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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

A look at "seven keys to stronger community"

Kaid Benfield

Posted October 22, 2012

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  community cider-making in Cloughjordan, Ireland (courtesy of Cloughjordan EcoVillage)

I am fortunate to have befriended, one way or another, some people who are very good at the business of thinking about, designing, and building good communities.  While many of them are architects and planners, primarily concerned with physical space, community-building is an art with elusive goals, as Eric Jacobsen’s book (reviewed here last week) argues:  even if you get the physical elements right, there’s no guarantee that a place will function as a true community, as more than just a place.

That said, it really helps to have a good place in which to anchor true community.  One of my community-building friends is Scott Doyon, a partner in a planning firm that signals its interest in place loud and clear:  it’s called PlaceMakers.  They do fantastic work, and every one of the firm’s principals that I have met is thoughtful about it.  (That’s not to say that I am thrilled with everything their clients do, of course.)  I’m impressed with much of their work, such as their planning assistance to Ranson, West Virginia that I profiled here last year.

Scott is a good and creative writer, and earlier this month he posted on the firm’s blog a provocative article called “Seven Keys to Stronger Community.”  This follows a great tradition in nonfiction writing of numbering things:  In the last five years, I’ve written articles myself about eight components of a healing city, eight pillars of a sustainable community, the ten worst things about sprawl, nine low-tech steps for resilience in a warming climate, seven rules for sustainable communities, five videos that could change the way you see cities, five graphs and four photos on obesity and walking, five provocative ways to think about cities, and five ways to use LEED-ND.  It’s embarrassing to see when I line them up like that, but some of us, definitely including myself and perhaps including Scott, just seem to be compulsive about trying to organize our thoughts. 

So was the Old Testament, it would seem, since Moses is said to have found the Commandments chiseled into a format of ten on Washington, DC (c2011 FK Benfield)Mount Sinai long before David Letterman ever composed a Top 10 list of his own (which hasn’t been funny in at least ten years, but I digress).

Here are Scott’s seven keys to stronger community:

  1. Good governance
  2. Walkable, connected, mixed-use character
  3. Parks and gardens
  4. Partnerships
  5. Programming
  6. Neighborhood-responsive schools
  7. Tree culture

I like it that at least three on the list have only an indirect connection to physical space.  Given that Scott’s firm is all about planning and design, the easy way to write the article (and one most consistent with marketing the firm’s work) would have been to emphasize land use, the subject they know best.  Scott does make a plug for form-based codes in item number two but, really, all of the others are about more than land use, to at least some degree.

I was pleased to see parks and gardens on the list.  A while back I made a similar point about the usefulness of parks and greenery to Walk Appeal, the concept recognizing that some places entice longer walks than others.  I was challenged on that point in a Facebook debate, by someone who felt parks were overrated, and that “good urbanism” was better.  I disagree – in fact, I said then and say again now that good parks and the integration of nature and gardens into our city environment is good urbanism.  That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of parks that don’t integrate well enough; there can be inferior green spaces (note my misgivings about the National Mall in DC) just as there are inferior buildings and streets.  That doesn’t mean we don’t benefit considerably from good ones, as the research confirms.

With regard to tree culture, Scott would like to see the emphasis shift from saving trees to planting them.  Fighting to save trees, he contends, is divisive; planting them is unifying, and thus more conducive to building community.  I think we should do both, saving the ones that are special, and planting new ones for future generations to treasure and want to save.  community volunteers tend a garden in Old North St Louis (courtesy of Old North St Louis Restoration Group)I’m not saying that every tree should be saved, just as I don’t think Scott is saying that none of them should be.  But let’s not choose between the two approaches to an important community asset.

For my feelings about the power of partnerships, just read my post from last week about Codman Square in Boston.  The point about programming is a good one, too, and often overlooked:  animate your community with special events and things to enjoy.  And I agree strongly with Scott’s emphasis on neighborhood-based schools.

So I’m basically saying this is a very good list.  How would I change it?  I might combine parks and gardens with trees and add a point about controlling sprawl.  Few things have hurt true community in the US more than the flight of people, jobs, investment and activity from our traditional towns and urban neighborhoods out into the countryside, and one way to help keep communities strong and well-bonded is to keep them, and their cities, robust and intact.  Much as we would like to be able to do that by devoting ourselves only to strengthening the insides of communities, it won’t be enough unless we also pay attention to what’s going on outside them.

Stopping sprawl isn’t a feel-good activity like planting trees, unfortunately; it involves sticking your neck out for what you believe.  But it matters.  When we're in the business of building and strengthening community, we can't just let that part of it be someone else's problem.

But I won’t belabor that point in this post.  With or without my addition, Scott has given us a good list.  Mark Holland’s “eight pillars of a sustainable community” would add a healthy food system and economic development to the list Washington, DC (by: Carly & Art, creative commons)(along with good environmental management systems, but I think that ventures a bit from “community” as Scott was using the word).  The Knight Foundation’s research would add “openness.”  (Knight’s interim findings said:  “To get at this trait, researchers asked whether the community was a ‘good place for’ different groups of people - senior citizens, racial and ethnic minorities, families with kids, gays and lesbians, college graduates, and immigrants from other countries.”)

Read Scott’s very good article here.  What would you add?

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channels.

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Jon ReedsOct 22 2012 09:16 AM

One might add protection of traditional townscape (for those communities lucky enough to have it) and walkable, small shop, retail centres.
On both sides of the Atlantic I suspect we are still losing both our older stock of buildings and our traditional shopping centres, both of which are powerful community assets. We really need to retain human-scale in our towns and our shopping centres.
What we've had far too much of is automotive-scale development which effortlessly destroys community.

ErikOct 24 2012 03:01 PM

I would agree with the previous comment and like to see historic preservation (preservation in general) and heritage based preservation as its own key point. Why is your town great? Probably not from something that happened in the past 5 years.

#2 touches on it but walkable/bikeable/transit should be its own point.

Preservation adds to the sustainability of profits, planet, and people.

Helena Clare CookOct 24 2012 05:19 PM

I think that our town is great precisely from what has happened within the community of the last 5 years... We formed 'Incredible Edible Todmorden which has raised our town's profile locally, nationally and internationally, We have wonderful people with a whole array of wonderful skills which have helped to bring our town together over the common theme of food...our motto..." If you eat, you're in"....we have created jobs for a few people, and a market garden training centre with the potential of creating lots more... we value land and spaces and encourage others to do the same...we have invented a new concept.." vegetable tourism" people come from all over the world to visit us...we have a 'green health' waling route around our town and educate folk on how they can improve the quality of their lives through our environment...we have had bad floods this year and our community has had the spirit and contacts and sense of community to help each other pull through...from donations to volunteer teams going from house to house to help clean up...we comandeered the town hall and cooked over 1000 meals in a fortnight to feed those whose kitchens were unusable, with food donated from local producers....all this is part of what makes my town great!!

Helena Clare CookOct 24 2012 05:27 PM

Forgot to say...a part of what we have done, is to plant edible the last four years we have planted almost 1000 fruit trees around our town...our high school now has a land-based skills qualification and a lottery grant to build an aquaponics unit and food hub....we have replanted all the plants in the grounds of our local health centre with edible plants, including an apothecary garden...we teach folk how to cook using fresh produce...and it has all been done from the bottom up....we say if it can happen in Todmorden it can happen anywhere...there are over 30 other 'Incredible Edible ' towns in the UK who have followed our lead....over 50 in Europe a couple in Australia, and in the USA and in Canada...and it is still gaining momentum...

KirkWOct 25 2012 11:47 PM

Thanks for pointing this out, Kaid. I'm impressed by his listing "Governance" first, just because I'm personally geeked by that (although I also perked up when the investment ready communities people put "Food" and "Water" at the top of their list, but I digress).

Unprofessional and/or corrupt governance is a toxin that can plague a city's functioning for decades. So many of these problems begin with a city's struggle with the inferior "strong mayor" form of government. Detroit, for one sad example, elected a charter commission just last year that examined (among other things) the possibility of changing from a strong mayor to council-manager system, but mysteriously they didn't act on it. The downstream impact on the provision of city services can be disastrous. (For those interested in the topic, search for "council-manager form of local government" on youtube.)

In summary, hooray for looking at root causes! Now, how about we all talk to our representatives about a gas tax? :-)

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