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Changing the World One Block at a Time

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

By Jay Walljasper

Tuesday August 5 is National Night Out, a red-letter day in thousands of towns and cities around the country. Up to 30 million people will take to the streets and parks, with no one calling the cops. Indeed, local police departments organize these block parties, cook-outs, and music events as a practical method to fight crime. The idea is that communities are safer when neighbors get to know one another and work together on solving problems.

Acting local: Volunteers dig into some mulch at New York's Tompkins Square Park.

But crime is not the only major problem facing us that can be effectively addressed at the neighborhood level. So can the environment, economic decline, traffic, social alienation and even global climate change. People are more likely to get involved on issues that affect their own backyard, and where they can see the effect of their actions. When you add up the people from all over the world who are walking more and driving less, starting new businesses and citizens groups, or simply reaching out to meet their neighbors, the results can be impressive.

The notion of the neighborhood as an important social institution might seem old-fashioned, like nostalgic memories of the corner soda fountain. Yet it's 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 have one foot stepping out into the world and another squarely planted in their 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 many times zones from the neighborhood where you grew up) offers not just comfort but a prime opportunity to make a difference in the world.

* Dudley Street, a rubble-strewn neighborhood in the struggling Roxbury district of Boston, undertook a visioning process, in which largely immigrant and minority residents offered their dreams for community. What they wanted was a neighborhood full of thriving businesses, public spaces and restored homes. The power of that vision excited the imagination of foundations, politicians, and, most importantly, the neighbors themselves. Today Dudley Street stands as one of the most inspiring stories of turning around an urban ghetto.

* A group of frustrated neighbors in the Dutch city of Delft finally got fed up about autos speeding down their street. One night, 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 now used across the globe to make streets safer.

* 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.

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 farmers market! But that ignores one of the chief assets for social improvement in the 21st century. Thanks to our amazing global communications networks no good idea stays local for long.

Issues that seem overwhelming at the international or even municipal level can often be effectively tackled close to home. That's because the people who live in a particular locale are the experts on that place, with the wisdom and commitment to get things done.

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

Jay Walljasper, co-editor of and senior fellow of Project for Public Spaces, is author of The Great Neighborhood Book.

This post was originally published by Project for Public Spaces.

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Those are some great examples of local actions...I especially like the traffic calming one. Another type of neighborhood activism that I'm working on developing is Carrotmob, which Worldchanging has covered before.... The Carrotmob model is flexible enough to work at the neighborhood level on either local issues or global issues. We need another 2 months to build a platform for people to run their own Carrotmob events, but the hope is that this model will be a "low barrier to entry" type of activism that neighborhoods can employ to pursue whatever issue is important to them.... Anyway, apologies for the self-promotional angle. This was a great piece.

Posted by: Brent on 29 Jul 08

A short time ago I was reviewing an article called "Building Resilience in a Turbulent World" on - it mentions the point that we used live "in groups of 50 to 70 and there were multiple generations and multiple people we were interconnected with,” - it is very exciting to see that we are actively seeking community - community that we can reach out and touch rather the internet community - the anonymous kind. I used to live on the border of Roxbury and witnessed some gnarly stuff there. Speaking of a turbulent world! This is a very heartening movement.

Posted by: Mary on 31 Jul 08



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