Thursday, October 23, 2008

Part I: Defining community one step at a time

I’ve been invited to give a brief talk at the First Unitarian Church tonight on “The 20-Minute Neighborhood”

I’ve decided to break my remarks into two parts and parcel them out to you today and tomorrow.

I was intrigued by the term “the 20-minute neighborhood” when I first heard it.

The words grated against other “X-minute somethings.”

The three-minute egg

Four-minute mile

Fifty-minute hour (my wife’s a therapist)

Three-hour job

90-minute parking space

And, finally the 40-minute commute, which, as it turns out, is a kind of antithesis to the 20-minute neighborhood.

So, once the extraneous associations have been pushed aside, what is a 20-minute neighborhood?

It can only be one thing: a place whose center is no more than a 20-minute walk from where you live.

It must mean a 20-minute walk, not drive.

If those 20 minutes were the time to drive to the center, it wouldn’t be to a neighborhood center or even a community center. It might be the center of a small city. If it were a 20-minute bike-ride, it would be a town.

So the implied word in “the 20-minute neighborhood” is “walking.”

Such a compact neighborhood offers the obvious health benefits of walking. They are the kinds of benefits found in 10,000-step programs and the like. A walkable neighborhood also carries the environmental and economic advantages of not requiring us to drive.

This we know, but how does walking foster and define community?

It turns out that walking and community go hand in hand, if you will.

Notice that I have begun talking not about neighborhood but about community. It’s an important distinction.

In Portland, we use the word “neighborhood” when we often mean community. Or we establish livable neighborhoods as a goal without acknowledging the need for sustainable communities, which comprise neighborhoods.

What we may really want are 20-minute communities and 2-minute to 5-minute neighborhoods.

What is the difference between a community and a neighborhood?

One answer is found in the time 20 minutes. A person who lives a 30-minute or 40-minute walk from me (on the other side of the "neighborhood's" center) isn’t my neighbor, but is my fellow citizen, or resident, of a community.

So I question the concept of the 20-minute neighborhood, because a 20-minute walk is at odds with the scale of a neighborhood.

Those of us who think about building 20-minute communities in cities need to start with a definition of what a community is.

“A Pattern Language,” a bible of sorts for urban planners, cites a model used by Plato, Confucius and Jefferson. “Individuals have no effective voice in any community of more than 5,000 to 10,000 persons,” say the authors of “A Pattern Language.”

I happen to live in Hillsdale, a community of 8,000. And, yes, the City dis-empowers Hillsdale and calls it a “neighborhood.”

Hillsdale has several community amenities, all of them mentioned, by the way, in “A Pattern Language.” A neighborhood usually has a smattering of such amenities, but not all of them.

For starters, Hillsdale has a commercial center, at the physical dead center of our community. Metro, our regional government, calls this commercial core of Hillsdale “a Town Center.”

The idea of a "center” is implied by the 20-minute community. The center is the walker’s destination. Metro’s strategy is to have higher density populations living in town centers. Metro is also encouraging those living a 20-minute walk away to work, shop, play, and even study in Town Centers. Town Centers are also transit centers within walking distance, and many commute from there. Hillsdale’s center has nine bus lines, which was a major reason it was designated a Town Center.

Just as walking is essential to our lives (After all, it is the first thing we do when we get out of bed), walking is essential to community....

Tomorrow: Walking and Community.

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