in community stories

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Neighborhood-based community building handbooks recommended by Jim Diers

in community stories

“Few people in this country know as much about community building as Jim Diers,” said  Fred Kent, President of Project for Public Spaces (PPS). From 1988 to 2002, Jim led Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods which is “widely known as the most innovative effort in the U.S. to empower local residents” (John P. Kretzmann, Co-director or the Asset-Based Community Development Institute).

Jim’s been dragged all over the world by people and orgs keen to learn from his real-world experience as a community builder. He’s currently on a tour through Ireland, England, Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, and the US. (It’s not really a book tour, but a lot of the discussions revolve around the ideas and practices detailed in his must-read book Neighbor Power.) Yet he somehow found time to answer my request.

In my own experience as a community organizer, I’ve found that it’s so much easier to get things moving when people don’t have to first invent the wheel. So I like workbooks. Our Blocks recently featured one workbook,which I thought was the best I’d seen so far. I asked Jim if others came to mind. He said he’d give it more thought when he had more time, but off the top of his head:

  1. The Organizer’s Workbook, published by the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center -  a roadmap to discovering, organizing and engaging your neighborhood. (This is the workbook we’d previously featured, as noted above. Incidentally, I corresponded this week with INRC Executive Director Anne-Marie Taylor, who said she’d “love to hear how folks outside of Indianapolis are utilizing this Workbook”.)
  2. The Great Neighborhood Book, by Jay Walljasper, published by PPS. (In the Great Minds Think Alike category, this book was also recommended to us by UMass Professor Emeritus Bill Berkowitz, Development Partner at the Community Tool Box.)

Not a workbook, but something Jim brought up in relation to my plans to do community-building work in the Philippines: From Clients to Citizens – Deepening the Practice of Asset-Based and Citizen-Led Development (pdf) – Conversations from the ABCD Forum, July 8 – 10, 2009. Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada. Edited by Alison Mathie and Deborah Puntenney. December 2009. The Coady International Institute published this under a CC-ANSA license, very nice of them.

Thanks for your recommendations Jim.

Other recent articles on Jim Diers by friends of Our Blocks: Jim Diers on citizen action by Kevin Harris at Neighborhoods; Getting back to Government Is Us at Socialreporter (which includes a beer-powered interview by David Wilcox). You can also find Jim’s talks on The Youtubes, three of which (so far) we’ve added to our Videos collection. Not recent but still fresh, this hour-long conversation on KUOW (note: turns out there’s a difference between mating calls and meeting calls).

Superbia! : 31 ways to create sustainable neighborhoods (with links to resources)

in community stories

[ The resources linked below are those referenced in the book, p179ff ]

Easy Steps


Bolder Steps

[more links to follow]

Boldest Steps

  • Create a community energy system.
  • Establish alternative water and wastewater systems.
  • Establish a more environmentally friendly transportation strategy.
  • Create a common house.
  • Create a community-shared office.
  • Establish weekly entertainment for the community.
  • Narrow or eliminate streets, converting more space to park and edible landscape, walkways and picnic areas.
  • Retrofit garages and rooms in your homes into apartments or add granny flats to house students or others in need of housing.
  • Establish a mixed-use neighborhood by opening a coffee shop, convenience store, and garden market.
  • Promote a more diverse neighborhood.

From Dan Chiras & Dave Wann (2003). Superbia!: 31 ways to create sustainable neighborhoods. Gabriola, B.C.: New Society.

Click here for more idea lists

11 key elements in transforming public spaces into vibrant community places

in community stories

Thanks to Richard Layman for pointing us to PPS, and to Bill Berkowitz for recommending the book.

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public places that build communities. It has identified 11 key elements in transforming public spaces into vibrant community places, whether they’re parks, plazas, public squares, streets, sidewalks or the myriad other outdoor and indoor spaces that have public uses in common. These elements are:

  1. The Community Is The Expert. The important starting point in developing a concept for any public space is to identify the talents and assets within the community. In any community there are people who can provide an historical perspective, valuable insights into how the area functions, and an understanding of the critical issues and what is meaningful to people.
  2. Create a Place, Not a Design. If your goal is to create a place (which we think it should be), a design will not be enough. To make an under-performing space into a vital “place,” physical elements must be introduced that would make people welcome and comfortable, such as seating and new landscaping. The goal is to create a place that has both a strong sense of community and a comfortable image.
  3. Look for Partners. Whether you want partners at the beginning to plan for the project or you want to brainstorm and develop scenarios with a dozen partners who might participate in the future, they are invaluable in providing support and getting a project off the ground. They can be local institutions, museums, schools and others.
  4. You Can See a Lot Just By Observing. We can all learn a great deal from others’ successes and failures. By looking at how people are using (or not using) public spaces and finding out what they like and don’t like about them, it is possible to assess what makes them work or not work.
  5. Have a Vision. Essential to a vision for any public space is an idea of what kinds of activities might be happening in the space, a view that the space should be comfortable and have a good image, and that it should be an important place where people want to be. It should instill a sense of pride in the people who live and work in the surrounding area.
  6. Start with the Petunias: Experiment…Experiment…Experiment. The complexity of public spaces is such that you cannot expect to do everything right initially. The best spaces experiment with short term improvements that can be tested and refined over many years. Elements such as seating, outdoor cafes, public art, striping of crosswalks and pedestrian havens, community gardens and murals are examples of improvements that can be accomplished in a short time.
  7. Triangulate. “Triangulation is the process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to other strangers as if they knew each other” (Holly Whyte). In a public space, the choice and arrangement of different elements in relation to each other can put the triangulation process in motion (or not).
  8. They Always Say “It Can’t Be Done.” Creating good public spaces is inevitably about encountering obstacles. Starting with small scale community-nurturing improvements can demonstrate the importance of “places” and help to overcome obstacles.
  9. Form Supports Function. The input from the community and potential partners, the understanding of how other spaces function, the experimentation, and overcoming the obstacles and naysayers provides the concept for the space. Although design is important, these other elements tell you what “form” you need to accomplish the future vision for the space.
  10. Money is not the issue. Once you’ve put in the basic infrastructure of the public spaces, the elements that are added that will make it work (e.g., vendors, cafes, flowers and seating) will not be expensive. If the community and other partners are involved in programming and other activities, this can also reduce costs. People will have so much enthusiasm for the project that the cost is viewed much more broadly and consequently as not significant when compared with the benefits.
  11. You Are Never Finished. Being open to the need for change and having the management flexibility to enact that change is what builds great public spaces and great cities and towns.

excerpted from Eleven Principles for Creating Great Community Places

The book puts it a little differently:

  1. The community is the expert. The people living and working in a place are the folks who know what needs to be done and how best to do it.
  2. You are creating a place, not a design. The blueprints for a neighborhood improvement effort are much less critical to its success than other factors, such as a management plan and the involvement of local citizens.
  3. You can’t do it alone. Finding the right partners will bring more resources, innovative ideas, and new sources of energy for your efforts.
  4. They’ll always say “It can’t be done.” When government officials, business people, and even some of your own neighbors say it won’t work, what they really mean is “We’ve never done it like this before.” It’s a sign you’re on the right track.
  5. You can see a lot by just observing. The smartest way to turn a neighborhood around is to first take a close look at what goes on there, watching out for what works and what doesn’t in that particular place.
  6. Develop a vision. For a community vision to make sense and to make a difference, it needs to come from the people who live there, not from consultants or other outside professionals.
  7. Form supports function. If you don’t take into account how people use a particular place in the beginning, you will have to deal with the consequences later.
  8. Make the connections. A great place in a neighborhood offers many things to do, all of which enhance each other and add up to more than the sum of the parts.
  9. Start with petunias. Little things can set the stage for big changes, especially by proving to local skeptics that change is indeed possible.
  10. Money is not the issue. If you have a spirited community working with you, you’ll find creative ways around financial obstacles.
  11. You are never finished. Eighty percent of the success of any good place is due to how well it is managed after the project is done.

‘Friends and Neighbors, Not Just Houses’

in community stories

“We’re always thinking of ways to draw the community together the way neighborhoods were 70 years ago,” Waters said. The aim is to be “a community of friends and neighbors, not just houses — and have fun along the way.”

The glue that holds everything together now is an active Listserv. “Even people who have very busy lives and aren’t able to participate in social activities are still able to be connected,” she said.

Have extra day lilies to give away? Lose a dog? Have an extra ticket to the Nats? Just need an extra hand for an afternoon? Assistance is just a few keystrokes away.

Rather than organizing holiday parties when everyone is busy, the civic association sponsors other events to help residents feel connected, drawing on the talents of those who aren’t usually involved in traditional ways.

Newcomers are welcomed with a green fabric tote bag bearing the Luxmanor logo and including an association directory, a copy of the latest newsletter and some munchies. Once a year, new residents are honored at a cocktail buffet hosted by veterans of the community.

In the late summer and early fall, residents round up school supplies to be distributed to social workers for the foster children in their networks.

A “books and brunch” exchange offers residents a free, fun way to clear out their bookshelves and find new tomes. Waters tells residents, “Bring as many books as you can, take as many as you want. No one’s counting.”

The annual Sunday afternoon event lasts four or five hours as residents munch on finger food, peruse selections and catch up with each other. “We don’t have a community center, so people volunteer by opening their homes,” Stolsworth said.

In spring, Luxmanor hosted its first art show. Varda Avnisan, a 15-year resident and glass sculptor, said, “We discovered a whole community of artists here.”

Luxmanor’s spring garden tours reveal hidden backyard gems. Carefully sculpted rock gardens, poolside settings, and an Oriental-style garden with statuary and a moon gate are often-mentioned highlights.

It was the community’s propensity for children to put up lemonade stands that spawned an additional event last year — a charitable tie-in with the garden tour. She encouraged children to set up lemonade stands and donate the proceeds to their favorite charities. “There was no bureaucracy. I just trusted them to send off their money, and they did,” she said.

During the anniversary’s progressive dinner, in which appetizers and desserts were each hosted by a different family, and dinner was held at eight other houses, Waters researched foods popular in the 1930s. One couple hosted swing dance lessons.

excerpts from Md.’s Luxmanor Uses Ways of the Past and Present to Maintain the Ties That Bind –