Saturday, June 02, 2007

“Deep Economy” meets “A Pattern Language” at the corner grocery

Bill McKibben’s book “Deep Economy” stresses the urgency of building small communities, nurturing local economies and living simply. The driving force is global warming and the planet’s limited resources.

Reading his book, I’m struck again by how much, and how quickly, we in Hillsdale need to change.

(By the way, “Deep Economy” is the choice this month for our Hillsdale Book Club. We discuss it this Thursday, June 7, at 7 p.m. at the Multnomah Arts Center. You are welcome to join us, whether you have read the book or not.)

As I see it, the first needed change is to connect with our neighbors, taking back time that is now “screen time” spent with mediated, fictitious people and places.

To bring about such a change requires those of us trying to build communities to make community life and involvement manageable, attractive and, yes, more important than screen fantasy.

In Hillsdale, we have a prototype for what I’m talking about in the Farmers’ Market. A sheltered civic plaza (with solar panel shelter) would build on the community center concept.

We also made great progress when, in the mid-'90s, we reconfigured neighborhood boundaries, creating a Hillsdale neighborhood with a Town Center at its a center. Another step forward came with the resolution of boundary overlaps with the Southwest Hills Residential League last year.

But Hillsdale, with 6,000 people, is too big to be a true neighborhood. In recent years, considerable research has shown that much smaller numbers are needed for a community to be cohesive and effective.

One source for this observation is the remarkable book “A Pattern Language.”

The book’s authors (Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, with Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King and Shlomo Angel) recommend that neighborhoods should not be “more than 300 yards across, with no more than 400 or 500 inhabitants.” They go on to say that cities should “give the neighborhoods some degree of autonomy as far as taxes and land controls are concerned.”

Actually, cities should give autonomy to what we now call Town Center neighborhoods—Hillsdale being one of them. They should be rightly called "Town Center communities" consisting of smaller neighborhoods.

I’ll return to the Town Center Community concept at a future time.

For now, let’s focus on one aspect of those small neighborhoods. They are really defined by how far we can comfortably walk with a small push-cart full of groceries. We would buy those groceries from a great American institution that was killed off by the automobile and the supermarket: namely, the locally-owned corner grocery store.

More than small businesses, corner groceries were meeting places where neighbors would linger and get caught up on local news. They were, and once again would be, seven-day-a-week, small, indoor, neighborhood farmers markets. The owners, far from being some giant corporations in Delaware or New York, would be the family living upstairs.

A community like Hillsdale would have 10 to 12 neighborhoods, and 10 to 12 corner grocery/local gathering places.

And yes, not surprisingly, the authors of “A Pattern Language” had something to say about corner groceries. McKibben doesn’t mention them per se, but you can feel their presence in much of what he writes.

Of course to revive corner groceries means major revisions to Portland's zoning codes. And that means dealing with City Hall, not an institution prone to empowering neighborhoods, let alone a new civic entity called “a Town Center Community.”

But perhaps the Herculean challenges of these times will shake up the city's planners and powers that be.

We’ll see.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Djronan said...

I'd love to meet with you sometime and see what you envision a community as being. You mention changing zoning codes to permit the smaller scale neighborhoods of the past. What other things are you thinking about along these lines?

I would also be interested in getting your take on what you would like your specific neighborhood to be.

I am working at City Hall this summer, in the Department of Transportation. Accordingly, I am interested in learning as much as I can to see if I can help bring my hopefully more "refined and educated" two cents to the discussion table on making Portland "work."

1:14 AM  

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