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Democracy Begins in the Neighborhood


A neighborhood is the basic unit of human civilization. It's the place that we call home, where life unfolds day after day. In lively neighborhoods, people are not just residents. They are stakeholders. They keep their streets safe, clean and beautiful. They may work together to bring life back to an abandoned park, restore a shuttered business district or lobby against widening a nearby street. Experts say proactive neighbors are the true builders of communities and democracy.

"In my neighborhood, you see kids playing out all the time," says community activist and writer Jay Walljasper. Not only kids, he says, but also adults out in their yards, taking a stroll, riding a bike, "or just keeping an eye on the street."

"It's not a place where some stranger can come by and kidnap a kid because there is so much activity on the streets," Walljasper says of his Minneapolis, Minnesota, neighborhood.

"There was a street near my house that was going to be widened and turned into a kind of busy, almost a highway," he says. "The neighbors and I got together and protested against the widening of the street. And indeed now the street is going to be narrowed. So, it's going to become a better street for our neighborhood."

But before neighbors anywhere can have an impact on their community, Walljasper explains, they have to know each other and be able to meet informally and discuss community concerns and issues.

"The best communities have a place where people can gather," he says. "It might be a coffee shop. It might be a park. It might just be a couple of benches out in front of the local grocery store. They are places where people can just spontaneously bump into each other, and great things can arrive from those conversations and meetings."

In his book, The Great Neighborhood Book, A Do-it-Yourself Guide to Placemaking, Walljasoper tells stories of people who have made a difference in their communities, like Jim Diers.

"There was a block of abandoned buildings in his neighborhood in Seattle," Walljasper says. The buildings were boarded up, because they couldn't get any businesses to move in. To make the buildings look more attractive, Diers and others painted images on the boards of the businesses they would like to see in their neighborhood. Walljasper says, "People began to stop there thinking those were real businesses. Before long, a number of thriving businesses in the community had moved in."

Diers, author of Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way, also helped establish the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.

"We started up programs like a neighborhood matching fund," he says. "We supported 3,000 neighborhood self help projects in the city of Seattle. We supported neighborhoods to develop their own neighborhood plans. We also started a program of community gardens."

Thanks to that program, Seattle now has 75 organic community gardens. Many of the most recent gardens were planted by immigrants from Southeast Asia and East Africa.

Diers says neighborhoods in Seattle have become a model for other cities around the world.

"Now, many of the programs that we started in Seattle are being replicated in places like Port Elizabeth, South Africa; or in Kobe, Japan; or in Sydney, Australia," he says. "I've also discovered people have found many new ways of involving neighbors. In Brazil, the neighborhoods are getting together to develop the budget of their cities. In Havana, Cuba, they developed 1,700 organic community gardens."

Diers recently returned from the People's Republic of China, which, he says, is "very interested in some of the approaches we have taken in Seattle."

Revitalization approaches that have worked in America can work elsewhe, without erasing the local cultural and historical identity, according to Fred Kent, director of The Project for Public Places, a non-profit group that has helped revive neighborhoods around the world.

"In Serbia, in Armenia, Chile, New Zealand, Australia or in South Korea, they are not denying the local historic experiences," he says. "They are trying to find ways to bring them into the planning of the future."

Oftentimes, Kent says, local participation is the missing element in designing vital neighborhoods.

"The 'expert' has emerged as the one who knows the answer," he says. "What we are coming back to is – wait a minute, the experts about a community are in the community already. Get a process to have the people who live there become the change agents, the visionaries, and have the professionals become resources rather than the experts."

Community developer Jim Diers agrees. He says when local residents are involved in developing their own communities, they are actually exercising their political rights and strengthening democracy.

"Democracy can't be something we just do on Election Day," he says. "Democracy has to be a daily activity. It's about more than electing somebody else to take care of us. It's about how do we take care of one another, and the place where we do this is in our neighborhoods."

Developing neighborhoods from the inside out, Diers says, gives people a powerful sense of responsibility and helps them become more involved citizen, leading to more positive and long lasting changes that turn a collection of homes into livable, beautiful and thriving neighborhoods.

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