Neighborhood Revitalization Without Gentrification

Where we once dreamed of livable cities and revitalized neighborhoods, we now bemoan gentrification and displacement. As neighborhood conditions have improved, the small businesses and low-income residents, typically people of color, have been driven out. The neighborhood is only livable for those who can afford it.

The blame for gentrification is justifiably placed on institutional racism, young middle-class whites seeking starter homes, corporations attracting highly paid employees from elsewhere, speculative developers, and government programs such as urban renewal and policies promoting growth. But we fail to recognize that well-meaning neighborhood activists are often unwitting partners in gentrification.

Gentrification is the last thing on their mind as activists work to make their neglected neighborhood a better place. They focus on the immediate challenges of blight and crime. They work hard to paint out graffiti and create public art, clean vacant lots and build community gardens, renovate substandard housing and revitalize the business district, and lobby the government for new and enhanced parks, better transportation, good schools and other public infrastructure that more affluent neighborhoods take for granted. As conditions improve, however, the value of the real estate increases and some of the very people who worked so hard on behalf of their neighborhood can no longer afford to live there. Such is the nature of our market-driven economy.

I believe in taking an Asset-Based Community Development approach to neighborhood revitalization. That involves building on the neighborhood’s strengths and doing so in a way that is community-driven. Every community has abundant resources that it can mobilize to strengthen social capital and improve the neighborhood. These assets include the gifts that every individual has to offer, the collective power of the neighborhood’s many formal and informal associations, and the positive identity that comes with the local history, culture and stories. However, it is important to acknowledge that many communities lack sufficient ownership or control over two assets that are key to preventing displacement – the neighborhood’s real estate and its economy.

Confronting economic challenges in the Canadian Maritime Provinces in the 1930s, Father Moses Coady pronounced: “They will use what they have to secure what they have not.” He helped lead the Antigonish Movement that resulted in producer cooperatives and credit unions. Coady’s dictum still makes good sense for community development work today, especially as we seek to revitalize neighborhoods without gentrifying them.

Neighborhood planning can be a great way to coalesce local associations and tap the knowledge, skills and passions of their members in developing a strategy for gaining greater control over the neighborhood’s real estate and economy. To the extent that there is broad-based participation in the development of the plan and ownership of its vision and recommendations, the neighbors will likely take action to implement their plan and push city hall to do the same.

It’s essential that neighborhoods plan ahead, way ahead. Unfortunately, most communities don’t think about gentrification until it’s too late. The best time to counter gentrification is when it is unimaginable and the real estate is still affordable. So, in addition to working on immediate projects and issues to make their neighborhood more livable, the residents and local businesspeople need to create a plan for keeping it affordable.

A good example is Boston’s Dudley Street neighborhood. The neighbors organized to address the immediate issues of poverty, illegal garbage dumps, and arson for hire. But, even then, when conditions seemed desperate, they were planning for the future. Their goal was to develop a strategy for revitalization without gentrification. That planning effort generated widespread participation and when the document was completed in 1987, a united community was able to convince the mayor to help them implement it. The plan called for the community to be given the power of eminent domain. Normally, eminent domain is a power exercised by government to take control of private land so that it can be redeveloped, typically at the expense of a low-income neighborhood. But the Dudley Street residents were able to use eminent domain to gain control of vacant lots owned by absentee landlords. Then, they secured City funding to redevelop the property through a community land trust, enabling them to provide permanently affordable opportunities for home ownership.

Eminent domain, community land trusts, and land banks are good examples of tools that neighbors can utilize to secure property while it is still affordable. The neighborhood plan might also recommend home sharing, accessory dwelling units, rent control, and property tax reductions or deferrals to keep the existing housing stock affordable and virtual retirement villages enabling elders to stay in their homes. In addition, the plan might urge the city to adopt inclusionary zoning that requires developers to make a percentage of their new housing units affordable.

Ideally, the goal should be more ambitious than keeping low income people in the neighborhood. The plan should also look at ways in which the neighbors can benefit from a more robust local economy by pursuing community-based economic development. The objective is to build a local economy on the strengths of the residents and their neighborhood in a way that contributes to the ongoing welfare of the community. Tools for community-based economic development could include provisions for credit unions, microlending, business incubators, timebanks, and worker or consumer owned cooperatives, and requirements for living wage jobs and the employment of local residents.

Of course, a plan can’t anticipate all the developer proposals and government policies and programs that might impact the neighborhood. That is why John McKnight, co-founder of the Asset Based Community Development Institute, has proposed that plans include a Neighborhood Impact Statement. While this tool could be used to assess all sorts of impacts, it seems particularly well suited to addressing gentrification. Specific and unanticipated developments could be evaluated by the neighbors against a set of broad values and guidelines included in the plan. Such impact statements could also provide a good basis for negotiating community benefit agreements with developers.

Revitalizing neighborhoods without gentrification will always be a challenge in a capitalist economy. Even in Dudley Street, displacement continues to be a challenge. But, unless neighbors organize, plan and take appropriate action at an early stage, gentrification will continue unabated.

Hippocratic Oath for Community Workers

By Jim Diers, 2019-08-12
Hippocratic Oath for Community Workers

“First, do no harm.” This dictum is frequently but mistakenly associated with the Hippocratic Oath. Although it was disconcerting to learn that our physicians are not guided by this rule, I’m suggesting that it be adopted by community workers as the basis for our own code of conduct. We need to acknowledge the ways in which we often inadvertently harm the very communities we are trying to help and pledge to work in ways that contribute to their health. Here, then, is an outline of principles I would like to see included in a Hippocratic Oath for community workers whether they are social workers, recreation coordinators, clergy, community police, public health workers, planners, educators, service learning students, outreach staff, organizers or other community-based professionals.

Do No Harm

Don’t usurp the community’s power

“Never do for people what they can do for themselves.” That’s the iron rule of community organizing. It was drilled into me by my mentor, Tom Gaudette, who received his training from Saul Alinsky.

After my first week of work as a community organizer, I met with Gaudette. “Tell me what you did not do this week,” he began. I was highly offended because I had put in long hours and felt that I hadn’t neglected anything. “I knocked on hundreds of doors, researched the issues, designed a flier, and even wrote a press release. I did everything,” I concluded. “You’ve got it all wrong,” Gaudette responded. “Your job isn’t to speak or do for the community. Your job is to develop the capacity of community to do and speak for itself. So every week, I want you to tell me one more thing you are not doing.”

The iron rule is especially difficult for community workers to obey. We do this work because we care deeply about the community. But, in our rush to help the community, we often deny them their own agency. We usurp the power of the people.

Don’t make the community dependent

A related principle is to refrain from making the community dependent on you, funding or other external resources. After all, none of us will be around forever and neither will our organizations, programs or services. We must always ask ourselves: Will the community be better or worse off because I was here? Have I built more capacity or created more dependence?

Don’t define people by their needs

We make people dependent when we focus exclusively on their needs. We emphasize people’s deficiencies when we label them as disabled, at-risk, non-English speaking, poor, homeless, etc. While there is truth to every one of these labels, it is only part of the truth. Everyone has needs, but everyone also has gifts. When we focus on people’s needs, they are clients in a service system. When we focus on people’s gifts, they are citizens in a community.

Don’t fragment the community

The main reason I love neighborhoods is because they provide the context for building inclusive community. It’s in our neighborhoods that people with diverse identities and interests reside. Unfortunately, many so-called community workers contribute to keeping people divided.

Most community workers aren’t focused on the whole community. Instead, they work with the narrow segment of the population that relates to the mission of their agency or association. That mission is typically limited to a specific topic or category of people.

There are community workers who focus on a particular segment of the population. Separate organizations, programs and services segregate people who are old, young, disabled, refugee, etc. The people are organized the way that community workers are organized rather than by the neighborhood where they live. This raises the question: Who is serving whom? Confining people to separate silos makes inclusive community impossible.

Other community workers are in agencies organized around a special interest whether that is public safety, health, the environment, emergency preparedness, affordable housing, transportation, recreation, etc. Dozens if not hundreds of agencies are reaching out to the same neighborhood. Their community workers are trying to recruit individuals to their separate causes. Not only does this divide the community, but it fails to recognize the unique opportunity for a holistic approach that place-based work makes possible.

Don’t distract the community from its own priorities

In addition to dividing neighbors, community workers who push particular agendas provide little opportunity for the community to address its own priorities. The community is always being engaged around what the community workers think is most important or what their agency or grant requires of them. When people fail to engage, we call them apathetic. No one is apathetic. Everyone cares deeply about something. If the true objective is to engage and empower the community, it would be much better to start not with answers, but with questions: What are you most passionate about? What are your fears? What are your dreams?

Don’t take people’s time without showing results

While most community workers I know take their jobs seriously and try to be as productive as possible, we often take the community’s time for granted. We may think of it as free time, because there is no cost to our organization. We fail to recognize that time is precious to the people with whom we work. Time they spend with us is time when they could be earning an income, interacting with family and friends, or simply relaxing and having fun. If people don’t see some value to their participation, they’ll soon learn that it doesn’t pay to be involved. Yet, community workers often invite people to meetings or subject them to surveys or interviews that produce no visible outcome to those involved.

Don’t treat non-profit organizations as the surrogate for community

Oftentimes, it is the staff of non-profit organizations who are called on the represent the community. After all, they work the same hours, speak the same professionalized language, and get paid for their time so they are more likely to participate. Non-profit organizations can play a valuable role, but their role is not to be the surrogate for the community. Most are less accountable to the community than are the local elected officials. The role of the community worker is to reach beyond the people who are being paid.

Do Some Good

I’ve used the word “we” in this blog because my entire career has been as a community worker. I’ve been employed by large agencies as well as by small, grassroots associations. I know how difficult it is to follow the principles I’ve outlined and I haven’t consistently done so. Our training, funding, organizations and other systems often push us in the opposite direction. But I’ve also learned some principles that will enable us to do good in the community.

Get out of your cubicle and into the community

When I started organizing 43 years ago, I was nervous about approaching strangers. I walked around my assigned neighborhood for a long time trying to identify the most welcoming house and work up my nerve to knock on the door. I was less embarrassed to admit this shortcoming when I read that Cesar Chavez experienced a similar discomfort when he facilitated his first house meeting.

Today, community workers have an alternative. They can use a computer. It feels so much safer and much more comfortable to work out of a secure, climate-controlled office.

But, you can’t be effective if you aren’t in the neighborhood. You need to see the neighborhood, its opportunities and challenges, with your own eyes. You need to make personal contact with people. There are so many individuals who will never access your website or respond to your e-mail blasts. You need to go where the people are, listen to them and build relationships. Only then, a computer might be helpful for staying in touch.

Listen and learn from the community

A good community worker brings new knowledge and perspectives to the community, but the best community worker values the knowledge and perspectives of the residents. They are the experts on their neighborhood – its history, strengths and challenges. The neighbors already have relationships with one another and know the local formal and informal associations. They also know what their perspectives and priorities are. Community workers would be well advised to listen to the community before sharing their own insights. Listening will generate trust and give the community worker access to the information that will make their work effective.

Help the community to discover its resources and power

While every place and everyone has abundant resources, they often go unrecognized. Needs assessments and media coverage cause whole neighborhoods to be known as nothing more than low-income, high-crime, distressed, blighted or some other negative description. In these same neighborhoods, professionals have labelled most of the individuals by their deficiencies. The residents typically internalize this characterization of their neighborhood and themselves. Lacking a sense of their own capacity, they feel powerless and dependent on external resources. The most valuable perspective that the community worker can bring is to shine light on the strengths of the people and their neighborhood. That’s the basis for community empowerment.

Help the community to identify common interests and root causes

Another valuable perspective that the community worker can bring is to help the community see the big picture. Too often, individuals are overwhelmed and paralyzed by what they think are their personal problems. The role of the community worker in this case is to make private pain public. The idea is to bring individuals with similar concerns together so that they can realize they aren’t alone, identify their common societal issue, and work collectively to address it. A similar approach is needed to act on people’s dreams. As New Zealand artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser noted: “When we dream alone it is only a dream, but when many dream together it is the beginning of a new reality.”

Seeing the big picture also involves digging below the symptoms to discover the root causes. For example, rather than complain about at-risk youth, it would be more useful to identify and act on the unjust systems that put young people at risk. The best way to educate people about the systemic issues isn’t by lecturing them but by taking a Freirian approach of asking questions (often whys) that cause the community to reflect deeply on its own experience.

Share tools that enable the community to take the lead and share their gifts with one another

The community worker, like any other tradesperson, should have a full toolbox. Some of my favorite tools are learning conversations, storytelling, appreciative inquiry, asset mapping, block connectors, placemaking, matching grants, microlending, time banks, visioning, open space, and accountability sessions. There are different tools for different situations, and the community worker must know how best to use them. They should share their tools with community leaders and train them to be proficient in their application. There are no trade secrets for community workers.

Assist associations and agencies to network with one another

Through listening, the community worker will quickly discover that the neighborhood is already organized. There are dozens if not hundreds of formal and informal associations in every neighborhood. There is no one association that can adequately represent the community. Most associations consist primarily of one type of people whether they are homeowners, businesspeople, or residents with a particular culture, religion, politics, age, gender, school, address or interest. An inclusive community voice can be created by bringing these many networks together for regular forums, social events, visioning, planning, etc. but few neighbors can afford the time to organize such gatherings on top of their other community commitments. More problematic, there are often tensions between associations and it would be difficult to find any active neighbor who is trusted by all of them. The more neutral community worker could play a valuable role in facilitating the associations to network with one another.

As described earlier, the community’s fragmentation mirrors the siloed nature of the agencies that work in the neighborhood. Another way that community workers could help unify the community would be to assist the staff of local agencies to network with one another. If they can work together as one set of agencies with a focus on place, outreach would be more efficient, community-friendly and effective.

This was the approach we took with the Department of Neighborhoods in the City of Seattle. Thirteen Neighborhood Coordinators helped associations network with one another through representation on District Councils and participation in neighborhood planning. The Coordinators also facilitated communication between the community and other City departments as well as non-profit organizations. They thought of themselves as “overt double agents.”

Pay attention to segments of the community that are being excluded and find ways to engage them

Most community associations claim that they would like to be more inclusive, but they aren’t very good at it. The leadership, agenda, language and relationships have already been established, so newcomers and especially those who are different don’t feel very welcome. The community worker should constantly assess who is underrepresented in community life and find ways to engage them. The best place to start might be in assisting marginalized individuals with a shared identity to establish their own association, so that they can support one another, build power, and interact with other associations and agencies on their own terms.

Develop new leaders

Community leadership tends to become entrenched, stale and out of touch over time. That’s because some leaders won’t step aside, but it’s also because people are reluctant to step up to this role that can be overwhelming for a volunteer. The community worker should constantly be on the lookout for potential new leaders especially from those segments of the population that are underrepresented. The availability of leadership training will give more people the confidence to step up. The training should emphasize collective leadership that makes an association more sustainable, utilizes the different skills of many people, and doesn’t place a burden on any one individual.

Raise objections when you encounter discrimination

While it is essential that the community worker listen to the community and follow its lead, the community worker shouldn’t be a blank slate. The community doesn’t always get it right especially if its membership isn’t inclusive. When the community acts in ways that are discriminatory, the community worker has a responsibility to object. This could be done directly, by raising pointed questions and/or by redirecting their support to those who are being discriminated against.

Practice what you preach by being active in your own community

Too often, when we refer to community, we’re talking about the communities of others – the ones we are helping as an outsider. We fail to recognize that we need to have our own community. Sometimes our excuse is that we are too busy to be involved in our community. But, isn’t that the excuse that we hear and dismiss so often in our work? How can we argue that everyone else needs community but not us? We can’t be credible and effective community workers unless we are active in community outside of work. That’s the only way we can fully understand the joys and challenges of living in community. Moreover, it is our community that will sustain us in this rewarding but sometimes difficult work.

You Can't Build Community Without Doing The Bump

Community is built on relationships and people develop relationships through frequent contact with others. So, if you want to build community, you need places to bump into other people. The closer those places are to where you live, the more likely you are to bump into the same people over and over again.

Most neighborhoods have an abundance of bumping places. There are public places such as community centers, libraries, schools, parks, athletic facilities, sidewalks and trails. Local business districts with their pubs, coffee shops, grocery stores and other bumping places can be equally effective. There are also collectively owned gathering spaces such as clubhouses and places of worship.

Unfortunately, neighborhoods have been losing their traditional bumping places. Benches have been removed and access to parks and other public spaces has been restricted out of a concern that the “wrong people” have been using them. Online shopping, big box retail and gigantic malls have led to a decline in many neighborhood business districts. Regional so-called community centers are replacing those that were neighborhood-based. The large scale of many new recreation and retail facilities leaves people lost in the crowd and anonymous. An increasingly mobile population often shops, works, recreates, worships, and attends school outside of the neighborhood where they live. People have many different communities, and in a sense, they have no community at all. They seldom bump into the same people in more than one place.

Some neighborhoods were never designed for bumping into other people. Bedroom communities are often more friendly to cars than pedestrians. There are no places to shop, eat or drink within walking distance even if there are the rare sidewalks. Residents drive in and out of a garage adjoining their house and have little opportunity to bump into neighbors. Likewise, there is a dearth of bumping places in rural areas, and long distances between houses make it difficult to connect.

People are social creatures, however, so there has been a growing interest in placemaking. Rather than trying to prevent people from using public spaces, the new thinking is that safety is better achieved by attracting more people from all walks of life. Business districts are being revitalized by creating a distinctive experience that malls can’t replicate – small scale gathering places, shops and restaurants with a local flavor, personalized service, and community-based events such as art walks, heritage days and parades. The local food movement is bringing us community gardens, community kitchens, farmers markets and other prime bumping places. At the block level, neighbors are reclaiming their streets by painting murals in the intersections, installing street furniture, and periodically closing the street for parties and play. Apartment buildings and condos sometimes have rooms for common use, but when they don’t, a sofa or a table with a teapot might be placed in the lobby or next to the elevator to spark interaction.  Some people are turning their homes into bumping places by installing a little free library, moving their barbeque to the front lawn, staging concerts on their front porch, or hosting welcome dinners for new neighbors.

Creating bumping places in suburban and rural areas can be more challenging, but they also have homes and yards that could be used for gatherings of neighbors. Practically everywhere has a closed or underutilized school, church, grange hall, or other facility that could serve as a venue for community dinners, educational programs, concerts, dances, movies, swap meets, cider making, game nights, holiday parties and all sorts of other events that would attract the neighbors. Portable bumping spaces are another option; some communities operate a wood-fired pizza oven, tea station or espresso cart that can be driven or pedaled to a prominent intersection, popular trail, cul de sac, or other location where people are likely to congregate around it.

Sometimes, though, the only option is to start with virtual bumping. In new suburbs where the housing is being developed more quickly than the public infrastructure, communities have effectively used a Facebook page as their initial bumping place. Contact on the internet can lead to relationships in real life. I’ve heard many stories of Facebook friends helping one another in times of need even though they had not previously met one another physically.

If you want to develop an inclusive community, you need to have inclusive bumping spaces. While neighbors typically have all kinds of differences in terms of age, income, culture, religion, politics, interests, etc. they tend to gather with people who are like themselves. To be inclusive, a place should be accessible to those with differing abilities and incomes. To the extent that the place includes signage and art, it should reflect the full range of languages and cultures in the neighborhood.

A key reason why places aren’t sufficiently inclusive is because so many are single purpose. They only attract gardeners, basketball players, seniors or whomever the space was specifically designed for. An inclusive place will be multi-purpose. Project for Public Spaces, the premier placemaking organization, calls this the Power of 10. They assert that every place should accommodate at least ten different kinds of activities. Not only will this make the place more inviting to a wide range of users, but it will make it more likely that the place will be used more extensively, at all times of the day and during all seasons of the year making it safer for everyone.

Having an inclusive space isn’t sufficient, however. We’ve all experienced elevators, bus stops and other public places that are crowded with people doing their best not to make eye contact with anyone else. Sometimes an intervention is needed to get people off of their smartphones and interacting with one another.

Public libraries are a good example. They attract neighbors from all walks of life, but the diverse readers seldom interact except for families during Saturday morning story hours. Increasingly, though, libraries are trying to serve as the neighborhood’s living room. Many libraries have incorporated coffee shops or other spaces where people aren’t shushed. Some have living book programs through which a person can spend time getting to know someone who is different than themself. After hours, libraries have hosted sleepovers, concerts and even miniature golf where people putt their way through the stacks of the Dewey decimal system.

My favorite bumping places are the ones that are designed and built by the neighbors. These places are most likely to reflect what is special about the residents and their neighborhood, and they are designed to work for the people who live there. Through creating the place, neighbors feel a sense of ownership. They are more likely to use, maintain and program it.

Of course, it is critical that the design/build process is inclusive as well. All of the potential users, whether they are young or old, business or homeless people, have a valuable perspective to bring to the design process and everyone has contributions they can make to creating a place that makes it possible to do the bump together.

Social Justice Is Not As Easy As ABCD

By Jim Diers, 2018-03-12

As a proud practitioner of Asset-Based Community-driven Development (ABCD), I’m convinced that every person and every neighborhood has abundant and often underutilized strengths that can be mobilized to accomplish what is best done by community – caring for one another and the earth, promoting health, preventing crime, responding to disaster, creating great places, strengthening democracy and advancing social justice. But, I’m also aware that there is nothing inherently progressive about ABCD. In fact, unless an ABCD approach is accompanied by a strong commitment to social justice and an understanding of what that entails, it has the potential to exacerbate current inequities. Following are some actions to take and pitfalls to avoid on the road to social justice.

For starters, we need to stop talking about everyone’s glass being half-full. True, all people have valuable skills, knowledge and other gifts. But, the notion that everyone’s glass is half-full reinforces the myth that we all have the same opportunities. It ignores the fact that privilege based on race, class, gender and other identities gives some people an incredible advantage. The obscene concentration of wealth and mass incarceration of African Americans are two manifestations of the extreme inequity in our society.

It’s not enough to be community-driven; we need to ensure that those who are less privileged are in the lead. As many community organizers have observed, “It is those closest to the problem who are closest to the solution.” Inclusive engagement won’t happen unless we are intentional. We need to engage people where they are – their networks, gathering places, language, culture and priorities.

While emphasizing that there is no substitute for community, we need to acknowledge that there are some things best done by government, not-for-profits and other agencies. Portraying them as the problem aligns us with the right-wing. Similarly, a solely strengths-based approach echoes the conservative notion that people can and should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Appropriate professional services are needed, and agencies can be good partners. We must help them work in ways that are more strengths-based, holistic and community-driven.

At the same time, we must embrace the idea that a key role of community is to hold government and corporations accountable. Thus, we shouldn’t be content with organizing for mutual support. We must also organize for social and earth justice. The networks built through an ABCD approach could make a powerful impact on external forces, but typically, we miss that opportunity as we focus on self-help.

As we work to make our communities stronger and our neighborhoods more attractive, we must recognize that our actions are likely to make local real estate more desirable and thus less affordable for existing residents and businesses. That’s hard to imagine when conditions seem desperate, but that is exactly the time when we need to plan for the future. As we’re working on small projects, we should be consciously building the capacity to establish cooperatives, community lands trusts and other forms of community ownership. We must also organize for a living wage and ensure that government and developers act in the interest of the community, especially those at greatest risk for displacement.

Just as it is important for those practicing ABCD to be open to community organizing, my friends who are organizing for social justice would do well to encourage their members to engage in mutual support and other ABCD activities. I’ve found that this is a great way to develop a much stronger base, especially among those people who are averse to meetings and conflict. Then, when it comes time for the fight, the members of the organization don’t have to yell so loudly because they have the whole community with them. Including an asset-based approach also provides opportunities for members to sustain their relationships with one another during those times when they aren’t involved with an issue campaign. ABCD and issue-based organizing are incredibly compatible, but few organizations utilize both approaches.

And, just as communities need to find ways to partner with government and other agencies, it is incumbent on elected officials, civil servants and not-for-profit staff to step back and make room for community. Ironically, many of my progressive friends are some of the biggest obstacles. They seem to think that people’s welfare is tied exclusively to rights and services, and they fail to acknowledge the vital role of community. It is a grave injustice when people are treated only as clients and customers and not as citizens with gifts and capacity. Government officials often have a paternalistic attitude towards the community and don’t sufficiently value its knowledge or trust its judgment. They have a skewed sense of power and guard it selfishly while failing to recognize that power is infinite and grows as you give it away. Social justice has always depended on the power of the people. Now, more than ever, progressives need to act on that truth.

Building Inclusive Community

By Jim Diers, 2017-12-04
Building Inclusive Community

I like to think of myself as a community builder, but I know that community isn’t necessarily a good. A community is simply a group of people who identify with and support one another. Most communities are one kind of people who share a particular interest or identity. Whether they are nazis, gangs, or gated, communities can exclude and even oppress people who are different than themselves.  

Communities are at their best when they are inclusive, a quality that seems to be in short supply these days. There is so much stereotyping and polarization with people divided by politics, religion and culture. There is also an epidemic of loneliness as far too many people find themselves at the margins of community.  

That is why I am particularly passionate about the potential of place-based communities. It is in our neighborhoods and small towns that people with a variety of identities reside. True, some places have become boringly homogeneous, but most places include people with differences whether those are defined by interest, age, politics, religion, income, race, culture, sexual orientation, abilities, employment, or housing status. Our towns and neighborhoods provide a context for a community with a common identity that can encompass many otherwise separate identities.  

Just because diverse people may live in the same neighborhood, however, does not guarantee an inclusive community. Even in places that are quite diverse, I find that the community groups are less so. Neighborhood associations in Seattle, for example, tend to have a higher percentage of older, white homeowners than does the neighborhood as a whole. Local faith-based groups are typically segregated not only by religion but by race. Youth and seniors belong to different organizations. There is a myriad of interest-based groups, each with its own adherents.  

While there are often good reasons for people to associate with others who are like themselves, such homogeneity will do little to address the challenges of social isolation, stereotyping and polarization. Moreover, a neighborhood will have negligible impact at City Hall if the activists can’t demonstrate that they represent the multiple interests and identities of their place. Here, then, are some of the lessons I’ve learned about how to build a more inclusive community.  

Listen More  

Most associations have a very narrow agenda and their community outreach generally involves promoting that agenda. Then, when people don’t join their campaign, they blame people for being apathetic. No one is apathetic. Everyone cares deeply about something. So, if associations really want to get more members, they should spend more time listening and less promoting.  

Many neighborhood associations in the United States, for example, are focused on land use issues. Then, they complain about how difficult it is to engage tenants. If they listened to tenants, they would learn that tenants are often more concerned about issues such as housing affordability, access to transportation, public safety, and opportunities for their children.  

In Canada, many of the neighborhood associations were initially organized to build and manage hockey and other facilities for community recreation.  Some associations continue to have that focus but find it difficult to recruit new Canadians who may not share their passion for playing hockey or running a community center. The 157 Community Leagues in Edmonton are taking a different approach; they are co-sponsoring an Abundant Communities Initiative which is training volunteers to have conversations with their neighbors to learn what they care about.  

Likewise, Sport New Zealand is concerned that fewer people are participating in organized sports and that significant portions of the population are underrepresented in its programs. So, sporting groups throughout the country are taking a community-led approach. In addition to promoting rugby, these groups are listening to community priorities and finding ways to support those initiatives.  

Meet Less  

Most associations rely on meetings as the primary vehicle for engaging their community. While some meetings are necessary, they are probably the least effective tool for engagement. Shy people don’t feel like their attendance makes any difference. Young people (and most others) feel bored. People seldom see results from their participation; one meeting just leads to another.  

Projects are a great way to engage people. Everyone, including shy people, has something to contribute. Unlike with meetings, projects entail a short-term commitment and there’s always a result. When the Vancouver Foundation’s research revealed an alarming rate of social isolation, their solution wasn’t to fund discussion groups on the topic but rather to support more than 1000 community self-help projects in 17 communities across the lower mainland of British Columbia.  

Social events can be an even more powerful way to build relationships, especially across differences. In Southeast Seattle, world dance parties attract hundreds of people from all ages and cultures as they teach one another their dance. Likewise, everyone relates to food. As Pam Wharton of Incredible Edibles in Todmorden, England puts it: “We’re a very inclusive movement. If you eat, you’re in.” Community gardens, farmers markets and community kitchens are wonderful tools for bringing diverse people together. Neighbors across Australia are welcoming refugees by inviting them over for dinner.  

The power of going beyond meetings is evident in Westwood, a Cincinnati neighborhood of 35,000 residents. The Westwood Civic Association has been faithfully meeting for 150 years and advocating with City Hall around issues of crime, zoning and development. While the Civic Association has played a valuable role in a neighborhood with some very real and continuing problems, there were some other neighbors who believed that the primary challenge was to build local pride and participation across their diverse community. They described themselves as a drinking club with a civic problem when they first got together in 2010. Now known as Westwood Works, their pop-up beer gardens, street parties, art shows, movie nights, Saturday morning walks, holiday events and pop-up shops have engaged thousands of residents from all walks of life. In the process, the neighborhood and its business district are becoming revitalized.  

Value Everyone  

A recent survey sponsored by the Vancouver Foundation showed that half of the respondents found it difficult to make friends and that one-quarter experienced social isolation. Similar results are being reported in other cities around North America. What kind of community closes its door to so many of its neighbors?  

There are many causes of social isolation, but one of the keys factors is that these neighbors are regarded as clients of a service system or as neighborhood problems rather than as fellow citizens. When we think of someone as being poor, homeless, disabled, non-English speaking, at-risk, addicted, mentally ill, unemployed or retired, we tend to focus on what that person is missing rather than on the contributions they could make. A truly inclusive neighborhood recognizes that everyone needs community and that community needs everyone.  

I recently had the privilege of facilitating a workshop for graduates of the Opening Doors Community Leadership Program in Melbourne. The program is for people who are passionate about social inclusion including many individuals who enrolled because they were feeling excluded. Some of the 130 graduates are using their skills as artists, musicians, and thespians to help the community better understand and connect with people who have been labeled by their deficiencies. Others are leading and teaching in the University of the Third Age which recognizes that everyone has something to teach as well as something to learn whether that is a language, a craft, or how to be a better neighbor.  

Network More  

Many neighborhood associations recognize that they are insufficiently representative and try to recruit a more diverse membership. The individuals they recruit don’t always feel that welcome, however, because the leadership, agenda, language, culture and relationships have already been established. Moreover, those individuals may feel like tokens with no connection to people who share their perspective. It’s really difficult to get the full diversity of the community adequately represented in a single association.  

It’s important to recognize that neighborhood associations are one among dozens of groups, both formal and informal, in every neighborhood. There are people organized around culture, sport, religion, labor, education, public safety, service, business, art, music, dance, history, politics, environment, gardening, youth, seniors, coffee, beer, addiction, cards, books, knitting, dogs, birds, and all sorts of other interests. No one group can adequately represent the neighborhood, but collectively, they can exercise real power.  

Saul Alinsky understood this and worked to build neighborhood organizations comprised of local associations such as churches and unions. That’s the approach that we used in organizing the South End Seattle Community Organization (SESCO) in the late 1970s. Half of SESCO’s 26 member groups consisted of neighborhood associations and the other half were faith-based. There was a black Baptist church, a white Lutheran Church, a Japanese Methodist church, a Jewish synagogue, and so on. Each faith-based group, with the exception of the Catholic churches, tended to be pretty homogenous, but working together, SESCO reflected the full rainbow of the community.  

It’s probably not possible to bring all of the community groups together, so you need to be strategic. Which groups have a lot of active members? Which groups include people who are currently underrepresented in your association? Meet the leaders of these groups and explore opportunities for collaboration.  

Don’t limit yourself to working with groups that share your positions on issues. If you can develop consensus with groups that have been adversaries in the past, you can approach City Hall with a united front and be in a much more powerful position. Most important, if you want to be truly inclusive, look for opportunities to support the voices and initiatives of groups representing neighbors who have suffered from racism and injustice.  

Of course, the power of collaboration goes beyond influencing City Hall. It’s also about building on the respective strengths of each group to accomplish those things best done by community. Perhaps the most important role of community is to find ways to better understand and care for one another.

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By Jim Diers, 2017-06-20

At the turn of this century, Robert Putnam wrote the most depressing book for those of us who believe that there is no substitute for community. Putnam cited all sorts of indicators of the breakdown of social capital over the previous fifty years - closed pubs, fewer voters, less families eating together, and declining membership in Rotary, League of Women Voters, NAACP and other associations. The book was titled Bowling Alone because Putnam documented a dramatic loss in bowling leagues over the years.

I talked about Putnam's research in a presentation I made to the City Council of Port Phillip, Australia, and they encouraged me to visit the local St. Kilda Bowling Club. Sure enough, when I arrived at the large site next to Luna Park, I saw that the club had closed. In fact, there was a tombstone marking its demise. The inscription read: "Old bowlers never die. They just get composted." The former bowling club had been converted into a spectacular community garden!

Known as Veg Out, there are dozens of raised beds including one that looks like a pirate ship, another that resembles a ranch, and a garden planted in bathroom fixtures. There's a food forest, a cactus garden and abundant flowers. But there's also art everywhere. The old clubhouse is covered in murals and there's a large yellow submarine on its roof. Inside, artists are working with their neighbors to create more installations for the garden. Already, there are wrought iron gates, mosaic sculptures, a large sundial, a horse built out of garden tools, and a cow whose udders water the plants.

Veg Out is so much more than a garden. There's a cafe complete with a wood fired oven and a pub. For the children, there's a playground with a large sandbox. Children also enjoy the fairy garden with its gigantic toadstools and metal sculptures that move when cranked.

I visited on an especially active Saturday in spring. Children were playing hopscotch, getting their faces painted and visiting a petting zoo. People were eating fresh pizza and salads in the cafe. Dozens of families were seated on the lawn below a stage featuring local musicians. I'm sure that this was much more activity than the former bowling club had ever seen.

What I have come to realize is that people are finding new ways to build community. Robert Putnam was tracking the old ways. Yes, there may be fewer pubs than there were 50 years ago, but for every pub that has closed, there are many new coffee shops where people connect. Barn raising parties are less needed these days, but neighbors are coming together to build playgrounds. While there may be fewer bowling leagues, there are many more soccer leagues. Following are some of the new forms of community building.


Local Food Movement

Perhaps nowhere illustrates the power of food to build community better than the village of Todmorden, England. Through an initiative called Incredible Edibles, people from all walks of life are working together to raise vegetables everywhere - in the boulevards, the schools, and even the police station. Pamela Wharton who sparked the initiative says: "We are a very inclusive movement. Our motto is, 'If you eat, you're in."

There's another saying that "Flowers grow in flower gardens, but community grows in community gardens." Seattle has 95 organic community gardens with 10,000 people participating. Gardeners work together to build and maintain the gardens and to grow and deliver produce to local food banks. Instead of fences to keep people out, every garden has a gathering place to bring neighbors in. These are key bumping places where neighbors can connect on a regular basis and build relationships with one another.

Everywhere in the world I go, I see community gardens. In the small town of Corowa, Australia, retired men were recruited to build the gazebo, frog pond and rain catchment system for the community garden; in the process, they regained a sense of purpose and made good friends. Young people in a Nairobi slum have converted a dump into a garden. Havana has 1700 community gardens and even Singapore, where space is at a premium, boasts more than 1000.

In the Lower Hutt, New Zealand, community members converted an underutilized soccer field at Epuni Primary School into an urban farm. Neighbors worked together to build raised beds, a rain catchment system, a greenhouse from the panels of former slot machines, and even a library designed to look like a hobbit house complete with a green roof. This Common Unity project includes extensive vegetable plots, a food forest, beehives, and chickens. Neighbors assist students in preparing lunches from the farm's produce so that formerly malnourished children are eating fresh organic meals. A sign at the farm summarizes what community is all about: "We have two hands - one for giving and one for receiving."

Food forests, urban farms and community kitchens are now common throughout the world. On seven acres of land in the center of Seattle, neighbors are creating the Beacon Food Forest by planting and caring for fruit and nut trees and berry bushes that are available to everyone for picking. Seattle's Rainier Beach Urban Farm involves East Africans, local high school students, elders with dementia and many more in cultivating ten acres, harvesting 20,000 pounds of produce and preparing 6000 meals in the farm's community kitchen each year. One of my favorite community kitchens is the Free Cafe in Groningen, Netherlands which serves meals from salvaged food; young people built and operate the facility that includes an artistic kitchen, dining room, living room, library and composting toilets.

Seattle is famous for its historic Pike Place Market where the motto is: "Meet the Producer." Now, there are famers markets throughout the city where, in addition to meeting the growers, neighbors can meet and hang out with one another. Similar local markets can be found in cities and villages everywhere. Yes, there may be fewer families eating dinner together than there were 50 years ago, but the local food movement has created so many new opportunities to build social capital.


Environmental Restoration

Ever since the first Earth Day in 1970, communities have organized to safeguard the environment. The water protectors' courageous actions at Standing Rock are a recent example of the many attempts to hold corporations and government accountable. Increasingly, people are also coming together to undertake their own environmental restoration projects.

In 1994, Ballard was the Seattle neighborhood with the fewest number of street trees and the least park land outside of downtown. Dervilla Gowan responded by organizing her neighbors to plant 1080 street trees in one day. Other neighbors went on to build 20 park projects in as many years – pocket parks, playgrounds, community gardens, ballfields, green streets, a skate park, reforestation of natural areas and restoration of a salmon estuary. Their growing concern with climate change caused them to organize an annual Sustainable Ballardfest and issue undrivers licences which entitle the bearers to ride a foot-powered shufflebus. All of this has sparked a movement. There are now 67 neighborhoods and suburban towns that have joined Ballard to form SCALLOPS - Sustainable Communities All Over Puget Sound.

Taomi, a poor farming community in the mountains of central Taiwan, was at the epicenter of the 1999 earthquake. Amidst all of the devastation, the villagers took stock of their remaining assets and realized that they had abundant birds, butterflies and frogs. They worked together to build ponds and to reforest the land. Fifty famers got trained and certified as eco-tour guides. Young people created art with an environmental theme. For the first time, tourists began to visit. The locals started gardens, restaurants and bed and breakfasts. Now, Taomi is a beautiful eco-village that gets half a million visitors each year and boasts a much healthier economy.

The creeks flowing out of the Waitakere Ranges in west Auckland had become heavily polluted over time and the native bush on the banks had succumbed to all sorts of invasive vegetation. Through Project Twin Streams, neighbors organized to care for their respective sections of the creeks. Thousands of volunteers worked to remove tons of junk from the water. They weeded out the invasives and planted more than 800,000 trees and shrubs since the project began in 2003. Artists worked with children to create murals and sculptures all along the creeks to educate the public and to celebrate the clean water and the return of the native fish, bush and birds.

Such environmental projects usually aren't one-time affairs. Participants typically meet frequently to maintain and enjoy their contribution to the environment. In the process, they build community.


Community-Created Art

Many cities have long had commissions of experts who select individuals to create public art. There can certainly be value in this top-down approach, but taxpayers often question what the art means and how much it costs. A new approach to public art is on the ascendency. Just as planners, architects, police, public health workers and other professionals are learning how to use their knowledge and skills to empower communities, so are many artists. They are helping neighbors to use art as a way of expressing what is important to them – their history, culture, identity, values, environment or vision for the future. Through working together to conceive and create art, the participants also develop a stronger sense of community. The completed art often is a source of pride for the observers as well and helps them to identify with their community.

There are hundreds of examples of community-created art in Seattle thanks in large part to a Neighborhood Matching Fund that will be described later. One of the early projects was a gigantic troll that resulted from a community vote in the Fremont neighborhood and is now one of Seattle's most popular landmarks. Residents of Chinatown, Japantown, Manillatown and Little Saigon came together to design 17 dragons climbing utility poles defining a common International District. Gardeners at Bradner Park used mosaic tiles and broken dishes to create spectacular murals on the inside walls of their restroom as a successful strategy to combat vandalism. Neighborhood business districts were revitalized when the West Seattle community developed 15 historical murals for their storefronts and when Columbia City residents painted boarded up doors and windows to depict the businesses that they wanted to attract. Through Urban ArtWorks, artists have mentored over 5000 young people to create more than 1500 murals on walls previously covered with graffiti.

I see similar community creativity everywhere. When I visited an art center in Auckland's former Corban Estate Winery, young offenders were passionately painting a mural they had designed for a police station and there was a building where homeless Maori were proudly creating art and crafts. In Gosford, Australia, residents handcrafted 40,000 poppies that were installed around Memorial Fountain to commemorate the centenary of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli. Maple Ridge, British Columbia has an Artists in Residency program through which the city makes houses available to artists who work with their neighbors to create installations or stage events such as the River Festival I enjoyed complete with salmon lanterns lighting the way. Nothing good was happening in Tacoma's Frink Park until someone saw the potential of that concrete-covered space as a canvas; now there is free chalk available every Friday and dozens of people from all walks of life can be seen creating art that visitors enjoy until the next rain.



Most of our neighborhoods were designed by outside professionals – planners, architects and developers. Increasingly, though, residents are working together to create a unique identity for their neighborhood and to shape places where they can bump into one another on a regular basis. Community-created art typically plays a large role in this process of placemaking.

There's a good example of placemaking in the Newton neighborhood of Surrey, British Columbia. In the center of the business district is a lot covered by very tall trees. Many neighbors complained about the drug dealing, encampments and other public safety concerns hidden in the trees. The police suggested that the sight lines could be improved by clearcutting this mini-forest, but other neighbors had a better idea. They decided to turn the problem space into a community place, and they gave it a name - The Grove. Creative ways were found to use the trees: frames were installed on each tree so that neighbors could display their art; a tightrope was extended between two of the trees; a large stump was painted to serve as a chessboard; word cards were placed on a trunk so that they could be rearranged on what is known as the Poet Tree (three volumes of poetry have now emerged from The Grove). Strings of lights were hung to brighten the environment at night. Neighbors built Encyclopedia House from outdated editions discarded by the library. Local musicians were invited to perform in The Grove. Every major holiday and some minor ones like Groundhog Day are celebrated there. Workshops on everything from poetry writing to seed bombing are accommodated. Welcome signs in every language of that very diverse neighborhood invite people in. And it works! Not only do people feel safe, but The Grove has helped very different people, some of whom had been seen as a problem, to meet one another and build a sense of community.

With the budget cuts in Rotterdam, a neighborhood association was gearing up to fight the closure of their public library. But someone argued that the library wasn't all that great and that the association's energy could be better used to create their own place. Community members got excited about this vision and developed the Reading Room in a vacant storefront. It includes a library, cafe, pub, children's play area, boxing rink and stage for regular performances. It attracts many more people than the former library and gets them to interact with one another - something that most libraries aren't programmed to do. Everything in the space was donated and the staff are all volunteers.

Placemaking ideas are spreading rapidly. The Sellwood Neighborhood in Portland, Oregon painted a mural in their intersection in order to slow traffic and create a local identity. They didn't ask permission from local government, because they knew they wouldn't get it. The project was so successful, however, that Portland is now one of many cities around the world that permits such murals.

Activists in San Francisco started feeding the parking meters so that they could create gathering places in parking spaces for a day. Now, International PARKing Day is observed in cities everywhere. And, many of those temporary parklets are now permanent. Palmerston North, New Zealand is one city that has many parklets. The local government gives community activists a Placemaking Toolkit which includes a Get Out of Jail Free card "if you unwittingly contravene a regulation in your effort to make your city a better place."


Culture of Sharing

There's a lot of talk about the sharing economy these days with the popularity of businesses like Airbnb, Uber and Zipcar. Less heralded but a much greater force in community building is the growing culture of sharing. Unlike the sharing economy, it is tied to relationships rather than money.

One of the simplest expressions of the culture of sharing is the little free library. The first one was built in a small town in Wisconsin in 2009 when Todd Bol wanted to memorialize his mother who had been a schoolteacher and book lover. He built a library shelf designed to look like a schoolhouse, filled it with paperbacks, erected it in his front yard, and invited his neighbors to take and leave books. It proved to be an effective way not only to share reading materials but to help neighbors engage with one another. There are now tens of thousands of such libraries in at least 70 countries and the concept continues to evolve. Red Deer, Alberta even has little free libraries in its public buses.

Although the concept of formal time exchanges is nearly 200 years old, the modern version has really taken off in recent decades. The name and the process differ somewhat from place to place, but they generally operate as time banks. A time bank is a network of neighbors who share their skills to meet one another's needs. Everyone's time is valued the same. So, for every hour of service that someone provides, they are entitled to an hour of service that they need from someone else in the network. Not only is it a great way for people get their needs met outside of the monetary system, but it is an effective tool for connecting neighbors who might otherwise be isolated. Time banks are the most prevalent in the United States and United Kingdom, but variations can be found in at least three dozen countries.

The recent proliferation of co-working spaces has also been a major contributor to community building, especially among young people. While most such spaces do require a fee to join, members typically share their expertise freely with one another. I visited such a space in Sioux Falls, South Dakota that was located in a former bakery. The Bakery has plenty of formal and informal working spaces, but it also hosts food trucks, yoga classes, and free workshops offered by the members. The more than 500 young people who belong have formed such a tight community that housing is now being designed for vacant lots around The Bakery so that members can live, learn, work, play and eat all in the same neighborhood.

Similarly, in Columbus, Ohio's old industrial neighborhood of Frankenton, young people have renovated a former factory as the Idea Foundry. A membership fee gives them access to shared space and equipment such as pottery kilns, welding supplies, and a 3D printer. A nearby warehouse has been turned into 200 artist studios accompanied by a pub, restaurant and performance spaces. Other former industrial buildings now house a glass studio and a brewery. This young entrepreneurial community comes together each year to host Independents' Days - three days of independent film, music and art.


Social Media

An argument can be made that electronic screens contribute to the breakdown of social capital as face-to-face relationships give way to virtual friends, but social media can also play a role in building community. I've done some work in Wyndham, a quickly growing suburb far outside of Melbourne where the community infrastructure hasn't kept pace with the housing development. Lacking physical bumping places, neighbors turned to Facebook as a way of connecting. A high percentage of the population now belongs to the various neighborhood pages. I heard several powerful stories of neighbors helping one another in times of need even though they had not previously met one another physically.

A key requirement in my community organizing class at the University of Washington is that the students organize around something they are passionate about. One of my students, Megan, said that she had two passions – eating cookies and losing weight. She proceeded to use the Nextdoor social media platform to offer free cookies to residents in her Leschi neighborhood. Megan walked six miles each Sunday delivering the cookies and meeting her neighbors. It turned out that most of them were more interested in the company than in the cookies, and several offered to help with her project. They quickly outgrew Megan's tiny kitchen, so she put out another message on Nextdoor seeking commercial kitchens. Three churches offered theirs.


Participatory Democracy

The decline in voter participation that Putnam noted has continued, but government officials are starting to wake up and realize that they share much of the blame. A focus on good business practices and customer service over the years has left many people feeling like taxpayers rather than citizens. Tokenistic citizen engagement techniques such as public hearings and task forces have only appealed to the "usual suspects." Even voting is viewed by many as an exercise in abdicating power. A true democracy requires much more robust and inclusive engagement. Especially at the local level, public officials are realizing the importance of building community and empowering people to make their own decisions and to initiate their own projects.

One of the first cities that devolved power to the people was Porto Alegre, Brazil which initiated an ambitious process of participatory budgeting in 1989. The process starts at the neighborhood level, involves about 50,000 citizens, and determines which projects and services will be supported with the City's $200 million budget. Cities throughout Brazil replicated this process and now participatory budgeting has taken hold on every continent. In most cities, however, citizens are given a relatively small portion of the budget within which they can propose and prioritize projects.

Many other local governments are empowering citizens to develop their own neighborhood plans. The City of Seattle even made money available so that neighborhoods could hire a planner accountable to them. Rather than start with the City's budget, this process starts with diverse interests coming together to develop a shared vision for the future of their neighborhood and developing recommendations for actions that will move in that direction. Unlike traditional planning, these bottom-up plans tend to be more holistic, get many more people involved (30,000 in Seattle) and leverage the community's resources as well as local government's.

Another tool for leveraging community participation and other resources is the Neighborhood Matching Fund which was developed by the City of Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods in 1989. The program supports informal groups of neighbors to undertake one-time projects by providing a cash match in exchange for the community's match of volunteer labor. Through this program, more than 5000 community self-help projects have resulted – new parks, playgrounds, community gardens, public art, cultural centers, renovated facilities, oral histories, etc. The City's $70 million investment over the years has leveraged $100 million in community contributions that otherwise never would have been tapped. But, the best benefit is that it has involved tens of thousands of citizens with one another and with their government, often for the first time. Now, there are hundreds of such programs around the world but none on the scale of Seattle's.

Participatory democracy is catching on in many parts of the world. In the Netherlands, where there are numerous examples of community-driven planning and participatory budgeting, the movement is called Burgerkracht (Citizen Power). Machizukuri is the term for community building in Japan; first codified by Kobe City and utilized in recovering from the 1995 earthquake, a similar approach to citizen engagement in the development process has been adopted in other east Asian countries. In New Zealand, the movement is called Community-Led Development and builds on Maori concepts. Australia's Municipal Association of Victoria sponsors an annual Power to the People conference; there are now many examples of community-led plans and matching fund projects throughout the State of Victoria. In Iceland, Better Reykjavik involved 40% of the population in submitting and voting on ideas via the internet; that success led to an effort to crowdsource a new constitution for the country.

In Canada, there is a focus on building community at the neighborhood level. The Ontario Cities of Burlington, Hamilton, Kitchener, London and Toronto have engaged in widespread consultation to develop comprehensive Neighborhood Strengthening Strategies. The City of Edmonton and smaller jurisdictions throughout Alberta are training block connectors to bring neighbors together around shared interests and for mutual support. In British Columbia, the Vancouver Foundation is working with local governments to make small matching grants available in 17 communities.



Although I have tried to categorize the new forms of community building, I should note that community ways defy categorization. It's in community that everything comes together, so the approach is typically holistic. For example, Veg Out community garden could be categorized as a local food, environmental or placemaking project or as an example of community-created art or the culture of sharing. Every case cited above could also be described as a public safety or health promotion project because both benefit from stronger social capital. At the same time, there are many new forms of community building that don't fit in any of the categories I have listed. Here are a few examples.

The increasing frequency and ferocity of floods, droughts, fires, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters throughout the world is prompting communities to take the initiative in preparing for disaster. Neighbors are meeting one another, sharing their contact information, and making plans to combine their skills, equipment and other resources so that they can be as resilient as possible. Vashon Island, Washington, where I live, has 200 Neighborhood Emergency Response Organizations. Volunteers also created and operate a network of ham radios, a Facebook page, and radio and television stations for emergency communication; in the meantime, these media play a significant role in further building the community connections that are key to resiliency.

Neighbors are finding new ways to support their elders so that they can age in place. In a small village outside of Hoogeveen in the Netherlands, neighbors renovated a former restaurant to serve as an assisted-living facility staffed largely by volunteers. The other elders are supported to stay in their homes by neighbors who serve as "Buddies" - making regular visits, providing rides, and helping to maintain the house and yard. Neighbors are playing a similar role in cities throughout the United States where Virtual Villages have been organized. Started in Boston, this model also helps isolated seniors to connect with community and offers concierge-like referrals for those services that can't be provided by volunteers.

Collective knitting may seem like a frivolous activity by comparison, but it is also playing a role in rebuilding community. Knitting groups are popping up everywhere whether their purpose is to knit apparel for newborns, pussy hats for the Women's March, blankets for homeless encampments or to create street art through yarn bombing. In the Voorstad neighborhood of Deventer in the Netherlands, eight women came together to socialize while they knitted scarves in the yellow and red of their beloved football team, the Go Ahead Eagles. The movement grew and soon there were knitting groups everywhere, even in the football stadium. Several months ago, they sewed the scarves together and completely covered a house to show the warmth they have for the Syrian refugees who live inside. Their current goal is to make a scarf so long that it can surround the entire neighborhood; the 185 men and women participating in this project are three kilometers of the way towards knitting their community together.

I hope that you are as heartened by all of this as I am. Community isn't an old-fashioned concept. We need it now more than ever. But, if we are going to build stronger communities, we can't hark back to the old ways. We're living in a different world, and we need to adapt our approaches accordingly. Fortunately, people are stepping up everywhere and continually finding new ways to connect with others. I can't imagine a more exciting time than this for building community.

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A fundamental principle of community organizing is to start where the people are. The closer you engage people to where they live, the more likely they are to get involved. You should be able to get successively larger turnouts for gatherings at the neighborhood, city, state and national levels, but the percentage of the population engaged will most likely be the highest at the street, block, building or floor level.


Why? Because the farther the action is from where someone lives, the more likely they are to expect others to take responsibility. If it’s on their street, however, who will step up if they don’t? Logistics like transportation and child care are so much easier. And, their participation will generate peer pressure for the rest of the neighbors to join in. Most importantly, neighbors are likely to enjoy immediate and ongoing benefits from their participation due to the small scale and the relationships that are built with people who are so accessible. There’s no need to expend energy on bylaws, minutes, treasurer’s reports, nominating committees, and Roberts Rules of Order; the focus is on community.


The Opzoomeren Movement


I recently witnessed the potential of block organizing in Rotterdam where the Opzoomeren movement has taken hold. It started in 1994 when the residents of Opzoomer Street got fed up waiting for local government to address problems of crime and blight. They came to realize that there was much that the neighbors themselves could do, and they decided to take action.


Today, about 1600 streets are following their example. Neighbors come together to do whatever is most important to them whether that is caring for latchkey children and housebound elders, planting trees and gardens, or organizing street parties. Because half of Rotterdam’s population is immigrants, neighbors are often engaged in teaching one another Dutch.


On many of the streets, neighbors have gathered to discuss how they can best support one another. They develop a code of conduct that is prominently displayed on a large sign. No two signs are the same although there are some frequent themes. A typical sign reads:

1.       We say hello and welcome new neighbors.

2.       We take part in all kinds of street activities.

3.       We help each other with childcare.

4.       We keep our neighborhood clean and safe.


Each May, all of the streets celebrate Opzoomeren Day. In order to be recognized as part of the movement, a street must undertake at least four events or projects each year. An Opzoomeren bus is available for neighbors to use as a pop up café, gallery, workshop site, or whatever.


The Limitation of Block/Neighborhood Watch Programs


Of course, street level organizing is not a new idea. Practically everywhere I go, there are long standing crime prevention groups known as block or neighborhood watch.


Seattle has had one of the most successful block watch programs. First organized in 1972, the Police Department now claims that approximately 3000 blocks, or 30% of the city, is participating. In August of each year, about 1400 block parties are held in observance of National Night Out Against Crime.


The shortcoming of the program, however, is its singular focus on crime. Neighbors typically get engaged when it is too late – after there have been house break-ins or other safety issues. They call the Police Department for support and are taught how to install security systems and watch out for strangers. After that initial meeting, the group often becomes dormant until there is another crime wave.


Police departments typically fail to understand that the safest blocks are the ones that focus not on safety but on building community. Rather than simply teach people how to be secure in their homes and watch for strangers, residents should be encouraged to get out of their homes and connect with neighbors on a regular basis. It is much more sustainable for people to engage with one another around their wide range of interests rather than the police department’s narrow public safety agenda. That’s another key aspect of starting where the people are. In recognition of this, New Zealand’s program has morphed from neighborhood watch to Neighborhood Support.


Neighbors Provide Mutual Support


There is so much that neighbors can do to connect with one another and provide mutual support. Emergency planning is one such activity. Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel told me that one of the most important lessons from their devastating earthquakes was the importance of neighbors knowing one another. With limited emergency workers and many impassable roads, most Christchurch residents were totally dependent on the skills, resources, and care of their neighbors in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes.  


I now live on Vashon Island, Washington which is highly susceptible to earthquakes. Over 200 groups of five to fifteen households each have self-organized in this rural community in order to develop and implement emergency plans. Frequent power outages and other winter storm damage provide ample opportunity to practice mutual support. On our street, for example, some neighbors used their chainsaws to remove downed trees while others prepared a kind of stone soup; the ingredients came from everyone’s thawing freezers and the stew was prepared and served in a warm house equipped with a generator. Fortunately, we didn’t need the skills and knowledge of the physician who is also part of our group.


There are so many other ways in which neighbors can support one another on a daily basis. On some streets, elders have buddies who check on them each day and provide the transportation and maintenance that enables them to stay in their homes. And, for young parents, there are babysitting cooperatives. Neighbors share their expertise with one another whether that involves technology, recycling, gardening, auto mechanics, or whatever.


I visited a street in Garland, Texas where many of the neighbors worked in the construction trades – there was at least one carpenter, plumber, electrician, bricklayer, and roofer. They conducted regular work parties to help one another with their house projects. Those who lacked skills to help with construction prepared lunch or supervised the children. A couple of the neighbors had built bars in their back yards so that everyone could socialize after a day of work.


The Value of Bumping Places


Gathering spaces are essential to building community. I like to call them bumping places because the best way to build relationships is to have places where neighbors can bump into one another on a regular basis. The closer those bumping places are to where you live, the more likely it is that you will continually bump into the same people.


There are many opportunities to create bumping places on a street. A vacant lot or underutilized yard can be converted into a community garden or pocket park. A little free library combined with a bench becomes an instant bumping place.  In the Taiwan village of Tugo, residents have turned their front yards into small parks with tables that are shared with their neighbors. I met a man in Matsudo, Japan who had given up his valuable private parking place in order to redevelop it as a community gathering place complete with seating, fountain and artwork created by the children of the neighborhood.


In the Sellwood neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, neighbors converted their intersection into what they call Share-It Square, a most unusual bumping place. They painted a large mural in the intersection in order to slow traffic and provide a sense of place. Then, at each corner, they built a cob structure including a bench, a community bulletin board, a children’s playhouse, and a place where people can deposit and retrieve all sorts of free items. There is also a stand for a thermos of hot tea that entices neighbors to sip and talk together.


The Share-It Square neighbors didn’t seek the city’s permission before they painted the intersection, because they knew they wouldn’t get it. The project has been so successful, though, that the City of Portland now permits similar projects in other neighborhoods.  And, the idea of painting intersections has spread around the world from the Cathedral neighborhood in Sioux Falls to the Riccarton neighborhood of Christchurch.


Connecting Neighbors through Events


Events are another way to connect neighbors at the street level. On the Fourth of July in Tacoma, Washington, residents are encouraged to barbeque in their front yards as a way of welcoming neighbors to join them. In other places, neighbors are invited to watch movies projected onto the side of someone’s house.  Several rural communities in Australia have festivals in which all of the households along the road are encouraged to create unique scarecrows out of straw; neighbors walk the road together enjoying one another’s creativity.


In Kitchener and Waterloo, Ontario, there are several neighborhoods in which the houses have large front porches. They hold annual concerts featuring a band on each porch. Neighbors are invited to sit on the lawn and enjoy the music. I attended one such event that featured 44 bands with very different styles of music playing on 22 porches over the course of an afternoon.


Building Blocks for Larger Civic Action


Street-level organizing can produce the building blocks needed for larger civic action. Some neighborhood associations develop a broad base of participation by having their board members elected from each street. The street representative’s job is to ensure good two-way communication and to mobilize their constituency as needed.


The City of Redmond, Washington used this decentralized approach to maximize public input into policy decisions. Rather than rely solely on the testimony of the “usual suspects” who attend public hearings, they produced videos on key issues under consideration. Those videos were made available for house meetings at the block level and the ensuing discussions engaged people who would never think of speaking in the city council chambers. Feedback from the house meetings helped inform decision making by elected officials.


Oftentimes, the best way to build a campaign is house by house and block by block. For example, on the issue of climate change, neighbors can be given a menu of actions for reducing their family’s carbon footprint. Each action is worth a certain number of points. If the family can demonstrate sufficient points, they are given a yard sign identifying them as a green household. When green signs start spreading up and down the street, everyone is more likely to want to get on board. Similar approaches have been utilized in creating drug free, nuclear free and hate free zones.


One of the best things about block organizing and one of the greatest challenges is that the neighbors often have more differences (e.g. race, culture, age, religion, politics, career) than are likely to be found in other types of community that are organized around a common identity or interest. Some local places celebrate the unity of their diversity through common signage.  The residents of the Croft Place apartments in Seattle’s Delridge neighborhood did that as each family painted a placard hung above their door featuring their name and representing their culture. Similarly, on a street in Taiwan’s Taoyuan City, each household has a placard depicting the kind of work that their family does. In Roombeek, a suburb of Enschede in the Netherlands, houses on one street each have a display case showcasing what is special about the family that lives there. 


Agencies as Facilitators of Local Connections


Street organizing works best when it starts with the interests of the residents themselves, but there is a role that outside agencies can play in helping to foster connections. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, for example, a community development corporation trained interested residents on how to build a block organization. Upon completion of the training, the participants were given vouchers to acquire the ingredients for three dinners that they hosted for their neighbors. Over dinner, they discussed their dreams, challenges and gifts and developed plans for supporting one another. The resulting block organizations also proved to be a good vehicle for voter registration and turnout.


In Portland, Oregon, a non-profit called City Repair provides a mobile bumping place known as the T-Horse. When the converted van arrives on a street, gigantic wings are installed on either side of the T-Horse to provide protection from sun or rain. Inside the van, they make tea and serve it to the neighbors who sit on cushions under the wings and get to know one another.


Many cities make it very difficult to organize street parties due to the time and expense involved in acquiring the required food handling and street closure permits. But some local governments, like Airdrie and Grande Prairie, Alberta and Burlington, Ontario, realize that they have an interest in building community. They make the regulatory process as simple as possible and even supply block party toolkits that include equipment and/or money to help with the event.


The City of Seattle has a Small Sparks fund which facilitates residents who feel isolated to connect with their neighbors. For example, one mother and her child with disabilities used the money to purchase a wagon that they pulled door to door as a magazine exchange. Another individual noticed that all of the falling apples on her street were attracting rats, so she purchased a press and invited her neighbors to help make cider. A lonely senior in a high rise apartment invited the neighbors in the surrounding houses to the community room on the top floor where they had a great time folding paper airplanes and tossing them out the window.


Many cities throughout the world sponsor a Neighbor Day as a way to encourage and celebrate caring neighbors. Among other things, the City of Seattle organizes a contest for students to depict pictures of caring neighbors. The winning entry gets printed on the cover of a greeting card and the inside message simply says, “Thank you, neighbor!”  Thousands of people utilize these cards as an excuse to visit their neighbors and let them know that they are appreciated.


Building community in dense, high-rise housing can be challenging, but again, agencies can play a role in facilitating connections. Over 80 percent of Singapore’s population lives in multi-story buildings constructed and managed by the Housing Development Board (HDB). HDB has made community building a priority. They include community gathering spaces in their developments and make funds available to support community-driven place-making projects. An annual Buildathon trains practitioners on how to work in ways that are community-led, and a Community Week recognizes good neighbors and exemplary community projects.


A promising, relatively new tool for block organizing is the Abundant Community Initiative being implemented by the City of Edmonton and other municipalities. Utilizing a strengths-based approach, Block Connectors are recruited and trained to have conversations that uncover the gifts, needs, passions and dreams of their neighbors. The information and relationships that emerge through this process lead to the formation of interest and activity groups, skills exchanges, and a vision for the neighborhood. The work is done under the auspices of the local community leagues and helps them to be more deeply rooted in each of their neighborhoods.


Thus, neighborhood associations and agencies alike are learning that a top-down approach to citizen engagement doesn’t work. If you really want to get broad and inclusive participation, you need to start where people are – as close to their home and their heart as possible. Of course, starting where people are also entails starting with their language and culture and with their pre-existing networks, but those are topics for future blogs.

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Recently, I was invited to speak at a conference of not-for-profit organizations on the topic of How to Recruit More Volunteers. The conference organizers must have been distressed when I began my remarks by asserting: What we need is fewer volunteers and more community. I went on to explain what I see as the difference.

Volunteers are well-intentioned individuals who take time from their daily routine in order to be of service. Community, on the other hand, isnt a departure from routine. Its a way of life focused on the common good. A valued community member might welcome strangers, join a time bank, host a block party, shop locally, raise responsible children, carpool to work, plant street trees, coach a youth soccer team, vote, advocate for the homeless, be a buddy to a housebound neighbor, and graciously accept a gift of zucchini from another neighbors garden. Few people have the time to engage in so many community activities and everyones menu of activities will look different, but whether at work, home, in their neighborhood or the larger world, all people have the opportunity to be welcoming, generous in giving and open to receiving, and act as if their welfare is tied to everyone elses. Thats what it means to be in community.

Volunteering tends to be a one-way relationship in which someone is providing services to clients. Those clients are labelled by what they are missing poor, unemployed, uneducated, homeless, single parent, non-English speaking, at-risk, disabled, etc. With service delivery, there are two classes of people the volunteers with the gifts and the clients with the needs. In community, we recognize that everyone has both needs and gifts. Community is all about mutual support meeting one anothers needs with one anothers gifts.

Volunteers often provide services that offer some relief for problems but dont address the underlying causes. Such was the case with the Ontario Church Ladies who had been volunteering in their local food bank for decades only to see the lines grow ever longer. They finally called a press conference to announce that they were going on strike. Rather than volunteering in the food bank, they were going to join with fellow community members in advocating for social justice.

Ironically, the not-for-profits and other agencies in which people volunteer are inadvertently contributing to the breakdown of the very communities that they claim to support. Agencies are organized into silos defined by each ones own narrow mission. There are separate silos for the young, old, disabled, refugees, and all sorts of other categories and subcategories of clients. Each client group is assigned its own facilities, programs and services. This way of organizing people is antithetical to community. Consequently, volunteers are often being of more service to agencies than they are to the community.

Likewise, the top-down nature of agencies is not conducive to community. People volunteer in programs and services designed and managed by professional staff. These staff have an important role to play, but they are no substitute for community. Communities have their own unique and more holistic ways of caring for one another and the planet, promoting health and happiness, preventing crime, responding to disaster, creating great places, strengthening democracy, and advancing social justice. The more people are involved as community members, the less need there will be for volunteers.

Of course, some volunteers will always be necessary and, in my talk, I did go on to describe ways in which not-for-profit organizations could attract and retain more of them. That includes the common techniques of outreach and volunteer recognition, but the most powerful methods are those that adopt the practices of community cultivate and build on relationships; identify and utilize everyones skills, passions and knowledge; work collaboratively with other agencies in focusing on whole places rather than separate functions; and give people a sense of ownership by empowering them to determine their own priorities and plan or co-design their own responses. When agencies do this, volunteers and clients are transformed into citizens and stronger communities result.

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Jim Diers
About Jim Diers

Jim Diers is driven by a passion to get people more involved in their communities and in the decisions that affect their lives. Over the past 40 years, he has served as a grass roots community organizer, community developer, and founding director of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods. Jim now shares the lessons from that work in his courses at the University of Washington; in international consulting through the Asset-Based Community Development Institute; and in his book, Neighbor Power. He has been recognized with an honorary doctorate from Grinnell College and as the Public Employee of the Year by the Municipal League of Martin Luther King County.