Creating global prosperity without economic growth

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12 Ideas for Strong Neighborhoods

by Scott Gast on 5th December 2010

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If sustainability is about one thing, I’d argue it’s connection. It’s when connections of all kinds are lost―connections with each other, with nature, with the effects of our actions on the world around us―that we run into problems of the systemic kind. Problems like an economy that ruins the air it breathes; that paves over the particulars of the world; that pushes electronic and other idols in the name of a very nebulous and weird and loosely defined “efficiency.”

Here’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately: Say you’re tired of all this disconnection. Say you’re interested in exploring whatever human things lie north of economic growth. What do you do? Get the word out about all these ideas? Write a blog? March around with a banner? Design policies of various kinds? Start a local currency?

None of this stuff is bad. But probably the first and most interesting of these things―I don’t know if it’s easy and fun or hard and terrible (probably a mixture of both)―is connecting with your neighbors. To walk outside and look around. To talk to the mailman, the woman walking her dog, the guy sitting on the front stoop. Because it’s hard to imagine viable local economies (which seem like total linchpins of a post growth paradigm) without reasonably tight and strong neighborhoods. And hey, whatever happens, at least it’ll be kind of interesting.

Like starting an exercise plan or a diet or something, it’s nice to have a set of discreet neighborhood building instructions. We are in luck. This post, in fact, was largely inspired by a back issue of a graphically impressive magazine called GOOD, whose thematic tag line is “The Neighborhoods Issue.” In there is a “Guide to Better Neighborhoods”―12 pretty good ideas and steps for connecting a neighborhood to itself. Here’s the list:

  1. Start a Community Garden
  2. Throw a Block Party
  3. Meet Your Neighbors Without Seeming Like a Crazy Person
  4. Share Your Yard (Or Get Your Neighbors to Share Theirs)
  5. Get a Billboard Taken Down (Or At Least Complain About One)
  6. Squat in a Foreclosed Home
  7. Join a New-and-Improved Commune
  8. Go Local 2.0
  9. Create a Neighborhood Clubhouse
  10. Be a Good Regular
  11. Get a Stop Sign or Crosswalk Put In
  12. Get on Community Access Television

I like “neighborhood” as a lens for action. It’s small and close enough to feel real, and non-partisan enough to make politics more or less irrelevant. But other lists are good, too. Here’s YES! Magazine’s “10 Resilient Ideas,” from their “Resilient Communities” issue.

It can be hard to see how a single person or even a community of persons can make a dent in the trajectory of a global economy, and the cultural supports that hold it up. But increasingly I’m not worried about that. I think I’ll just head outside and start talking. What about you? Got any neighborhood-building tips or stories to share? (If you do, and there are enough, we’ll make a post out of them.)

This post was written by

avatar Scott walks, bikes, reads, and lives in rural western Massachusetts. His day jobs have included stints at YES! Magazine, the City of Chicago's Waste to Profit Network, and The Nature Conservancy. He is a graduate of the Environmental Science program at Allegheny College, and Special Projects Assistant at Orion Magazine.

Scott has written 17 posts on Post Growth Institute. Contact Scott

{ 4 comments }

avatar John S Veitch December 14, 2010 at 00:31

I agree that “it’s hard to imagine viable local economies without reasonably tight and strong neighborhoods. ”

Which is why I set up an electronic list to connect the people in my own street. It was much harder to do than I imagined. The list has been used for very different things than I imagined. Very little for discussion. Quite a lot for very practical things like who knows Xxxxxx, or and anyone tell me Xxxxx? Who’s got a very tall ladder I can borrow for and hour? Our group has been very successful over 18 months now.

Several people said; “That’s a good idea, we’ll try that.”

Of 14 new groups so far 2 are running well. So this isn’t so easy. To try and help I built a web site. You can try this for yourself. I’m happy to work with you, wherever you are in the world. There’s much to learn and a lot that needs to be shared.

http://www.streetgroups.co.nz/

John S Veitch
The Network Ambassador

avatar Sharon December 18, 2010 at 06:58

John, that is a great idea! I don’t think your list needs to be about discussion at all, I think that kind of practical support people are using it for is exactly what a community needs to function; you don’t necessarily need to agree on your politics (or even like each other), you just need to be able to co-operate…and know who has that tall ladder!

Have you found that the electronic groups have increased interpersonal interaction in your street? It’s kind of odd, isn’t it, that we need this – didn’t we just used to go to our neighbours and knock on the door? I wonder what changed that people maybe feel they can’t do that?

Scott, my background is in planning so your post truly resonated with me, and I think you are spot on with this question of scale and the local being the most immediate and relevant in people’s lives (see Kirkpatrick Sale’s ‘Dwellers in the Land’ for more on this). Although I believe that neighbourhoods are part of a broader system that impacts on them, and that we also need to create systemic change, strong connections between people and where they live – neighbourhoods – are integral to creating this change.

In the days of electronic media, we have geographic communities (neighbourhoods etc) and we have communities of interest, who can be drawn from across a city, a country, the globe. That’s wonderful, but what impact does it have on the geographic bonds? Do we NEED geographic bonds? Is it that the online world is stealing people away from the real world, or is it that people are turning to the online world because our communities are so fractured? I believe its the latter. If so, what is causing the fracturing?

Is it hyper individualism? The more focus one puts on defining oneself through consumption, the more time is needed to earn the money to spend, and there is a corresponding withdrawal from civic life (Putnam’s Bowling Alone is a good example of this from the US).

Is it urban form, especially car-based, that disperses people and forms of housing that atomise our communities, remove all third spaces? Where do we get the opportunity for spontaneous interaction when we move through space – into the car or bus or train or subway, to work – from work to home? Where do you go after work if you have little money, no transport or you are in the suburbs where its just houses and privately controlled “public” space?

How can we have connected communities when we rob them of both the time and space to be connected?

Here’s a test for how much ‘social capital’ (trust) there is in your street – how many of your neighbours could you leave your house keys with? How many of your neighbours’ houses have you been inside in the last year?

The answers are always telling!

avatar jenny December 28, 2010 at 16:48

Community is what it’s all about, it has the most direct impact on you, your mood, health etc. The only way to connect is to get out there and get involved. Sitting behind the computer screen doesn’t help your community as you could do more by getting out there!

avatar Brad Evans September 3, 2011 at 00:18

Another great article! As you say, neighbours truly are the lynchpin of local economies! By stepping out and being the first to say hello to someone in the street, who knows what kind of friendship, business partnership or even relationship might spring forth! Neighbourhoods are the embodiment of community! Now, I need to stop writing here and go out and say hello!

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