Posts Tagged ‘urbanism’

21 Ways to Build Community

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Even if you are the world’s shyest introvert, you have to admit, humans are a social breed. We like to be around each other. Even if we don’t talk or interact with one another, it is just nice to see people and share a space with them, whether that be a public square, a bus, or a sidewalk. So below are 20 things (in no particular order) I’ve noticed that create instant community – that is – a gathering of people where the potential for community exists.

1. Public spaces/parks

Public spaces and parks are designed to create community. They are open to the public, which means everyone and anyone can go, regardless of race, creed, background, or physical ability. Public spaces and parks are where people can be alone together or hang out with friends and family and possibly join a volleyball game that’s happening one ramada over. Anything can happen in public spaces and parks, including things people don’t always like to see. But that is the good and bad of what a public space is, you can’t have a true public space without unexpected and unplanned for things happening there.

2. Neighborhood association meetings

Neighborhood association meetings are a great way to meet your neighbors, join forces and create the neighborhood you want. You don’t have to like your neighbors, but association meetings create a structure for neighbors to work together, so you don’t necessarily have to be best friends with everyone to get things done in your neighborhood.

3. Third places

Third places are coffee shops, restaurants or any place that people become regulars and end up forming a community. People go to coffee shops and restaurants not only for the drinks and eats, they go there to be in a public setting and to interact with the world. Certainly you won’t talk to every single person in the space, but you will see them, be a part of the buzz, and just soak in the vibe of a bustling third place. Third places, with the decline of public spaces and parks, have become the new primary gathering spaces in cities. At Third Places, you are likely to run into someone you know, make friends with the barista or the servers, and come to know the space as intimately as you know your own living room.

4. Public transportation

Taking the train or the bus can sometimes have you rubbing shoulders, quite literally, with people you would never meet or interact with in real life. In many cities, public transportation can be an equalizer of economic and social status. A powerful lawyer can be standing next to a single mother working at Circle K who can be standing next to a homeless person. In some cities, the majority of people who take the bus are lower income individuals. But in many cities, that is not the case, people of all socioeconomic statuses ride the bus. Trains are usually more egalitarian and a wider range of people seems to be ok with taking the train.

5. Free Public events

Free public events, whether its a group bike ride, a picnic, or a city sponsored fair, are great ways to see and be with other people in the city. My family and I used to go see the fireworks on July 4th at Pioneer’s Square in downtown Phoenix. People brought lawn chairs, picnic blankets, hot dogs and fire crackers and it was like the whole city was celebrating together. It was great.

6. Murals

Murals are a great way to create community because they create a sense of place and pride in one’s area. Murals are especially successful in central Phoenix. They have been used to revitalize places like Calle 16 and Roosevelt Arts District. Even if you are just driving by a mural and not really standing in front of it, it sticks in your memory and brings humanity to what sometimes can be a cold and dreary environment. It livens up blank walls and brings art into the everyday lives of passersby.

7. Free Boxes

Free boxes are common in Portland, where I live. But this concept is found in many other cities in the US as well. It’s where people leave things out on the sidewalk or the alley for people to pick up for free. It’s a great way to recycle and keep things out of the landfill. And it’s a great way to help people who who would treasure your trash, either out of economic necessity or out of preference or taste, or out of creativity, where people refashion and repurpose things people have outgrown or don’t need anymore into something else. It’s about keeping things within the community and giving them a new life.

8. Sports

Sports, whether they be professional, amateur, or just a pick up basketball game in a park bring people together. When cities root for their home team, community is created every time someone wears the local team cap or tshirt that says to other people, “Hey! I’m a fan!”. Playing team sports is also a great way to create community, not only because you are playing in a team, but often because you’re playing in a public space like a park or recreational facility.

9. Crazy Weather

Crazy weather can bring people together in unexpected ways. It is something that everyone in the community, regardless of socioeconomic status, experiences. Crazy weather doesn’t discriminate and so it gives people a sense of being in the same boat. This was demonstrated when Portland recently faced Snowpocalypse, a freak snow storm that resulted in about 10 inches of snow. Everyone was stuck at home for about two days, but we all communicated through social media to see how everyone else was faring with the weather. Freak weather brings people together and also encourages people to help each other out, as can be evidenced by the outpouring of support that follows natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes and other similar events.

10. Walking

The simple act of walking on the street puts you in the public realm. And because it’s just you and the elements, there’s nothing separating you from others who are walking as well. Often, pedestrians passing each other on the street will make eye contact, smile or even say hello. Sure this may not result in a lifelong friendship (who knows, maybe it will), but it does bring your fellow citizens into your purview, even for a split second.

11. Biking

Biking creates community in the same way as walking does, but also has a special dimension to it. Not everyone bikes, so cyclists are part of a special community. It is an open community and just about anyone can join, but it is still a special community. So when a cyclist passes by another, there is an exchange between members of a special community, which instantly creates a rapport.

12. Courtyards

Courtyards are an interesting interstitial space between what is private and what is public. In office buildings, courtyards are places where office workers can go smoke, eat lunch or just take a breather. In apartment complexes, courtyards are places where residents can have parties, hang out, and see and be seen. Courtyards normally mark where public space (say the sidewalk) meets a private space (say an office or a residence). It is a semi-public space, but helps create community for people who share an office building or an apartment building.

13. Multifamily housing

Speaking of apartment buildings, multifamily housing is also a small-scale way to build community. Unlike single-family detached housing, you are in close proximity to your neighbor and probably share a wall with her. Not only that, but you will likely run into your neighbor on the shared balcony or out in the courtyard. The proximity and density of multifamily housing allows people to bond and in the end rely on each other. Neighbors can help each other pump a flat bike tire, borrow a cup of sugar, or cat sit for each other. This kind of neighborliness is much easier to achieve in multifamily housing than it is in single-family detached neighborhoods, simply because people are closer together and more likely to interact.

14. Good weather

Good weather, summer in much of the States, and winter in hot spots like Arizona and Florida, draws people out of their houses and into the public sphere. In Portland, the city seems infinitely more crowded in the summer time. All the bike racks are full, restaurants and cafes have long waits and sidewalk cafes have people spilling out onto the right of way. In Phoenix, you can see people enjoying the mountain preserves and out hiking in the winter when the weather is perfect to be outside.

15. Fountains

People love fountains. There is something about fountains that make them a magnet for people. They will sit around its edge, enjoying the spatter of water drops on their arms and back. Or they will sit at a nearby bench and read a magazine, listening to its soothing sound. Kids also love fountains, especially the kind where they can play and frolic and get wet head to toe.

16. Natural Landmarks

Natural landmarks, like mountains, rivers, and lakes attract people because these places have been preserved for the public’s enjoyment. In Portland, the waterfront on the Willamette River is home to joggers, cyclists, sightseers, people with strollers, dogs, girlfriends, boyfriends, big groups, you name it. People love to gather and pass by the Willamette River just to be near the fantastic natural landmark. The same is true in a place like Phoenix, where mountain preserves attract people to commune with nature, get exercise, and be together.

17. Farmer’s Markets

Farmer’s markets and open-air markets of any kind are a great way to build community. The Phoenix Public Market open-air market, for example, has been a tremendous catalyst for the revitalization of downtown Phoenix. In a city lacking very much public space, the Phoenix Public Market open-air market still provides a venue every Wednesday evening and Saturday morning for people to come and shop for produce, enjoy good food from food trucks or vendors, and listen to great live music together. Open-air markets also help artists, artisans, craftspeople, and other small entrepreneur sell their wares to their community without a lot of overhead and red tape. It’s a very one on one community experience.

18. Local performers

Here in Portland, there is a lot of pride in local performers, such as March 4th, Chervona, DJ Anjali and the Kid and Dingo and Olive. Supporting local performers creates a fertile ground for them to thrive and succeed. It also benefits the supporting crowds and gives them something local to enjoy and be proud of. This is why venues like mid-size music venue The Crescent Ballroom are so important in a place like Phoenix, because it provides a space for up and coming local bands to perform. And even if the bands aren’t local, the venue draws local crowds and brings people together through live music.

19. The arts

The arts in general are a great way to create community. Going to the symphony, a play, the art museum or a film festival is a way to participate and appreciate the arts – something that all of humanity shares – together. Going to the art museum creates an experience that you can share with total strangers in the city. And at work, around the water cooler, you can ask – hey, did you see the Francis Bacon exhibit at the Art Museum and chances are your colleague will have heard of it, or in the very least, can look it up!

20. Sidewalk cafes

Sidewalk cafes are a visible sign of strong communities in a city. Having vibrant sidewalk cafes begets more vibrancy. Sidewalk seating brings people, enjoying food and life with friends and family, out into the street for everyone to see and visually interact with. People sitting out on sidewalks creates a social vibe that attracts pedestrians and in general invokes people to slow down and take a load off. Parking spot cafes, where seating is set up on a raised platform in parking spaces adjacent to a restaurant, is a further evolution of the sidewalk cafe. It brings people out further into the street and engages the public right of way in a much more social and community-oriented way than a parked car would!

21. Tight spaces

And finally, tight spaces in cities create communities. Tight sidewalks, narrow streets, alley streets and bridges all bring people closer together, to a point of almost rubbing up against one another. Tight spaces that lots of people have to use, including cars, buses, trains, pedestrians and cyclists encourage cooperation. Biking across the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland, I have to be aware of pedestrians to my right and zooming cars to my left. We all have to look out for and take care of each other.

Can Phoenix Ever be Walkable? I don’t think so. Bike-able? Maybe.

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Walkability is when you can walk from your home to the clinic for a check up. Walkability is when you can walk from your home to the grocery store when you realize you’re out of cat food at 9 o’clock at night. Walkability is when you can walk to the theater from your home to catch a flick. Walkability is when you have tons of restaurants within walking distance to your home when you have a hankering to eat out.

Walkability is not when you drive to a location from your home, park, and then walk to various destinations. That is the closest that Greater Phoenix gets to being walkable, examples being the Scottsdale Waterfront, Old Scottsdale, Kierland Commons, Desert Ridge Mall or Downtown Gilbert.

I never experienced real walkability on an everyday basis until I moved to the Hawthorne neighborhood of Portland, Oregon – the kind of walkability that starts from your home and ends at your final destination, with no cars or parking lots as middlemen.

Why Phoenix will Never be a Walkable City:

When I lived in Phoenix, it never even occurred to me that I could conduct my life easily just on foot. I always thought that a car-free lifestyle had to include bicycling. And for good reason, because in Phoenix, it must include bicycling because you can’t realistically walk anywhere. Why is that?

  1. Amenities, entertainment, restaurants tend to be just too far to walk to from your home. The only place where this is in question is the Coronado neighborhood in Central Phoenix, where you can walk to the neighborhood corner store, the neighborhood park and various neighborhood restaurants. But in almost every other part of Phoenix, things are just too far away to reasonably walk to them on a daily basis.
  2. Even if something is within walking distance, say within a quarter mile, the experience of walking that quarter mile, anywhere in Phoenix, is normally so banal and desolate that you simply wouldn’t want to do it because it just feels far. There is nothing of interest for a pedestrian to see, smell, touch, or hear because the city is built to the scale of a car. Billboards instead of storefronts populate the streets in Phoenix for a reason, and that’s because the city is built for motorists not for pedestrians.

Why Phoenix CAN be a Bikeable City:

When I lived in Phoenix, I lived in midtown, near Indian School and 7th Avenue. I biked to the Light Rail, which connected me to Downtown Phoenix, Mesa and Tempe. I biked to my favorite coffee shop, Lux Coffebar, almost every day. I biked to the grocery store down the street from me. I biked to Downtown Phoenix for various community events. I biked to my doctor for check ups at St. Joseph’s. I biked to Steele Indian School Park and Encanto Park for recreation. I biked to lots of restaurants. I biked to yoga. I biked to the gym.

In other words, I was able to conduct my life on my bike, without having to use my car. Biking addresses the two things that make Phoenix completely unwalkable.

  1. While amenities, entertainment and restaurants are just a bit too far to walk from neighborhoods, they are just the right distance to bike to.
  2. Because biking is a faster mode of transportation than walking, the automobile-scale of Phoenix is less onerous on a bike. Plus, just the heightened difficulty of urban biking brings a certain thrill and interest to the experience, keeping it from getting boring.

Another thing I’ve come to appreciate about Phoenix now that I live in hilly Portland, is the flatness of the Valley. Phoenix is on such flat terrain, it’s perfect for biking. No huffing and puffing as you climb up hills and no bracing for your life as you hurdle down them.

What Phoenix can do to become a Bikeable City:

Phoenix is not a bike-able city. Yet.

Just because you can physically bike to places doesn’t mean most people want to. Cyclists still feel unwelcome and unsafe on the roads of Phoenix, where motorists are still king and aren’t used to sharing the road. Here are the things that are missing:

  1. Bike lanes that connect neighborhoods to popular destinations. –  According to the City of Phoenix website, “You’ll find more than 500 miles of dedicated on- and off-street bike lanes, routes and paths.” The problem is that these bike lanes, routes and paths don’t often connect in ways that are meaningful to people trying to get around town. What good does it do when there is a bike lane on Osborn east of 16th street, but then it disappears west of 16th Street? This kind of discontinuity stops people from wanting to ride their bikes and should be the first thing to be rectified if Phoenix is to become a bikeable city.
  2. Bike parking at those popular destinations. – Here in Portland, there are bicycle corrals, in some cases, covered bicycle corrals, on every major intersection on commercial corridors. This not only helps with where to put your bike, but it makes cyclists feel acknowledged, cared for and that they are an important part of the city.
  3. Bicyclists – More bicyclists on the roads would go a long way in raising awareness of bikes and revealing the contingent of people in Phoenix who want to bike. But it’s a chicken or the egg dilemma. Will better bicycle infrastructure attract more bicyclists? Or will more bicyclists attract better bicycle infrastructure?

A unique and hitherto untapped opportunity to make Phoenix realize its full bikeability potential involves the canals. The canals are great connectors, away from the hazards of automobile traffic and perfect for bikes. They are virtually linear parkways that connect the city and could very easily become bicycle corridors. They could serve both recreational biking as well as bike commuting. Canals not only connect different locations within cities, but they connect different cities to each other. The Grand Canal, for example, connects Phoenix with Tempe. And the Consolidated Canal connects Mesa with Chandler and Gilbert. So why not utilize these existing amenities as more than waterways and turn them into bikeways as well?

With some of these things in place – bike lanes, bike parking, and enhanced canal biking – Phoenix could become one of the most bike-able cities in the country and begin to shed it’s reputation for being a smoggy, automobile-addicted city.

Image Credit: Original artwork by Derek Welte of HalfmanHalfmachine.