Guest article about placemaking by Jay Walljasper. "My hope that day was to showcase inspiring examples of how everyday citizens made tremendous improvements in the place they call home by putting their heads together with neighbors to conceive new ideas for their neighborhoods and then rolling up their sleeves to put these into action. ..."
- By Guest Author
- October 3, 2007
by Jay Walljasper
My hope that day was to showcase inspiring
examples of how everyday citizens made tremendous improvements in the
place they call home by putting their heads together with neighbors to
conceive new ideas for their neighborhoods and then rolling up their
sleeves to put these into action.
A sunny, near perfect September day took me to Chicago,
where the Metropolitan Planning Council had graciously invited me to talk about
the role neighborhoods play in social change. That’s the message of my new book
The Great Neighborhood Book
(New Society Publishers),
written in partnership with my colleagues at Project for Public Spaces (PPS).
“The citizens are the experts,” has long been the PPS mantra, based on their 30
years of experience helping communities achieve their dreams of becoming safe,
lively, livable, lovable places. This phrase reinforces the idea that
architects, traffic engineers, public officials planners and other professionals
have valuable contributions to make towards neighborhood revitalization efforts,
but when their plans turn a deaf ear to a community’s own aspirations for the
future, the results often fall far short of the goals.
The Great Neighborhood Book offers hundreds of examples of how neighborhood residents all over the
country came up with sweeping visions and practical proposals for positive
change in their communities. This is what I talked about to a warmly receptive
audience at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which co-sponsored my
appearance along with the Metropolitan Planning Council with funding in part
from the National Endowment for the Arts. I was impressed with the diverse
background and interests of the people I met that afternoon, which ranged from
an agricultural economist to an environmental anthropologist to a neighborhood
activist working on a fascinating project in Northeastern Indiana with the
National Trust for Historic Preservation.
hope that day was to showcase inspiring examples of
how everyday citizens made tremendous improvements in the place they call home by
putting their heads together with neighbors to conceive new ideas for their
neighborhoods and then rolling up their sleeves
to put these into
- In the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, a man helped
transformed his neighborhood simply by putting a bench in his front yard. The
first thing he noticed is that older people were walking around the block
again because they had a spot to rest along the way. Then he saw other people
stopping to talk to one another at the bench, increasing the community spirit
of the area. Then, several other of his neighbors added benches to their yard,
giving the whole block a more convivial feel.
- In the city of Delft in the Netherlands, a group of
neighbors were fed up with cars speeding down their street so one evening,
under the cover of darkness, they dragged old couches and tables into the
middle of the street. They arranged the furniture in a way that did not block
the traffic but did force it to slow down as drivers had to negotiate their
way around these objects. Shortly, the police arrived and, while noting that
this action was clearly illegal, also admitted it was a really good idea.
Soon, the municipal government was creating their own more permanent version
of the neighbors’ old furniture—and the idea of traffic calming was born. It
is now used all over the world to make streets safer for everyone by helping
drivers slow down and recognize that the street is not just for cars.
- In Philadelphia, artist Lilly Yeh was confronted with despair at the sight
of rubble all over a neighborhood on the city’s north side. She decided she
must do something and began cleaning up one vacant lot. Local kids watched her
with interest and were soon helping her turn this squalid property into an
unofficial park and gathering spot. The project grew into the Village of Arts
and Humanities, which has created many small parks and public art projects
around the area as well as youth, theater, music and job training programs.
As varied as the examples in
the book are—geographically, demographically and culturally—there are some
common elements that can make a difference in any neighborhood.
Public gathering places:
places where they can spontaneously and comfortably get to know their
to make a connection with people from behind a windshield.
Face-to-face encounters are what spark
Plus, as Jane
Jacobs taught us almost a half-century ago, people on the street are the best
deterrent to crime and other social problems.
The liveliest, healthiest
neighborhoods have one thing in common:
People living there are involved in a wide variety of social
These don’t have to
be activist or cause-oriented groups.
Any kind of organization, from a church choir to a card club to a sports
league which brings people together will strengthen the social fabric of your
A couple of sparkplugs:
three dedicated citizens are often all it takes to get things going.
When they begin talking to their
neighbors about a problem or an opportunity around the neighborhood, things take
off from there.
Joining me at the microphone
after my remarks were representatives of three neighborhood projects in Chicago
whose experience wonderfully reinforced all the points I made about the power of
neighborhoods to change the world.
Gardens for All
Pamela van Giessen and
Alison Zehr from the Rogers Park Garden Group chronicled the remarkable success
of this new organization on the city’s far north side in encouraging not just
backyard flower and vegetable patches but in reclaiming a neglected city park by
creating a gorgeous public garden.
This all-volunteer effort, conducted with the approval but little direct
help from the Chicago Park Board, has instilled the neighborhood with a new
sense of pride and beauty—a major accomplishment for a group less than two years
Bike Trails for All
Next, Keith Holt offered his
experience in guiding efforts to create a new rails-to-trails bikeway through
the South Side of Chicago.
the Major Taylor Bicycle Trail, for a legendary African-American bike racer who
broke all records in the late 19
century, the project hopes to
overcome the stigma in minority communities that biking is a white, middle-class
The trail itself was
created in spite of safety fears, landowners’ opposition and widespread
cynicism, finally opened this past summer.
It is now enjoyed by bicyclists and walkers of all ages, incomes, and
“These are neighborhoods where not many people can enjoy a health club.
The trail makes a difference in people’s
lives and the health of the community.”
Every Block is A Village
Then Adell Young , who
exhibited equal amounts of shyness at speaking before a crowd and innate
forcefulness, stood up to tell a story about her Austin neighborhood on the West
She confessed that she had
long avoided contact with people on her block out of shame over her son, who was
out on the street every day selling drugs.
But when things got so bad she finally reached out to her neighbors in
desperation, she found that many of them were in the same sad situation.
As parents and relatives, they realized
they had some influence over the dealers in the street. So they organized a
potluck dinners—exactly what helped revive my neighborhood back in
Minneapolis—to work out a strategy. Their first step was to offer bowls of chili
to the dealers as a symbol that wholesome food will save them while more drugs
will eventually kill them.
It was a
bold move—a group of mostly older women coming out with a pot of chili—and made
a statement that the street belongs to everyone. “We showed them what they were
doing to our homes,” she recalled, and after a number of evenings when neighbors
stood witness to their dreams of a drug-free community, the chastened drug
peddlers left the block.
no confrontation, just the moral authority of people standing up for what they
These efforts soon blossomed
into an informal organization called Every Block’s A Village, which is now
active on more than 50 blocks of the Austin neighborhood.
These groups don’t limit themselves to
clearing the streets of dealers, they tackle other pressing issues such as the
lack and health care services. Out of this has come the West Side Wellness
Center, which offers preventive health programs, a dialysis center and other
health care needs missing in the neighborhood.
The idea for the Center began in the
Village Block clubs, who got the ball rolling with $33,000 raised through
raffles sales and chicken dinners.
A group of concerned
mothers, aunts, fathers and cousins standing up to the unhealthy traffic of
drugs in Austin, turned into a positive effort to improve the community’s
Although bashful at the
beginning of her talk, Adell Young was full of fire by the time she
Excited by these stories of
neighborhood empowerment, I decided that someone should do a follow-up:
The Great Chicago Neighborhood Book
The Great Neighborhood Book
can be ordered at
Jay Walljasper is senior fellow at Project for Public Spaces, executive editor
magazine, and writes extensively about urban issues.
To listen to an audio recording of the event, please visit Chicago Amplified.
For more information about MPC’s placemaking
work, contact Peter Skosey, MPC vice president of external