Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Neighborliness, Innovation and Sustainability
Alex Steffen, 7 Apr 08
Article Photo

Two approaches have tended to define the debate about sustainable prosperity in recent years. The first is conscious consumption, which manifests at the shallow end as green shopping (even greenwashing) but can prove out at a deeper level as strategic consumption. The second is green technology, which is a topic that we tend to cover here in great depth, and which covers everything from energy to transportation, housing to product design. Sometimes that technology is trivial, sometimes it is profound.

These approaches are complimentary, and both have a lot to offer as we try to negotiate our way to a bright green future. But there is a danger in thinking that all we have to do is design better substitutes for the products we already consume, and then convince people to buy them.

I call this idea "the Swap." It's sort of a middle stage on the road to a better future, where people have accepted that something must change, but have not really gotten their heads around the idea that everything must change. Therefore, the Swap is a form of denial.

It's an attractive fantasy -- instead of diving a Hummer, living in a McMansion and shopping at the Gap, I can drive a Prius, live in an EcoMansion and shop at Gaiam -- but it's still playing make-believe, because the systems that support and enable those choices are themselves unsustainable. Highways are destructive, even when full of hybrids; sprawl is unsustainable, even when the individual houses are green; we don't even know what sustainable clothing would look like, much less how to make conventional retail green.

No, if we're going to avert ecological destruction, we need to to not only do things differently, we need to do different things. We need to work to build dense, walkable neighborhoods composed of green buildings served by bike infrastructure and transit and green infrastructure, suffused with good design choices and smart technologies that let us live in a different set of relationships with our stuff, the materials we use and the energy that powers our lives. By embracing innovation in technology, design, planning and policy, we can transform the systems around us, and provide ourselves with a whole new array of much more sustainable choices.

Bright green lives will not look like the lives we live today. That doesn't mean that they'll be less attractive. On the contrary. If we do it right both our quality of life and our measurable prosperity may increase dramatically. Showing how and why this can happen is one of my major obsessions at the moment.

But there is a side to this transition which is less science than art: understanding how we can reconnect with one another and our better selves.

We stay pretty far from the woo-woo here on Worldchanging, but I also believe that to ignore the intangible, creative, emotional, even spiritual aspects of this transformation is to fail.

Many of the unsustainable systems we're trying to change offer as their major solace the idea of individual independence, substituting a layer of things and commercialism between the citizen and his or her community. This is not a new insight.

However, as we change those systems, we're going to have to embrace new ways of pleasurably re-establishing the reality of interdependence in people's minds. We need to remind people how to be good neighbors, how to build friendships, how to share, how to see their enlightened self-interest in public goods, how to be a good citizen.

Most North Americans, I'm afraid, have lost the arts of community. The same is true of a great many Europeans and Japanese. Indeed, this loss, this "bowling alone" mentality, seems to be a major symptom of the post-industrial transition.

So one of the major design challenges we face is figuring out how to use architecture, urban planning, the arts, new forms of community engagement and new forms of commerce to both lure people back into the public sphere and equip them with the mental and emotional tools to thrive there.

What might such tools look like? Some are simple placemaking tools, like benches in parks. Others are more technical, like open government tools or walkshed technologies. Still others more conceptual, like artworks that remind us to make heroic day-to-day choices or that sharing can be easy and fun.

But without a doubt, the best tools are the ones that incorporate their lessons into their operations. That's part of why I find A Pattern Book for Neighborly Houses interesting:

According to national research studies, a large percentage of Americans would accept affordable housing in their neighborhood if it fit in. The goal of this document is to provide a resource for Habitat for Humanity to create houses that are neighborly and will contribute positively to our nation's great neighborhoods, while also playing a constructive role in the creation of desirable new neighborhoods.

While the pattern book is primarily focused on low-income housing, the patterns it recommends would make most any single-family house more neighborly than conventional construction. It's worth a look, and it suggests to me a whole new discipline in bright green design that aims at conviviality and expressed connection.

The point being, I don't think it's impossible to imagine us getting much better at hacking designs to create stronger communities. While we don't want to wait around for a mythical transformation of human nature, some very human inclinations and strengths go largely untapped in contemporary life, and I don't think that when we approach changing the world, we ought to exclude the possibility of changing ourselves.

So what do you think? What ways do you see to incorporate neighborliness into sustainable innovation, and visa versa? How would you go about building a bright green community?

Bookmark and Share


The first thing that popped into my mind was "stoops". I grew up in an neighborhood of NYC called Yorkville or Germantown (mostly now defunct). On maps of Mann, it ends right where Spanish Harlem begins. Yorkville was characterized by rows of New Law tenements, mostly built to house the German (and Irish & Itialian) immigrants who worked at the Knickerbocker Brewerey. These are 5 or 6 story walk-ups, 4 railroad appartments per floor, famous for narrow, high rooms, the New Law provision of at least 1 window per room (usually a weird size), and all with stoops.
As long as it wasn't pouring or blizzarding, the stoops were occupied morning and night. People hung out on the stoops. You talked to your neighboors on the stoop. Kids played stoop-ball (an urban varient of stickball where you bounce the ball off the joint of the step as the hitter). You walked up the street and stopped and visited other people on their stoops. Old people set up their folding chairs on the stoops to catch the breeze and shoot the sh*t. In short, stoops served as common areas, town squares, or Agoras in those old city neighborhoods.

In contrast, I had lots of friends who lived in "The Projects" in Spanish Harlem. Big buildings with elevators, 20+ appts to a floor. Barren lobbies, no stoops. No place to meet any of those people on your floor or in your building (except maybe the laundry rooms). No social spaces. Dense living, but poor quality. The Projects were synonymous with crime, drugs and danger to us growing up. Now, I don't think there was much difference in income, education, or any of that - we were all working class, and families on welfare or disability usually tried to hide it. There were certainly ethnic differences, and lots of racial tension in the 70's, but if you ask me, the difference that made the difference was the stoops, and the sense of community they promoted.

Good planning makes it easy for people to come together and feel like a community. Urban blight comes from being thrown together with strangers with no chance or impetus to invest in one another.

Posted by: IrishUp on 7 Apr 08

Brilliant article. We need these urban, isolated settlements to host a ridiculously high number of people, following a consumption lifestyle. I don't think our current population/culture is sustainable, even if they're consuming "green," especially if we want friendly neighbourhoods where people know eachother well and share material goods.

Here's a good discussion/interview on the issue, by the way:

Posted by: DD on 7 Apr 08

Great post Alex.

I stumbled upon a 'pocket community' by Ross Chapin Architects two weeks ago in the Pacific Northwest that has stuck in my mind ever since. Your post hits the nail on the head- learning how to be a community is a major challenge in the United States.

The pocket communities share common resources and spaces, with shared responsibilities. I felt they offered an easy step for those of us who have lived our lives walled off in suburbia, to learn how to be part of a small community.

On a larger scale much of what we lack in creating community is transparency of how our systems and actions impact the lives of others. We need shorter and more transparent 'feedback loops' in our designs.

Posted by: Tim McGee on 7 Apr 08

I liked this article. For me a very interesting part is the social and emotional part. I suffer, to various degrees, from depression, alienation, imposition on me of ridiculous notions of model-perfect women, glittering career, fetishising of experience, consumerist heaven etc. I resist most of this as best I can. Most of these feelings are imposed on me. The tragic consequence of a cold social world, of a world struggling to get along and address the major issues facing it, is that it makes us personally less capable of forming and living in that world which, as pointed out in the article, requires closer connections between us all. Between neighbours, strangers and families.

It is exactly that ability which we need during this reconfiguration process. I am scared by it. I am scared to re-make my life with more neighbourly communication included. Afraid that I will fail the test of being a fully functional social creature. But I am ready to try. And optimistic that the eventual solution will be so much better than now, that the process will be fun and satisfying. And I will understand the fact that so many of us will be feeling these fears too.

In summary, I think that these emotional dimensions are amazingly important. And can be extended to the idea of addiction to oil. It is a phrase that is meant literally. And addictions are a psychological matter, and must be tackled intelligently and sensitively. We're not machines. We're all softer than we'll admit. And that is no bad thing, but how delightful to see Alex factor this into discussions about the transition.

Posted by: orlando on 8 Apr 08

We only need to look to specific communities in a world well travelled and try our hardest to replicate the elements of those that make them sustainable.
Somehow, this learning needs to be fed in through policy, as this is the only way to apply single ideas over large populations (where so many sustainable patterns tend to break down).

To avoid the scale problem faced when trying to apply intangible cultural aspects of these successfully sustainable communities to large, established populations (ie. applying elements of a village unit in Madagascar to a state in North America) we need to maybe work from the bottom up......making a suburb sustainable will set the example for neighbouring suburbs. Make it contagious by neccesity....not asking people to change blindly, but rather by setting examples. We can't expect masses to believe "hippies" before they believe the nine o' clock news.....but we can put an image in their head that might shock them to question that news report. thanks Alex for the part you guys play.

Posted by: David Bartlett on 8 Apr 08

I don't disagree that this is possible, but it seems to fly in the face of the fierce independence that America was built upon. Not an easy cultural attribute to overcome.

Posted by: Kent Ragen on 8 Apr 08

Here here!

True sustainability is about improving human relationships. If we don't do that, we are screwed.

Posted by: Xanthe on 9 Apr 08

The only lasting change starts from within. Before we try and tackle anything external from ourselves we need to figure out exactly who and what WE are.

What's needed is a paradigm shift to an entirely new way of thinking - Einstein said, we won't solve the problems of today with the same thinking that got us into them. Until we realize, accept and act upon the truth that we are "human beings" and not "persons", that we exist as a collective consciousness and not as individuals divided by flesh and bone vessels, we will not be able to make any lasting progress towards sustainability. Either we ARE sustainable or we ARE NOT.

As the fine folks at World Changing point out "the concepts, ideas, and tools are all there" but what we really need to do is make the collective global mind shift ( and then take that new awareness and knowledge from "knowing" in your head to "knowing" (and believing) in your heart. Only then will have the courage and sense to do what is necessary - and inevitable - if we wish to exist in prosperity on this planet.

Posted by: Rene Michalak on 9 Apr 08

Great post: i believe that neighborliness and a localized sense of community could be a backbone to bright green life and a higher quality of life. I was having a conversation yesterday while on a walk with a friend. The well landscaped neighborhood was beautiful, especially at dusk. We had encountered one lady peering at us from behind her living room window and one lady out on her step smoking a cigarette. We felt a bit out of place and wondered why nobody else was out walking around. What we came up with was that there was no place for anyone to walk TO. The neighborhood is almost entirely residential - there are no shops nor any public places. I think one important way in which to increase neighborliness (and decrease the use of the car for transportation)is to implement zoning requirements that include small scale shops and/or businesses on street corners and, of course, public places such as parks and squares within small neighborhoods. This would give people a reason to walk to the grocery store if they need just a few items.

Posted by: Jarad on 9 Apr 08

Hey Alex,

Great Post!

I've been thinking a lot about ways of creating positive and caring relationships since reading Riane Eisler's "The Real Wealth of Nations" and Margaret Wheatley's "Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time"

My response, thus far, has been to build an organization called the Compassion Coalition, which you can check out here:

It has about 30 active members and about 100 or so other members who help to create awesome events, which is not bad for an organization born in January.

My other answer can be found in Portland and the work that the City Repair Project is up to.

My last answer is Chris Turner and his new book, The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need.

Cheers man,

Posted by: Jeremy on 10 Apr 08


Posted by: justin on 10 Apr 08

I whole heartedly agree with the first responder. I have used the stoop analogy regularly to describe my interpretation on the decline of community. I state it as "remember the pictures of NYC from several decades ago. A grandma would be sitting on the stoop in a chair watching the kids playing in the street. The boys are playing stick ball and the girls jumping rope, while the parents were either working making dinner or something." Whatever happened to that?

What happened to acknowledging another as we meandered down the walk or street. Everyone is so isolated today and all caught up in their own BS, on their cell, or listening to their IPOD.

I walk a lot with my dog and do my best to at least nod to another and often either chat to a neighborhood kid or some elderly person working in their garden. I want others to know me and I them. They are my neighbors and therefore my community.

I also agree with the person speaking about a place to walk to in a neighborhood. A cozy cafe where one can sit outside and a have a cup of coffee. Though in the heart of a city, the Daily Caffe, which existed in New Haven, CT several years ago, was a perfect example. Locals and Yalies all congregated there, mixed and mingled, and learned from one another until Yale shut them down (there were also financial & contractual issues). As a local, I wouldn't have made the friends I had in either the Yale or local community that I had. Sadly, Yale didn't want its students to mingle with the locals and wanted the greater profits from corporate interests.

The saying goes "Think Globally, Act Locally" and that is what I see myself doing.

It's not about me but rather all about "Us"!

Posted by: Sven Pihl on 11 Apr 08

I feel that education needs to be completely transformed in order for sustainability to be understood collectively. We are inseparable from Nature. There is a perfection of consensual cooperation that is communicated in nature with 53 biological sensory intelligences,not just the 5 we are taught. As people restore this natural ability, sustainability will be re-membered and solutions will arise that support all life. The human species has been educated to separate from the life force that maintains adaptation and survival....civilized education's focus is to instill values of ownership, convenience and the dollar to serve a monetary economy. Insidiously, this sets up prejudice and conquering of natural systems and diversity. Nature's schoolhouse is where we reconnect with our inherent wisdom to peacefully coexist in mutually supportive relationships with all life. Most people live 99% of their lives in artificial indoor environments, whether concrete or green, it is indoors. We become desensitized to the sensual world of communication. If one desires to realign their psych to the natural world for true sustainability, is an inclusive place to start that reunites humans responsibility to co-exist, not dominance over diversity. In honor of Mother Earth, Penny

Posted by: Penny on 19 Apr 08

I completely agree with what you are discussing in your article. As a society i think we are becoming increasing disconnected from each other. There is no point creating eco-niche's for those rich enough to afford living in "more ecological friendlier circumstances" than our neighbors. I think so much of society is geared towards staying inside,hoarding money, being anti social- for protection, or ease maybe? People are scared to say hi to others and quick to judge. I live in Australia and here we are pretty friendly, but coming from a country mindset to the city highlights the lack of community strength. There is little time left to say hi to your neighbor.
Work and money centralize peoples concerns and overtake their way of life. Community type crafts and stories are no longer passed down so easily and the disconnection between generations is widening. I always remember my mum telling me about having people come to her door in Ireland to ask for food, if someone came to my door today begging I hope i would be giving, but i know many that would not.
There needs to be big changes in the mind set of individuals and communities and these can come from such small things.

Posted by: Rosey on 19 Apr 08

Way to spark at the source
Alex. Where cohesive communities exist (thus good relationships), it's time to prioritize redesigning. Where high functioning relationships are lacking, it's imperative to build a skill set to create and nourish them.

And, a very important conversation is past due. Why, what and how will humans begin to create products, services, communities, etc., that are 'truly benefitial'? Merging this conversation with actions that prepare humans to be in excellent relationship with self, other and the planet is, I think, a reinvention strategy that will have lasting positive results.

Posted by: Vonda Vaden on 21 Apr 08



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg