What Makes a Great Neighborhood?

Pam Bateman is an instigator. The Civano Community Schoolmarm has a long history of kicking up my neighborhood’s proverbial dust. For starters, she and her family were the first residents of the new urbanist community of Civano. They are pioneers, an…

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Pam Bateman is an instigator. The Civano Community Schoolmarm has a long history of kicking up my neighborhood’s proverbial dust. For starters, she and her family were the first residents of the new urbanist community of Civano. They are pioneers, and Pam specifically is a risk taker with an agenda. She started our neighborhood school, which is based on community involvement and experiential — that is hands-on, field-based — learning. (It’s the greenest grade school in America I mentioned just last week.) She’s up to something, alright.

Not so long ago I received an email from Pam titled “Great Neighborhood.” What struck me most wasn’t the set of ideas that she and fellow neighborhood raconteur Judyth Willis offered for bringing community into our community — including the dedication of a regular, accessible gathering place and regular events to get folks there — but to whom the email was addressed: “We sent this to you because we know you either love the idea of having the neighborhood center as a thriving hub, because we know you are a social creature, because we know you love to read and discuss, because we know you love to drink, or because of all of the above.” I’ve certainly been called much worse, even by Pam herself. In fact, I’m downright flattered to be considered among this dubious group.

But what, really, are Mrs. Bateman and her cohort up to? A broader communication – a post on our equally dubious neighborhood website discussion forum – brings us closer: “A group of us have decided that we want to read The Great Neighborhood Book, written by Jay Walljasper, and meet to discuss ways that we can continue to build community and foster a ‘Great Neighborhood.’”

Isn’t Civano already a great neighborhood? Why, not so long ago Sunset magazine named us the “Best New Community in the West.” But the truth is that land use and architectural design do not in and of themselves define success. Great communities are created by their residents — residents, like Pam and Judyth, who work tirelessly and usually without pay to fill out a place, to make a real neighborhood. Street trees, sidewalks, and alleys can only do so much.

So Pam and Judyth are working at making Civano a better place, or as The Great Neighborhood Book calls it, “placemaking.” In fact, the book is subtitled A Do-it-Yourself Guide to Placemaking and offers a blueprint of sorts for remaking any place, beginning with the four basic characteristics that make a good place:

Good places promote sociability. These are the spots where you run into people you know. They are the places you take friends and family when you want to show them the neighborhood. They become the center of the action by offering people many different reasons to go there.

Good places offer lots of things to do. The places we love most are the ones where we can pursue a variety of activities. Without opportunities to do something more than sit and look, the experience you have in that place is “thin” — there is nothing to keep you there for any length of time.

Good places are comfortable and attractive. They beckon you to walk through and maybe stay a while. Flowers, comfortable benches with nice views, and attractive lighting all make you feel this is the place you want to be. In contrast, a place that lacks these types of amenities often feels unwelcoming or has a bad image. It may be unsafe or just feel unsafe, but either way, you don’t want to stay there.

Good places are accessible. These places are clearly identifiable from a distance, easy to enter when you get closer, and simple to use. A space that is not accessible will end up empty, forlorn, and often neglected or dilapidated.

The book then goes on to offer 11 principles of placemaking and a whole bunch of ways to implement these guidelines — taken, as are the characteristics, from places that really work. So it becomes all too easy, for example, to see why our neighborhood center — with its non-resident proprietor who yells at children to get off the small patch of grass, snatches away the exterior tables and chairs, and does everything in her power to exclude neighbors for whom the center was actually created — no longer works. It works sometimes, of course; but to be a real place, it must work all the time. It must, like the broader neighborhood, be in the care of those who want to include neighbors.

The last principle is You are never finished. “Eighty percent of the success of any good place,” says author Jay Walljasper, “is due to how well it is managed after the project is done.” That, many neighbors know by heart, is the challenge with Civano.

So what, really, makes a great neighborhood? Lots of things, each integral and each precipitated. What can make Civano a great neighborhood? Pam Bateman and Judyth Willis, for starters. Add to that the good work of many others, and here’s hoping their agendas and worthy ambitions rub off on the rest of us.

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Tags: placemaking

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