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Extreme Makeover: Neighborhood Edition

You can grow a great community—anywhere. It doesn't take TV producers. It just takes some neighbors.

I vividly remember  when a blizzard-caused power outage silenced the TVs and computers in the suburban home where I lived with my wife and two children. When the lights went out, we got creative, sharing stories by candlelight and popping popcorn on a wood-burning stove. Then we pulled on our parkas and helped dig the neighbors' cars out of snow banks. By the end of the storm, we became a closer family in a more supportive community.

Why does it take blizzards and power outages to strengthen natural bonds between people? Two-thirds of Americans say they value a friendly, lively neighborhood over a trophy home. But we've become strangers on our lifeless streets. We hear about new developments built in the style of traditional neighborhoods or as ecovillages, but why can't we revitalize the neighborhoods we already live in?

When compared to thousand year-old villages in Tuscany or England, our American neighborhoods are very young indeed. They're still evolving, yet without active participation by the people who live there, the typical neighborhood will remain a collection of resource-intensive houses, lawns, and cars, rather than a treasured place in which to raise children and live out our lives. Imagine what might happen if we gradually reinvented our streets, houses, yards, and parks.

The process of reinventing a neighborhood begins when you walk out your front door and say hello to someone you've seen before but never met. After preliminary conversation, the topic of neighborhood security comes up, and you comment how valuable it would be to compile a list of the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of everyone on the block. “That way, if someone gets hurt or simply needs help moving a dresser, he can call one of us,” you say. Your neighbor, whose name is Shawn, agrees, adding, “Maybe we could set up a neighborhood e-mail listserve, to provide a forum for opinion, and a digital bulletin board for babysitting exchanges, discussion groups, carpooling, and things like that ...”

Coincidentally, while the two of you are talking about homeland security at the neighborhood scale, another neighbor, Marion, comes by with her own idea for getting neighbors together—a community picnic in her large backyard. She prepares a homemade flyer and takes it door-to-door to 44 houses on the block, explaining to those who are home that her intention is to create a friendlier, livelier neighborhood. All but a few neighbors seem interested, and many of them show up at the barbecue, which includes musical talent from the neighborhood, humorous nametags, and locally grown food.

The next day you notice neighbors knocking on the doors of other neighbors, following up on conversations, dropping off recipes, and arranging help with lawn watering or pet-sitting while people are on vacation.

In the months that follow, a discussion group, book club, a few carpools, and a food co-op form. Matt, a sociology professor, uses the new e-mail listserve to suggest a work-share program in which neighbors can trade skills like dry walling and landscaping to save money and continue building community. Sarah, the young woman with the German Shepherd, joins him to help coordinate, and she also spearheads a community clean-up of the vacant lot at the end of the street. While they pick up McDonald's wrappers and newspapers, she has an idea: maybe the absentee owner of the lot would let them have a community garden there. The lot's been vacant for the last 20 years…

These first few neighborhood-building efforts result in a new way of thinking about your neighborhood. You begin to think outside the boxes of your houses to envision a more productive and useful community. You begin to think in terms of “we” rather than just “me,” creating what sociologist Matt calls “social capital,” or a sense of mutual familiarity and trust.

With a handful of successes behind you, you organize a neighborhood meeting at the elementary school one evening to talk about visions for the neighborhood. This is an important step because it formalizes neighbors' intentions to create a neighborhood that is supportive and strives to be sustainable. You stand up and report, “Since our first community picnic, I've watched less TV, saved time and money by carpooling with Frank, and helped remodel Jerry's garage, where he will park an old pick-up truck that's available for any of us to borrow. Aren't these the kind of things that neighborhoods should be about?”

The usually quiet engineer, Roy, excitedly proposes ways the neighborhood can create cottage industries to create jobs that are a two-minute walk away and that reduce commuting. He suggests ways your neighbors can help make each house more efficient, even moving toward a neighborhood energy system—including such elements as wind turbines, solar panels, and fuel cells—to supply grid-connected electricity. Allison tells the group about her family's plans to mount solar panels for hot water on their roof. “We found some used panels for $150 each,” she says, “and we're going to have them installed next Sunday afternoon. Anyone who wants to see how they are installed is welcome to come watch.”

After the meeting, a self-appointed Civic Team investigates how to work with the city for a zoning variance to allow a restaurant/outdoor café to move into the house the Rogers are selling. “We also want to see if they would consider installing landscape features like traffic circles, as they did on Ford Street, to slow down traffic and create more green space,” says Marion.

With a rising level of trust in the group, the possibility of a jointly held bank account comes up. “The community land trust we'd form could purchase the vacant lot where the community garden is,” says Jerry, “Or maybe even buy the next house that's up for sale, to create a community center with shared office equipment, a library, and a guest room. “If you divide the cost of that house by 33 member-households it's really not so daunting,” adds Marnie. “And we could recoup some of our investment by renting office space, or using the kitchen for a catering business.”

Gradually, your neighborhood gets a well-deserved reputation for being a great place to live. Crime is almost non-existent, property values go up, and turnover goes down. In fact, one young adult, Liz, decides to rent a home on the block where she used to play, to be near her family and friends. The elderly widow, Nadine, rents her the apartment that her late husband created by remodeling the garage into a cottage, so Nadine can afford to stay in the neighborhood—and so can Liz.

As energy and water prices continue to climb, you and your neighbors are really glad you've taken action to transform your neighborhood from faceless suburbia to village-like superbia.


David Wann lives in Harmony Village Cohousing in Golden, Colorado. He edited a book on cohousing, forthcoming this fall from Fulcrum. He is coauthor, with Dan Chiras, of Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods and coauthor of Affluenza. His non-profit group helps neighborhoods become more sustainable. Call him with questions at 303/216-1281.

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