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October 29, 2011

Changing the World One Block at a Time

The neighborhood is a powerful—but often overlooked—tool for social improvement

The first Tuesday in August is a red-letter evening in many towns and cities— National Night Out . This year August 7 is the occasion for tens of thousands of people across the U.S. to renew their commitment to stopping crime by looking out for one another. It’s also a celebration of community and all that we share as neighbors.

Up to 30 million people take to the streets and parks, with no one calling the cops. Indeed, local police departments helped organize this evening of block parties, neighborhood festivals and music performances. The idea is that when people step out of their homes to meet the neighbors, communities are safer. People who know one another are more likely to work together to prevent crime in their community.

For most people, neighborhoods are a form of the commons that is most familiar. Nearly every one of us lives in one, and they are important to our lives whether we realize it or not. If your home is burglarized while you’re away, it’s your neighbor who calls the police. Even more likely, your neighbor’s presence strolling down the sidewalk or keeping on her porch light discourages hoods from breaking in at all.

That’s why police want to mobilize the power of the commons for fight crime. Spending many years out on the streets, they have come to understand that government and the private sector can only do so much to assure public safety. A lot depends on people themselves, working together in informal but powerful ways to protect their community from violence, theft and vandalism.

But crime is only one of many serious problems that can be effectively addressed at the level of the neighborhood commons. So can issues related to the environment, economic decline, and social alienation.

All of us are more likely to pitch in on causes that affect our own backyard. Destruction of the rainforest upsets us, but a threat to beloved trees a few blocks away will get us off the sofa to circulate petitions, organize protests and negotiate with the folks wielding chainsaws.

And when we can see the direct effects of our actions, we are much more likely to stay involved and broaden our focus from local to global issues. Saving the trees in our neighborhood can inspire us to save the rainforest, too.

The notion of the neighborhood as an important social institution might seem old-fashioned (as is the idea of the commons itself) to some, like nostalgic memories of the corner soda fountain. Yet its actually as up-to-date as an internet café, where you find people communicating with New Zealand and Morocco at their laptops but also striking up conversations with someone at the next table.

The mark of the 21st century person is to step out into the world on one foot but have the other squarely planted in his or her community. Even as our intellectual and economic horizons expand, the local community is still where we lead our lives, where our toes touch the ground, where everybody knows our name. Being rooted in the neighborhood of your choice (which may be far from the neighborhood where you grew up) offers not just comfort but a prime opportunity to make a difference in the world.

When you add up the people all over the world who are working to change things in their own neighborhoods—the results are impressive:

* In Porto Alegre, Brazil, (population 1.3 million), local officials enlist the wisdom of neighborhood residents in figuring out how to best apportion their tax money. Citizens gather in neighborhood assemblies to decide what’s needed in their part of town, and then elect representatives to advise the city council on budget priorities. This “participatory budget” has been credited with lowering unemployment, improving sanitary conditions and revitalizing Porto Alegre’s poor neighborhoods. More than 1,200 cities across the world have now adopted the idea.

  • A group of frustrated neighbors in Delft, Netherlands, finally took action about autos speeding down their street. They dragged old couches and tables into the middle of the road, strategically arranging them so that motorists could still pass—but only if they drove slowly. The police eventually arrived and had to admit that this scheme, although clearly illegal, was a good idea. Soon the city was installing its own devices to slow traffic, and the idea of traffic calming was born—an innovative solution that used across the globe to make streets safer.
  • Grandmothers at the Yesler Terrace public housing project in Seattle drove drug dealers from their community by camping out in lawn chairs at street corners notorious for crack traffic. They simply sat there knitting, and the dealers soon cleared out, proving that frail old grannies willing to speak up for their neighborhood can sometimes accomplish more than cops in squad cars.

    Neighborhood activism is often cast as a narrow, even selfish pursuit. People are starving in Africa, critics charge, and you’re obsessed with starting a farmer’s market! But that ignores two of our chief assets for social change in the 21st century.

    1. Thanks to our amazing global communications networks no good idea stays local for long.

    2. And when a citizens group or social movement is infused with the spirit of the commons, they naturally make the connection to similar efforts elsewhere.

    There’s no better time in history, as the old saying goes, to think locally and act globally.

    This article is based upon research for The Great Neighborhood Book, a guidebook of practical ideas and success stories from around the world created with “Project for Public Spaces”:http://www.pps.org