Category: Reflections and Ideas
By Jim Diers, 2019-04-19
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.
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.
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.