03/07/12

Neighborhood – The Glue That Binds Us

From Joan Pasiuk, Director, Bike Walk Twin Cities

Inspired by the Minneapolis Neighborhood Connections Conference, I am thinking more deeply about our most fundamental geographic identity. One important element of neighborhood is how our local streets function.

People really, really care about the street where they live. The parking in front of the house may be an important quality of life issue to some, but the challenge is in seeing the larger context – of looking at the connectivity of the grid of streets, of looking at transportation needs today and tomorrow, of considering not only my needs but the general mobility and accessibility of all. Much of this happens at the neighborhood level.

workshop 2011

So, how can neighborhoods shape their transportation footprint? At public meetings for projects funded through BWTC, a whole range of individuals (walkers, motorists, bicyclists, transit riders, and property owners) discuss parking, speed, access, safety, cost, maintenance, and more—all in the context of the project at hand. This is messy but important democracy.

BWTC can document that the projects we have funded change transportation behavior—bicycling is up, walking is easier, sidewalks are safer for all users. But, we also believe that these projects create social capital – new ways for people to perceive, experience, and shape their community together.

One of our goals is to nurture and incorporate “best practices” for pilot investments, including intersection crossings, traffic calming, pavement markings, and lane design. Sometimes neighborhood synergy adds creative and more powerful project elements, And, sometimes neighborhood resistance pushes back to minimize the new design elements. Again, messy democracy.

Based on the experience of the BWTC program and my thinking about neighborhood dynamics, here are 4 essentials to keep in mind as we strive to provide transportation that is safe, accessible for all, and makes good use of personal and public resources:

  1. Geography matters. Despite all the ways we can connect virtually and digitally, despite all the social networks we establish, the place where we live is still a primary and fundamental source of belonging to community. The desire for healthy, safe, and vibrant neighborhoods cuts across income, age, and culture.
  2. Information matters. If neighbors are going to come together to influence street design, they need to be smart about what does work. Good process involves public meetings and background materials that educate as well as solicit input. Especially when bringing new treatments to our streets, education is critical so that residents understand that we can do more than stop signs and stop lights.
  3. Political will matters. Informed public officials who are apprised of advancements in other cities and have a vision of and commitment to advancement here can help move us forward. Throughout the pilot all of us have been on a learning curve – transportation professionals, BWTC staff and board, and elected officials. We have included as part of the pilot program—via leadership breakfasts, workshops, and other convenings--opportuntities to deepen knowledge of sustainable and active transportation. Clearly, we would not have made any of the documented progress without the visible and vocal commitment of public leaders. At two project openings in 2011, city council members essentially said “From the beginning I did not want this project in my ward. Now I love it and I see the value it brings to our community.” That is transformation.
  4. Advocacy matters. Committed citizens who stay informed, attend meetings, and understand the process help engage other residents. These activists are critical to highly functioning neighborhoods and communities. And who encourageds city council members to shift their position on bike/walk projects? Informed, articulate, dedicated constituents who stepped forward with a message.

Minneapolis and St. Paul promote themselves as appealing places to live based on vibrant neighborhoods. The same is true in suburban locations, with St. Louis Park officially designating 35 neighborhoods and Hopkins 19.

Neighborhoods are stand-alone forces as well as building blocks for shared values and quality of life across the community. To be effective in bringing projects to completion in ways that local residents support, the well-engineered plan is the beginning but not all that matters.

What more would you add to the list of what matters?