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.

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Category: Stories

Helper, Utah - The Little Town That Could

It was early morning as we drove from Moab to Salt Lake City during a recent vacation in Utah. I was tired, so I exited the highway when I saw a sign advertising coffee in a town with the intriguing name of Helper. I emerged two hours later with a deliciously effective cappuccino and an inspiring story of a community revitalizing its town by building on its strengths. 

The town of Helper grew up around the railroad. Soon after the track was completed in 1882, Helper was designated as a passenger and freight terminal. The railroad facilitated coal mining in Carbon County, and Helper became the hub for services needed by the mining camps. By 1925, Helper boasted 157 businesses including several hotels. The town’s 1600 residents spoke 27 different languages as the railroad, mining and service sectors attracted diverse immigrants.

Helper’s economy waxed and waned over the years along with the fortunes of the coal industry. Increasing mechanization of the industry cost some jobs but the real hit began in the 1970s with the closure of mines and a major railroad facility. By the end of the century, only three of the 30 mines were still operating. The hotels and most of the other storefronts were boarded up. Helper was no longer a hub. Some referred to it as “a living ghost town.”

Rather than dwell on their misfortune, the citizens of Helper focused on their strengths. They realized they had an abundance of underutilized resources that could be mobilized to revitalize their town. These included their rich history, intact architecture, beautiful natural environment, affordable real estate, good highway access, a passenger train stop, and most importantly, a strong sense of community and a belief in what it could accomplish.

Early on, there was a feeling that Helper’s history could be the basis for a new tourism industry. A small museum was created in one room of the civic auditorium in 1964. The museum committee also commissioned the statue of a 20-foot-tall miner, “Big John,” which was erected in front of the civic auditorium and can’t be missed as you enter the town.

The initial museum proved to be so successful that, in 1985, the City Council voted to make the four-story Railroad Hotel available for a greatly expanded Western Mining and Railroad Museum. The museum includes the facsimile of a coal mine, a miniature working railroad, exhibits on the mining camps with their baseball teams and brass bands. and themed rooms that house a company store, schoolroom, doctor and dentist offices, miniature locomotives, dinosaur fossils, a Veterans Honor Hall, and the shady side of Helper with its distilleries and brothels. The museum continues to be a major tourist attraction.

The museum also has a large lot displaying mining and railroad equipment including the town’s namesake, a helper engine. Trains climbing the steep grade from Helper up to the Wasatch Plateau on their way to Salt Lake City required an additional “helper” engine. These were stationed in Helper.

The town had a few artists, but its art scene really took off when David Dornan, who was born in Helper, returned in 1999. Dornan was an art professor at the University of Utah and realized that Helper could be the perfect place to establish a studio. With some colleagues, he purchased a two-story former hotel on Main Street for $16,000. The first floor was renovated as studio space which was made available to his students. In exchange for five hours per week helping with the renovation, students were each given their own small bedroom rent-free. There are 15 of these bedrooms in the former brothel on the second floor of the hotel. Some of the students have stayed in Helper and established their own studios.

The growing art scene combined with affordable housing and picturesque scenery attracted more artists to Helper. Historic Main Street buildings received badly needed renovations and now serve as art galleries, studios and living quarters. The Rio Hotel was reborn as the Rio Theatre for the performing arts. Artists have beautified the town with murals including a large mosaic that was created in collaboration with children and depicts the historic railroad. Artwork in the windows of otherwise vacant buildings makes the town seem more alive. Art-based events such as First Friday Gallery Strolls, the Butch Cassidy Film Festival, and the Helper Arts, Music and Film Festival attract locals and visitors alike to the Main Street.

Fortunately, there is an understanding that Helper’s historic architecture is also one of its core strengths. Main Street facades have been preserved so that it looks much like it did 100 years ago. Three buildings have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The vintage Sinclair and Conoco gas stations have been beautifully restored. The miners’ cottages at the town entrance have been preserved and all received a fresh coat of paint due to a recent community initiative.

Community members have worked hard to make Main Street as attractive as possible. Already in 1973, local Girl Scouts cleaned up a blighted lot in the heart of town and over the next few years created a park for their community’s elders. More recently, benches and brightly colored Adirondack chairs were installed throughout downtown to encourage pedestrians to relax and feel at home. Forbidding spaces between buildings were converted into attractive laneways. Cindi Curry, who owns the coffee shop I patronized, took it upon herself to install and maintain planters along Main Street. A local non-profit, The Helper Project, added decorative trash cans. In addition to the art events noted earlier, the Helper Outlaw Car Show and Cruise, Farmer’s Market, Lunatic Triathlon, and the official Utah Christmas Town celebration with its electric light parade help bring people to Main Street.

Yet another local asset is Helper’s natural environment. The community understands that Mother Nature has blessed them with much more than coal. The Price River runs through Helper which is situated at the mouth of the canyon. The town enjoys stunning views of nearby Book Cliffs, Balance Rock and Steamboat Mountain.

Trails have been developed on abandoned rail lines that connected Helper to former mining camps. These are now popular with hikers and mountain bikers. A new business in Helper provides trail information and guided tours. It also rents bicycles as well as rafts, kayaks and paddleboards for the river.

The community developed a trail along the river to make this amenity more accessible. The River Walk leads to a beach, a playground of boulders (another local asset), and a sandstone labyrinth. A suspension bridge crosses the river. Old concrete structures on the route are painted with street art. Benches are strategically located under shade trees. What a delight to experience this serene environment and its rich bird life only a block from Main Street.

As part of a much larger project to revitalize the river, Helper Middle School students removed invasive plants from the banks and replaced them with native species. A new community group, the River Helpers, now waters and maintains the vegetation.

In 2017, Mayor Lenise Peterman invited the American Institute of Architects to bring its Sustainable Design Assessment Team to Helper. They facilitated the development of a community-driven action plan that engaged ten percent of the town’s 2200 residents over the course of three days. Goals of the plan include attracting young families, stewarding the local environment, and moving from an energy-based economy to a destination-based one.

Many of the specific recommendations have already been implemented and others are in the works. These include initiating an entrepreneurial training program, creating pop-up businesses in retail stores, enhancing public spaces, developing a wayfinding system, and becoming certified as a Dark Skies community,

There is still much to be done, but my walk down Helper’s Main Street was truly inspiring. In addition to the art galleries, theatre and museum, Main Street now boasts restaurants, salons, and antique stores. The Vintage Motor Company with beautifully restored motorcycles and classic cars now occupies the first floor of the renovated Lincoln Hotel. More buildings were being renovated even at the early morning hour when I was there. The planters, seating, laneways, art, and decorative trash cans and the posters publicizing a variety of events demonstrated how much people care for their community. Gateway Lanes continues to thrive and my guess is that no one bowls alone in Helper.

Not only is Helper’s revitalization building on its own unique resources, but the process has been community driven. City Hall only has 10 full-time and seven half-time positions, so the community has done most of the work themselves.  Helper, both the engine and the town, remind me of one of my favorite children’s books, “The Little Engine that Could.” Despite the steep climb, that engine kept chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” and it finally succeeded. As Mayor Peterman puts it, “If a community has hope, there’s no stopping it. If you have hope we can do these things, we can get them done.”

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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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