Neighbors making a difference - Metropolitan Planning Council

Skip to main content

Neighbors making a difference

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 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.

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.

  • 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: People need places where they can spontaneously and comfortably get to know their neighbors.

Walkability: It’s hard to make a connection with people from behind a windshield. Face-to-face encounters are what spark neighborliness. 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.

Social capital: The liveliest, healthiest neighborhoods have one thing in common: People living there are involved in a wide variety of social interactions. 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 community.

A couple of sparkplugs: Two or 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 old.

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. Named the Major Taylor Bicycle Trail, for a legendary African-American bike racer who broke all records in the late 19 th century, the project hopes to overcome the stigma in minority communities that biking is a white, middle-class pastime. 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 ethnic backgrounds. Holt says, “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 Side. 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. There was no confrontation, just the moral authority of people standing up for what they want.

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 health. Although bashful at the beginning of her talk, Adell Young was full of fire by the time she finished.

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 of Ode 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 relations.

More posts by Guest

  1. Demographics as Destiny

All posts by Guest »

MPC on Twitter

Follow us on Twitter »

Stay in the loop!

MPC's Regionalist newsletter keeps you up to date with our work and our upcoming events.?

Subscribe to Regionalist

Most popular news

Browse by date »

This page can be found online at

Metropolitan Planning Council 140 S. Dearborn St.
Suite 1400
Chicago, Ill. 60603
312 922 5616

Sign up for newsletter and alerts »

Shaping a better, bolder, more equitable future for everyone

For more than 85 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has partnered with communities, businesses, and governments to unleash the greatness of the Chicago region. We believe that every neighborhood has promise, every community should be heard, and every person can thrive. To tackle the toughest urban planning and development challenges, we create collaborations that change perceptions, conversations—and the status quo. Read more about our work »

Donate »