Dave Hage: A simple path to strong neighborhoods

  • Article by: Dave Hage
  • Star Tribune
  • November 10, 2007 - 4:22 PM

Journalist and author Jay Walljasper was editor of the Utne Reader for 15 years and now is executive editor of Ode magazine. He also is active in the movement for livable cities. In a new volume, "The Great Neighborhood Book," published in conjunction with New York's Project for Public Spaces, Walljasper argues that strong neighborhoods are the building blocks of great cities and a healthy society.

Q So what makes a great neighborhood?

A The first fundamental is a public gathering spot -- a park, a little town square, even a bench in front of the corner grocery store. You want a place where people know they're likely to run into someone they know or meet someone they like.

The second is walkability. It's really hard to build a sense of community when you know your neighbors only by waving at them through the windshield or honking at them as you drive by.

The key is to promote spontaneous, informal encounters -- that's the building block of strong communities.

But here's another, simpler way to think about it: When you create a neighborhood that's friendly to dogs, it's friendly to people, too. The traffic is not speeding and dangerous. There are green places to hang out and walk. So dogs are a good indicator species.

Q It sounds pretty basic.

A Oh, it is -- or it can be. William H. White, the guy who wrote "The Organization Man," also spent a lot of time thinking about public spaces. He said, "Humans are endlessly fascinated by other human beings. It's very hard to create a place that will not attract people. What's amazing is how often we've done exactly that."

Q What do you mean?

A Well, here's an example. Several years ago, the people who run Rockefeller Center in New York approached the Project for Public Spaces. They wanted advice on what kind of spikes to put out on the ledges to discourage people from sitting there. And the folks at PPS said, we don't think sitting is going to be a problem. In the end, Rockefeller Center actually wound up putting out benches, and now it's a mecca, the sort of town square that New York City has always needed. People love to go there.

Q So this can be pretty simple, right?

A Sure. There are tons of things that you can do just by getting together with one neighbor. There's a suburb of Toronto called Mississauga, kind of a nondescript place, but a local guy named Dave Marcucci attended a PPS meeting and he went home and put a bench in his front yard. He was a little anxious about it -- you know, what are the neighbors going to think, will the young toughs start hanging out at this bench? But actually it was just the opposite. The first thing he noticed was older people. Suddenly they were walking around his block because they had a pleasant pit stop on the way. Then kids discovered it -- they would sit there while they waited for the school bus. Families would stop when they were out for a walk in the evening. And suddenly this bench did become a little bit of a town square.

Or you can use nametags. There was a PPS meeting in New York a few years ago. A lot of people came from out of town, it was their first trip to Manhattan. When they left for the evening, they forgot to take their nametags off. So all night long, strangers were greeting them -- "Hey, Joe,"Hey, Mike, how do you like New York?" Pretty soon they were thinking New York is a pretty friendly place. I haven't actually tried that here in Minneapolis, but it would be fun to see what might happen in your own neighborhood.

Q But you argue that a nice neighborhood is more than just a pleasant amenity, right?

A Oh, yeah. Let's start with crime. In a neighborhood where people know each other, where there are people in the streets, and watching out for each other, any cop will tell you that is one of the single best things you can do to prevent crime.

Then there's the environmental aspect. When people like their neighborhood, they're going to be a lot more likely to take care of it -- keep it clean, plant trees. And when you can walk places -- the grocery store, the library, the dry cleaner -- you drive less. The average American household now takes, what, 15 separate car trips a day. If you could reduce that to maybe five, then you've made a big difference in global warming, in oil supplies.

Then there's the way we raise our children. I think so many kids live under a form of house arrest these days -- they can't do anything or go anywhere without being driven there. So when a neighborhood is safe and walkable, as important as that is for adults, it's even more important for children.

Q What neighborhoods do you like in the Twin Cities?

A One of my favorite neighborhoods is St. Anthony Park in St. Paul. You can meet most of your daily and weekly needs, psychic needs as well as physical needs, without having to leave the neighborhood. They've got a great library, a nice coffee shop, a nice bookstore, Muffuletta, a nice little wine shop, a gas station, some churches. If you had to get in car for every one of those trips, you'd spend a lot more time driving and have a lot more stress and probably weigh five pounds more.

Then there's the Lyndale neighborhood. They started the Lyndale Walkers a few years ago -- just a group of friends who would go out for a walk every evening. They weren't vigilantes or the Guardian Angels. But they kept an eye on things and took cell phones, and they'd call the police if they saw anything amiss. Before long the crime rate went way down and property values went up. Plus, they had some pretty nice evening strolls.

Dave Hage •

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