In Edina, kids from the Lake Cornelia neighborhood are blazing down a park hill during their first-ever sledding party. In Brooklyn Park, families in the Trinity Gardens neighborhood are carving out a day in June to loop around their treasured park trail together.
And in Bloomington, an appetite is building across cul-de-sacs and subdivisions for something new in town: official neighborhoods, with boundaries and hand-picked names.
Don’t let the sprawl or car culture fool you. The homes may be farther apart, but a growing number of suburbs are looking to neighborhoods as a way for residents to connect with each other.
“We’re defining, not dividing,” said Curtis Griesel, a computer scientist working to form neighborhoods in Bloomington. “It’s all about defining who we are.”
Neighborhood identity is a common way of life in St. Paul and Minneapolis, where some neighborhoods date back more than 100 years. They have nonprofit status and receive millions in annual funding. Some even have paid staff members.
Suburban neighborhoods are budding in comparison. Elected officials point to St. Louis Park as an early adopter of the suburban model, first recognizing formal neighborhoods in the mid-1990s.
“Our neighborhoods … are foundational to the success and strength of the community,” St. Louis Park City Manager Tom Harmening said. “It’s really just become a way of life here.”
One by one, neighborhoods are popping up in places like Edina and Brooklyn Park and taking cues from St. Louis Park, though with smaller purses and powers than those in the urban core. Neighbors are hosting parties, picking leaders, passing around petitions and showing up at City Hall to speak on issues that may affect them.
Some of the challenges for neighbors to interact are built into the very makeup of the suburbs, said Chuck Marohn, president of the Brainerd-based nonprofit Strong Towns, which promotes smart growth in cities and neighborhoods.
“Inherent in the design of a suburb is the natural desire to have your own space and distance and basically be able to have a certain level of isolation from those around you,” Marohn said.
Residents take the lead
It once wasn’t so hard to meet people in Bloomington, residents like Griesel say.
It was after World War II, when families were rushing out to the inner-ring suburbs. Neighborhood bonds largely formed around churches. Now, the city is the fourth-largest in the state and one of the most diverse in the west metro.
“Being Bloomington doesn’t mean you’re white, middle-class Lutherans anymore,” Griesel, 53, said. “Now we need to put a little effort in building community.”
For the past few years, he and a small group of residents have met regularly with the goal of forming official neighborhoods. Their hope is that by having residents rally around their immediate surroundings, neighbors become more involved with each other and the goings-on of the city.
They’ve even drawn maps of what these could look like.
“We tried to make each neighborhood include a commercial area, a residential area, as well as a major park or a school,” Griesel said. They are bordered by busy thoroughfares and have names such as Mound Springs or Shantytown, historical nods to past generations.
Yet the idea of forming neighborhoods is a touchy one in Bloomington, a city with a complicated history regarding division.
Decades ago, a developer caused a rift between the west and east sections of the city when he used the phrase “prestigious west Bloomington” to sell houses in the area. The sour taste of that artificial split still lingers with residents and elected officials who are concerned about pitting sections of the city against each other.
“My concern is that neighborhoods would be set up and would then start to compare themselves to other neighborhoods,” Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead said.
Yet Griesel believes that in a suburb as large as Bloomington, it’s important to embrace the differences.
“We each have our own experience in the city,” he said. “The city consists of the sum of all those experiences.”
Over time, neighborhoods could get financial support for projects and events, Griesel said. Engaged residents could help broaden representation in city government and commissions.
In St. Louis Park, most City Council members first became involved in public service by serving in neighborhood associations. The city is giving out $40,000 this year to use toward neighborhood improvements.
Bloomington is already aiming to unite neighbors by reviving Welcome Meals, a program encouraging neighbors to gather for a community dinner. There are a handful lined up for this year, organizers said, including one hosted by former Council Member Jon Oleson.
“The bottom line is that when people who don’t know each other come together in an environment that’s more casual … some really wonderful things tend to really happen,” Oleson said.
Staking new ground
Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center have designated official neighborhoods in recent years. Names often come from parks, natural features or amenities like a nearby golf course.
Naming a neighborhood may be an important first step for residents to interact and enjoy living there, said Lisa Schamess of the Congress for New Urbanism, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for more walkable and livable communities.
In Brooklyn Park, residents turned to surveys and community gatherings to pitch in feedback about boundaries and names before the city settled on 31 neighborhoods in 2014.
The Trinity Gardens neighborhood has used a city grant to put on an annual gathering at its namesake park. The “Walk the Park” event draws residents out of their split-level homes to socialize, amble along the trail loops together and win raffle prizes.
“It’s nicer to say I live in such-and-such neighborhood, vs. the street names,” said Rebecca Dougherty, 66, a neighbor who spearheads the Trinity Gardens event. “It helps in building identity.”
City staff shared the suburb’s new neighborhood map with the online platform Nextdoor and promoted the social network as a way to connect. Nextdoor has proved popular elsewhere in the suburbs and urban core alike. In places like New Hope and Roseville, city leaders have carved out neighborhood areas specifically to launch the service citywide.
Edina, home to the long-standing Morningside neighborhood, only began to officially recognize neighborhoods in 2013 as a way to improve communication between city services and its residents. The city has designated nine since then, each with a steering committee and set of bylaws.
The most recent are Lake Cornelia and South Cornelia, formed last year partly due to the proposed construction of two high-rises. Neighbors packed City Hall and presented a petition opposing the project (the City Council ended up rejecting it).
A dozen young families gathered at Arneson Acres on a sunny Sunday in February for Lake Cornelia’s inaugural sledding party. Parents drank hot chocolate as their children dove headfirst on plastic sleds.
Amy Olson, who has lived on Lake Cornelia for 13 years, didn’t know most people there a year ago. The neighborhood association, she said, keeps them plugged in on city business: “It’s a way to stay abreast of what is actually affecting us.”