IF YOU WANT TO BUILD COMMUNITY, START WHERE THE PEOPLE ARE
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.
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.