places work. In his classic book A Pattern Language, he asks, “ Is the promenade in fact a purely Latin institution? Our experiments suggest that it is not?…It seems that people, of all cultures, may have a general need for this kind of human mixing which the promenade makes possible.”
Alexander lays out two guidelines that enhance the experience and sociability of a promenade:
— The route should be approximately 1500 feet, which can easily be walked in ten minutes at a leisurely pace. People may opt for many times around—especially teenagers on the lookout for excitement or romance—but you don’t want to make the course too long for kids or elderly people.
— It’s important that there are things to see and do along the route, with no empty or dead zones of more than 150 feet. While the primary purpose of these strolls is social, people also like to have some destination: a sidewalk café, playground, bookstore, bars, the library, ice cream shop etc.
Think about what blocks in your neighborhood show promise for strolling and what improvements could be made to get people out to meet their neighbors. Walking up and down Main Street or any lively commercial district is probably the most common North American version of the promenade, although a route along a waterfront or interesting residential blocks could work just as well. Public art, welcoming businesses, benches, flowerbeds, even a vending cart could all help solidify this area as the place where people go to after dinner to see and be seen in your community.
A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander
FOREST PARK, WASHINGTON
8) Be a Local Economy Hero
The old phrase “use or lose it” applies especially to neighborhood businesses
Living in a neighborhood—even the swankest one—with no grocery, coffee shop or other businesses is like wearing a nice new suit of clothes without shoes. It looks great, but you’ve got no place to go. Local shops, preferably within walking distance, are the soul of any community, the place where you bump into your neighbors and get that satisfying sense of belonging.
These neighborhood hang outs don’t need to be fancy or charming. Sometimes their idiosyncratic character is the best expression of your neighborhood’s true personality. A funky, messy junk shop run by lovable eccentric can be more welcome than a charming-as-can-be tea shoppe or nostalgically-correct soda fountain. Even a plain video store with good window display or a laundromat with comfy benches out front can become a kind of town square that attracts people.
In many small towns, an ice cream shop is the hot spot for teenagers, while other folks in the community wander down to the gas station to drink pop and tell stories. In a lot of African-American neighborhoods, the barber shop and beauty parlor are the social hubs. These places may not sound like your idea of an exciting time but to the people who live there, such businesses are as important as sidewalk cafes are to Parisians.
In Oxford, Mississippi, many folks credit a bookstore with helping heal the city's pride after a vicious anti-civil rights riot erupted in the 1960s. Square Books, right on the courthouse square, restored many people’s faith that this was a caring, civilized community. It also helped revive the sagging downtown.
“What tends to get lost in the argument over the future of independent stores is that the dangers posed to them by superstores and on-line sellers don’t just threaten some quaint form of distributing goods,” writes author Rob Gurwitt about Square Books in Mother Jones magazine. “They imperil the fabric of our community life. Real-life stores—their place on the street, the people they draw in, the presence they cast in the community at large—help define their neighborhoods.”
It’s no secret that local businesses almost everywhere are under siege from megamalls and big box retailers. Everyone who cares even a little about their neighborhood should make a commitment to patronize local businesses, even when bread or duct tape or CDs can be had cheaper by driving to national chain store. Vote with your pocketbook to keep your community vital. Indeed, you might even find yourself ahead economically with the money saved on gasoline and unnecessary purchases you would never have made if you hadn’t gone into the big box. And you’ll be way ahead in terms of community spirit and social enjoyment.
Thankfully, small neighborhood stores are beginning to fight back with business improvement districts. This is a well-proven model where local merchants work together to spruce up commercial streets by adding nice landscaping, fixing up the storefronts, improving the lighting and other amenities. They also cooperate on advertising campaigns, special neighborhood events, shared parking facilities, and other improvements.
Many merchants are banding together in an even bigger way by joining Independent Business Alliances, which draw public attention to the numerous benefits of locally owned businesses (how often do Wal-Mart and Home Depot buy uniforms for the local little league team or sponsor an art fair?) and by lobbying political officials and the media to take note of unfair economic tactics wielded by big retailers. The first IBA began in Boulder, Colorado in 1997 and within two years involved 150 local businesses. There are now IBAs in more than 20 communities—stretching from Corvallis, Oregon, to Greenville, South Carolina— and a national group, the American Independent Business Alliance, based in Missoula, Montana.
In Hartland, a village in the Devon countryside of England, a community school took over management of the Happy Pear greengrocer and market when it was about to close. It offers student a wonderful lesson in business management and sustainable economics, and means that local townspeople won’t have to drive many kilometers for fresh and organic food. This is just one example of a growing number of community initiatives to preserve and promote essential local shops. In another English village, Maiden Bradley in Wiltshire, 60 percent of residents pledged between five and five-hundred pounds ( $10-1000) to save and refurbish their general store (village shop in the British parlance), with townspeople doing most of the work. It is now community-owned with any profits going back to village itself.
In the Seattle suburb of Forest Park, residents rallied around a unique, redeveloped mall that was envisioned as a community center as much as a retail outlet. Third Place Commons features a superb bookstore as well as a food court featuring local restauranteurs and a stage for nightly music and performances. It become such a beloved local hangout that regular customers formed Friends of Third Place Commons, a non-profit group to help keep the place thriving.
“Square Books”: www.squarebooks.com
“American Independent Business Alliance”: amiba.net
“Friends of Third Place Commons”: www.thirdplacecommons.org
9) Build on What’s Good to Make Your Community Better
Capitalizing on opportunities may be more important than solving problems
The biggest problem in many neighborhoods—especially low-income ones— is caused by perception more than reality. A part of town gets the reputation for being “bad”, “tough”, or “declining”, which is constantly reinforced in the media and local gossip. A negative incident happening there is widely reported as more evidence of “social breakdown”, whereas the same thing occurring in a different part of town would be thought of as “an unfortunate event” and quickly forgotten.
Making things worse, many well-intentioned efforts to help these afflicted areas wind up stigmatizing the community even more. The whole focus is on everything that’s wrong: bad schools, bad crime, bad housing, bad kids, bad economic opportunities. Even the people who live there come to feel negative about where they live and helpless to do anything to change things. It’s all just bad. Yet even in the most economically and socially challenged communities, there are a lot of good things going on—and that’s the building block to make things better.
On paper, things looked bleak for the Grand Boulevard neighborhood in Chicago. Eighty-two percent of children there lived in poverty, and unemployment was 34 percent. Yet below the surface, not visible in government statistics or a quick drive through its rundown streets, there was ample reason for hope. This African-American community of 36,000 on the city’s South Side was home to no less than 320 citizens groups working to improve life in the neighborhood.
Grand Boulevard’s residents were not just hapless victims, waiting for someone from the outside to rescue them from poverty and social ills; they were taking matters into their own hands. These groups—which ranged from church committees to senior citizen centers to mothers’ support groups—were mostly involved in the basic caretaking such as providing support for single mothers or taking in abandoned children. Yet after a number of these groups organized themselves into the Grand Boulevard Federation, they took on more complex issues such as creating jobs in the neighborhood and improving social services. They formed partnerships with government agencies, non profit organizations and businesses, such as United Parcel Service, which reserved 50 part-time jobs for Grand Boulevard residents needing to get on their feet. This has all made a difference in Grand Boulevard—both in concrete economic and social measures, but also the community’s own faith that they can solve their problems.
“For the last 40 or 50 years we have been looking at communities in terms of their needs,” says Jody Kretzmann, co-director of the Asset Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University. “We have run into a brick wall with that approach.” Kretzmann and his colleague John McKnight of Northwestern, have pioneered a new approach to urban problems that starts with looking at the assets that exist in a community, rather than just what’s wrong. This empowers people, Kretzmann says, drawing on the abilities and insight of local residents to solve a neighborhood’s own problems. This does not mean, he is careful to note, that troubled neighborhoods don’t need outside help.
Any neighborhood can benefit from taking stock of their strengths.
Kretzmann suggests all local revitalization project begin with an assets inventory—which can be as simple as list of what’s great about the neighborhood. Solicit the opinions of everyone, including youngsters and senior citizens, when compiling your list.
Jim Diers, a veteran activist who has held workshops throughout Seattle to help residents capitalize on the advantages of their neighborhoods, says, “The assets a neighborhood can build on range from natural features to school playground, great stores, networks, organizations, artists, and the whole range of human and financial resources, energy, creativity and ideas. Whether it’s a restaurant with especially delicious food, a gigantic cedar tree, or a longtime resident, a neighborhood treasure is something that makes us glad we live where we do.”
“Asset Based Community Development Institute”: http://www.abcdinstitute.org/
10) Take to the Streets
The old wisdom that lively neighborhoods are safe neighborhoods is more true than ever
You don't have to be an ex-linebacker or hold a black belt in karate to help keep the peace in your neighborhood. Anyone out on the sidewalks deters crime and brings a measure of harmony and energy to the area. Make a special effort to greet everyone you meet with a smile and keep watch out for any signs of problems—a fresh scrawl of graffiti or unusual comings-and-goings at a residence.
Grandmothers in the Yesler Terrace public housing community in Seattle helped rid their streets of crack dealers. They set up lawn chairs every evenings at corners frequented by dealers. All they would do is knit and chat, but it was enough to drive the troublemakers away. In the nearby Garfield neighborhood the community council declared the area a drug-free zone and led marches through the community on Friday nights to show they were serious.
An effective anti-crime initiative underway in many parts of the country is organizing groups walking the beat—just like the police used to do in the days before squad cars. Indeed, some cities are bringing back cops on the beat, or on bicycles, who patrol the streets to prevent crimes rather than just answering calls once crimes have been committed. But police can’t be everywhere you need them. But citizens are coming forward to help keep the streets safe by patrolling their neighborhoods in the evenings.
Neighbors got together to walk the streets in Minneapolis’s Lyndale neighborhood, which helped bring crime down 40 percent in four years. Calling themselves the Lyndale Walkers, they worked in pairs or larger groups strolling up and down the sidewalks of this diverse community that includes elegant turn-of-the-twentieth century homes and a high-rise public housing project. They rarely stopped a crime in action, and never pursued confrontations with young gang members or criminals, but did notify the local police precinct by cell phone whenever they saw something suspicious underway. They also filed reports detailing what they found on their walks, which helped police get a better overall picture of problems in the neighborhood.
Just as importantly, their simple presence on the sidewalks dampened lawless behavior and raised hope in the neighborhood. Indeed, the Lyndale neighborhood went in a short time from a place from a place prospective home-buyers avoided to one with the fastest-rising property values in the entire state.
The success of the Lyndale Walkers soon inspired similar efforts in other communities across Minneapolis affected by crime. Reverend Carly Swirtz, leader of the 11th Avenue Block Club in the low-income Phillips neighborhood, describes her experience. “We have lots of successes. One of the best advantages of a patrol is getting to know your neighbors. You can learn a lot on those strolls! We had two really big problem crack houses a couple of years ago. Many gun shots and police calls. It was due to our block club patrol and watch [group] that we finally got them out ”
Neighborhood safety is about more than crime. Luther Krueger, one of the leaders of the Lyndale Walkers, notes that even neighborhoods with quite low crime rates are forming what they call stroll patrols, “ perhaps to take the edge off the usual impression of citizen patrols being people strictly looking for crooks or crimes.”
Nolan Venkatrathnam, a patrol leader in the Stevens Square Loring Heights neighborhood, which does contend with crime problems, notes that one of their notable successes came when, “a patrol team retrieved a woman from her apartment that was filling up with smoke from a frying pan left on the stove. The women had apparently taken medication and fallen asleep and left the pan on the stove. Well the patrol got the women out and [she] was treated by medical personnel.
Neighborhood Power by Jim Diers ( 2004, University of Washington Press)
11) Celebrate Your Place in the World
Evoke the spirit of your neighborhood in song, print, paint or even T-shirts
Nearly every tourist in Paris makes a pilgrimage up the hill to Montmartre. It’s difficult to reach, and quite plain compared to the grand boulevards and great landmarks for which the city is famous. Yet visitors come by the thousands to wander its few small streets, to snap photos, and to sip coffee in the cafes. Why? Because they’ve seen it in famous paintings, and now they want to see the real place.
Montmartre was Paris' artist village in the late 19th century, a low-rent haven that was home or hangout to many of the great Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters . These artists, of course, painted their surroundings, and now the whole world has a picture of this once out-of-the-way neighborhood in its mind.
It’s fun to seek out how your place in the world has been depicted by artists, writers, filmmakers or musicians. Although unlike Parisians, you’ll probably have to search beyond art museums and the best seller list. Try the library, historical society, local museums and the shelves of used bookstores, record shops, galleries and antique shops in the vicinity.
It’s even more fun to capture the essence of your home turf in a short story, blog, song, cartoon strip, theater production, photographs, stand-up comedy routine, computer game or whatever medium you most like to express yourself. Tell the neighborhood’s favorite stories, describe the local characters, offer a vivid portrait of what everyday life is like.
Like the Greek neighborhood of Chicago in My Big Fat Greek Wedding or "Luckenback, Texas" in the classic country song by Waylon Jennings, maybe you’ll make your community a little bit famous. Perhaps local officials will honor your work, as they did author Beverly Cleary. A park in northeast Portland features statues of her beloved characters Ramona, Henry, Beezus and Ribsy, who roamed the nearby streets in Cleary’s still widely-read novels for young readers. Jack Kerouac, chronicler of San Francisco’s Beat generation life in the 1950s, has an alley named for him that runs between two of his favorite San Francisco hang-outs: City Lights bookstore and the Vesuvio’s Bar.
Most likely you’ll just have the satisfaction of giving your neighbors a moment of pleasure and pride when they see your work hanging in the corner coffee shop, printed in the local newspaper, or presented at the community center. Most of us live in the kind of places that never appear on TV shows or in magazine articles, not to mention poems and paintings. That can sometimes make us feel our lives don’t matter much, especially compared to the important folks in Manhattan or Malibu, who we see depicted all the time in movies, novels and TV. It’s empowering to see that the places we know are also worthy of creative exploration.
This can even be done through something as simple as a t-shirt. Think of the many times you’ve seen people walk past advertising famous spots like “San Francisco,” “South Beach,” or “Colonial Williamsburg” on their chests. Why not do the same for your neck of the woods. Print up shirts, tote bags or bumper stickers celebrating your neighborhood. And when some asks about “Sweet Auburn”, “San Pedro”, ; “Westminster,” “Willy Street,” “Royal Oak” or “Hardwick”, tell them it’s a great place. (They are, respectively: Atlanta’s historic African-American hub; Los Angeles’s port; a leafy corner of Winnipeg along Westminster Avenue; the near east side of Madison, Wisconsin; a suburb next-door to Detroit; or lively town in Northeast Vermont).
12) Do Nothing in Particular
Sometimes, it’s important to simply enjoy what you’ve got
“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world,” wrote the essayist E.B. White, “This makes it hard to plan the day.”
Ah, that’s the dilemma. You live in a nice place. But it could be nicer—if only the park were fixed up or the traffic slowed down, if the schools were better or the business district brighter. So what to do first? You’d like to plop down on a bench for a while, soak up the sunshine, listen to the birds sings or kid play, and just watch the world go by. But you really ought to be organizing a meeting, handing out flyers and enlisting volunteers for the big event.
Actually, it’s important to do both. Without taking time to truly savor your neighborhood, you lose touch with why you love it in the first place. Soon, all you see is what’s wrong. And that quickly diminishes your effectiveness as community advocate. No one is inspired by harried, humorless, negative leader who would really rather be doing something else.
On a strategic, as well as a personal, level it’s smart to take a long stroll every evening, linger at the sidewalk café, stop for a chat with neighbors, and just generally revel in all the great things your community offers. Otherwise, what’s the point of living there?
In the Irish Hill neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky, the professional porch sitters union is coming to order. Crow Hollister, who founded it, explains in Orion magazine that the organization attracts hard-working activists, professionals, artists, mothers, revolutionaries, gardeners. “People like you. They work hard, volunteer in their community, sit on boards, have schedules to keep and chores that need tending.” Each meeting follows an agenda, but there is nothing written on it. Iced tea is served, followed by beer. Stories begin to flow. Andy brings up how his neighbor was visited by the windshield wiper fairy. Hillary talks about an article coming up in her self-published zine Bejeezus. Mike has got the inside scoop on how to get concrete bench tops for free. Then, Hollister reports, “ A neighbor walking her dog is enticed to join us. A lot is getting accomplished.”
The Professional Porch Sitters Union began on the porch described above in 1999 and now features chapters across the country. Hollister encourages you to start your own, keeping in mind that the organization is governed by only one rule: “Sit down a spell. That can wait.” He’d like to hear how it goes, but don’t sweat it if you don’t get around to writing him.
13) The Power of a Public Pizza Oven
A wary neighborhood comes together to reclaim a troubled city park
Jutta Mason, a young mother in Toronto, faced a dilemma. She lived near Dufferin Grove Park but was afraid to go there with her children because it had become a hangout for kids who were viewed as the “local toughs.” Still, she didn’t want to stay home stuck in her house. Mason debated whether to endure boredom or confront fear? She chose to overcome her fear, and in the process made a great difference in her community.
Her approach was simple. She struck up a conversation with neighbors about the park and how it could be improved. Together they started talking with the “tough” kids, who, as it turned out, also thought the park needed improving. They all worked to make the indoor skating rink in the park safer. Then they planted flower beds, resurfaced the basketball courts and renovated the playground—projects that were all based on ideas from local residents.
One of their most inspired improvements was the creation of a large Portuguese-style bread oven, which members of the neighborhood use to cook community dinners and throw pizza parties. They also constructed a fire circle, and many neighbors now cook meals over the open fire. This outdoor kitchen has become a center of social activity in the neighborhood. Dufferin Grove Park has been turned around, in large part due to the community effort launched by Mason; a new school has even been established next to the park. — By Ben Fried
SHELBURNE FALLS, MASSACHUSETTS
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
14) Great Places Grow From Humble Petunia Patches
Don’t underestimate the power of small things to turnaround a neighborhood
Project for Public Spaces has distilled what its learned in 30 years of work in communities around the world into “11 Principles for Creating Great Places”. Most of the advice centers on practical matters like “Develop a Vision”, “The Community is the Expert” and “Form supports function,” but principle No. 9 simply states, “Start with Petunias.”
Petunias? What possibly do petunias have to do with the important business of providing your neighborhood with public places for recreation and hanging out? Well, actually quite a lot. Flowers can brighten up any place, whether it’s the dowdy Main Street in a small town, a squalid vacant lot in an urban ghetto or a dreary sidewalk near a suburban strip mall.
Civic groups in Shelburne Falls, a small town in western Massachusetts, made the most of a bad situation by creating floral displays on a downtown bridge that had been abandoned when rail service shut down. That was in 1928, and The Bridge of Flowers has become an annual event that draws thousands of tourists and international attention to this out-of-the-way town.
But flowers do more than please the eye. They can lift a community’s spirit and provide a tangible proof that things are looking up. Flowers are a great way for a community to take that all-important first step. “In creating or changing a public space, small improvements help to garner support along the way to the end result,” writes PPS vice-president Kathleen Madden in the book How to Turn A Place Around. “They indicate visible change and show that that someone is in charge. Petunias, which are low cost and easy to plant, have an immediate visible impact. On the other hand, once planted, they must be watered and cared for. Therefore, these flowers give a clear message that someone must be looking after the place.”
In New York City volunteers plant more than 3 million daffodils bloom in parks and public places. Originally conceived to commemorate September 11, the Daffodil Project now splashes color and raises spirits at more than 1300 sites across the city, highlighting the potential for reclaiming neglected parks and other public spaces.
Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter, who studies the dynamics of change, notes that people who succeed in improving things at a corporation, organization or community, “look for avenues that will produce some short-term wins, some visible changes that are associated with their effort, within six or 12 months. This gives them credibility an discourages the cynics…Change of any magnitude tends to take time, so short-term wins are essential, and must be an integral part of the long-term strategy.”
But not all small actions leading to large results start with flowers. One exemplary project used white paint. Mulry Square was a dangerous intersection where three streets meet in New York’s Greenwich Village. Neighbors had long clamored to make the spot safer for people walking. Working with the New York City Department of Transportation and neighbors, PPS proposed an ambitious plan of traffic calming, tree plantings, and reconstructing the space to better serve pedestrians. The city balked at making such big changes so quickly, but agreed to use paint to create striped crosswalks between all the corners and to expand the space available to pedestrians. This demonstration project proved how well the proposed safety improvements worked, winning a quick commitment from the city to carry out the project..
“By experimenting with simple, visible, temporary actions like painting lines in the street, we were able to show the city how larger investments could pay off,” explains Shirley Secunda, a member of the local community board.
YOUR OWN BACKYARD
15) Save the Planet Right On Your Own Block
Local efforts are the backbone of green activism
We generally think of greens rallying to save rainforests, coral reefs, deserts and other faraway tracts of wilderness. But that’s just one aspect of saving the Earth. Many greens stick closer to home, working together with neighbors on important projects in their own backyard. This might well be the kind of environmentalism that appeals to you.
We can enlarge the usual definition of environment to include the places that we all call home—where we live and work and play. Indeed, this kind of environmentalism would ultimately preserve both wild places and human communities since improving life in neighborhoods everywhere means that people would feel less urge to move on to new homes in sprawling subdivision carved out of forest, marsh, desert or farmland..
This would nurture a new breed of environmental activists working to make streets safe from traffic so our children can walk to school. They would lobby for sidewalks and benches and neighborhood parks and pleasant tree-lined streets. They would transform outdated shopping malls into neighborhood centers complete with housing and lively public squares, sidewalk cafes and convenient transit stops, even libraries or new schools. This way malls would become the true community institutions we always wanted them to be.
These dreams don’t sound like the stuff of a Sierra Club campaign, but why not?. All these steps will lead to more walking and less driving, a simple equation that yields large environmental benefits in terms of pollution, climate change and land use. In fact, creating more congenial human environments is one of the most effective ways to curb sprawl, reduce vehicle trips, and rein in global warming.
Jonathan Porritt, one of England's leading green activists, declares “Most people think the environment is everything that happens outside our lives. Yet this is a huge philosophical error creating a false divide between us and the physical world. We need to.. acknowledge that the environment is rooted in our sense of place: our homes, our streets, our neighborhoods, our communities.”
A great opportunity now exists for the environmental movement to reach out to a broader base and new partners simply by expanding the scope of places it is willing to fight for. This expanded notion of the environment would encompass rural watersheds and town squares, coastal wetlands and neighborhood playgrounds. It’s a winning strategy to revive the movement and restore our planet. Let’s bring the environmental movement back home to inner cities and small towns and suburban neighborhoods.
You can easily become a part of this exciting, emerging movement by just looking around your own neighborhood to see what special places—parks, gathering spots, natural amenities, quiet nooks, play areas, walking routes, business centers—deserve to be protected or regenerated.
“Jonathan Porritt”: http://www.jonathonporritt.com/
CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY
ESPANOLA, NEW MEXICO
16) Think Globally, Eat Locally
Food grown close to home simply tastes better— and serves up other benefits for you and your community
Modern society has enriched us with remarkable material advantages, but sometimes also robs us of meaning and connection in our lives. This is often apparent at the dinner table, where we sit down to food which has come from who-knows-where. The vegetables on our plates may have traveled across the country and the fruit half-way around the world, while our meat was produced at a factory farm and the microwave side dishes created in a laboratory.
Eating this sort of food each day raises serious nutritional and social issues, which are now being widely debated. But one thing we know for sure: packaged food shipped into Wal-Mart, Safeway or other supermarket chains never tastes as good or feels as satisfying as a meal from locally-grown ingredients. Whether it’s from a backyard garden, a public market, a community-supported agriculture program, or truck farmers in the area, local food nourishes our souls as well as our stomachs. And it makes a very real contribution to the vitality of our local economy.
Happily, the last few years have seen a boom in local foods, most significantly with the increasing numbers of farmers’ markets almost everywhere. Project for Public Spaces has been promoting public markets for decades, not just as a place for finding tasty food and having fun but as a surefire way to bring people together and strengthen communities. Studies have shown that people strike up four to ten times as many conversations in farmers markets than supermarkets.
The farmers market in Athens, Ohio (population: 7200) each Wednesday and Saturday attracts thousands of folks to check out each other and more than 100 vendors of produce, prepared food and craft vendors. The markets motto is: “your dollars go the furthest when they stay close to home”. Madison, Wisconsin (population: 200,000) also feels like a small town on Saturday mornings when it seems half the town comes down to the downtown square for the Dane County Farmers Market.
Beyond instilling community spirit, a number of markets are pursuing ambitious goals involving public health and economic revitalization.
The Camden Community Farmers Market in this hard-hit New Jersey city offers health services and nutrition counseling right alongside heaping piles of wholesome fruits and vegetables. The People’s Grocery in Oakland, California, is a literal moveable feast—a portable market that brings healthy, homegrown food to community centers, schools, and senior citizen centers in poor neighborhoods of this predominantly African-American and Latino city. Oakland’s Fruitvale Village accomplishes the same thing with a stationary market right outside one of the transit station on the Bart train line.
In Espanola New Mexico, a Monday farmers market has provided a shot in the arm for the economy because local growers now have steady customers for their fruits, vegetables and chilies rather than chancing a trip to the touristy markets in far- off Santa Fe. It’s also a boon for residents because stores in this low-income town of 15,000 offer little fresh produce. Panorama City, California, a largely Latino enclave northeast of Los Angeles, has transformed an old shopping center into a Mercado-style market as a lively and local alternative to a Wal-Mart across the road.
In Detroit, and Burlington, Vermont, the story is not just farmers in the city, but farms. Enterprising gardeners are moving onto many of Detroit’s abandoned tracts of land, producing everything from salad fixings and eggs, to alfalfa and goat’s milk. In the heart of Stockholm, Sweden, an organic farm is planted in vegetables, herbs, flowers, and apples. But Burlington, Vermont, takes the prize with six percent of the fresh produce consumed in this chilly northern city grown at a 260-acre organic farm right inside the city limits. It was once a dump and junkyard but has been reclaimed by the non-profit Intervale Center.
“Project for Public Spaces Market Program”: www.pps.org/markets
“Intervale Center”: www.intervale.org
Jay Walljasper, Senior Fellow at On the Commons and editor of OnTheCommons.org, created OTC’s book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. A speaker, communications strategist and writer and editor, he chronicles stories from around the world that point us toward a more equitable, sustainable and enjoyable future.
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