Why True Neighborhood Building Requires the Dedication of a Few 'Zealous Nuts'
We all have our own families, friends, and professional networks, and our own interests and hobbies that determine with whom we interact. Each of us is a member of many different communities that can extend over vast geographical areas. We might play on a team with people from across our city, have dear friends across the continent, and colleagues all over the world.
But there is something very unique about the neighborhood, and the role that we play as a neighbor within the community where we choose to live. Through proximity alone, we gain a special status among a group of people with whom we might never otherwise interact. Today we are digitally connected to communities around the globe, making it easier for us to move and live were we like. The places that are thriving—and will continue to thrive—are the ones that people feel they are able to help create with their neighbors.
What we share with our neighbors is place: the magical, intangible quality that is created when people interact around a tangible space, be it a park, a street, or a vacant lot. At the Project for Public Spaces, we advocate for citizens to be included more directly and meaningfully in the process of shaping their neighborhood’s public spaces. We believe that a neighborhood can only reach its fullest potential when everyone who lives, works, and plays there feels welcome to contribute to the life of its public spaces.
To that end, we facilitate communities in undertaking Placemaking, a process that helps neighbors work together to determine how public space can meet a variety of local needs, from the economic to the social. While this process often results in vibrant, well-used spaces, we believe that the true value of Placemaking lies in its capacity for building stronger and more varied connections between neighbors. As we’ve written in the past, “if you’re not building social capital, you’re not Placemaking; you’re just re-arranging the furniture.”
Here’s the best part: while great places are the result of the layering of many individual contributions within a public space, the Placemaking process starts with each individual neighbor. Time and again, in cities all over the world, we have seen the impact that one person can have when they realize the unique capacity of public spaces to bring communities together. These are the people who we refer to, with admiration, as the “zealous nuts.” They come to a point at which they realize that they can no longer wait for someone else to step in, and that the responsibility for turning their neighborhood around lies first and foremost at their own feet.
Most recently, we visited Detroit, Michigan, for the inaugural meeting of our Placemaking Leadership Council. While there, we were able to visit a number of places around the city where groups of dedicated people were working to save cherished civic institutions, from dynamic local art projects to historic aquariums and sprawling parks. Detroit has been in the news, in recent years, for its deterioration. But get on the ground, and talk to the people who live there, and you can see the power of neighbors coming together, motivated not by profit or economics but by love of place and their community, to dedicate time and effort to shared goals.
It may have been The Alley Project’s Erik Howard who put it best, at the Urban Innovation eXchange panel hosted by the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAD). “Placemaking is something through which people build relationships, and where people have access to each other," said Howard. "If you think of a neighborhood as a bunch of lines representing connections between people, look at where the overlap of those lines is darkest; that’s where you start building community.”
Detroit is struggling, but this is bringing out the best in the citizens who have chosen to stay. What we are seeing there today is neighbors realizing, en masse, that they can’t wait any longer for someone else to turn things around, and they are taking action to create the kinds of neighborhoods that they want to live in, with or without official permission. They are thinking Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper, and working together to accomplish ‘quick wins’ today that will build the social ties and momentum needed to transform the city tomorrow.
In our Placemaking workshops, we often tell people that 80-90 percent of the success of a public space comes not from its design, but its management. In the very best public spaces, one often finds that the sense of place is self-generating; no one group dominates, and everyone feels welcome to enjoy the space as they please. The resulting overlap of activities and uses creates the unique local culture that defines great neighborhoods. This all traces back to the action taken by engaged neighbors—the ‘zealous nuts’ in each community—that take it upon themselves to get started on the hard work of Placemaking today.
We all choose to be the kind of neighbors that we want to be, through the ways in which we interact with each other in our local streets and spaces. In so doing, we choose to make our neighborhood the place that it is. What kind of place do you choose to create?
Hang out with your neighbors on the last Saturday of April (a day we're calling "Neighborday"). Click here to say you'll Do It, and here to download GOOD's Neighborday Toolkit and a bunch of other fun stuff.