Friday, October 24, 2008

Walking and Community

This post is a continuation of yesterday's post and some thoughts I shared with a small group of neighborhood activists meeting at the First Unitarian Church last night.

As noted yesterday, the authors of “A Pattern Language” argue that “Individuals have no effective voice in any community of more than 5,000 to 10,000 persons.”

Because people need a voice in determining the destiny of their communities, smallness matters. Communities must be about self-governance, i.e. local power. Here again, I have my differences with how our city government is configured. Power, some power, needs to devolve from City Hall to Portland neighborhoods that are true communities.

Such devolution is part of a community effort to become self-sustaining.

Another part of that effort is developing commerce that is locally owned. Ownership of business needs to be part of the community for it to be responsive. Customers and business owners alike should strive to keep our resources within our communities.

And yes we should be able to walk to the stores in 20-minutes.

Communities have institutions: a library, a theater, a post office, bus stops, parks, plazas, cafes, (Third Places) and “nodes” of activity to name a few mentioned in “A Pattern Language.” All should be within easy walking distance of community residents and of each other.

A journalist’s aside: Communities also communicate. In fact, communication defines community just as it defines culture in general. Without communication, there is no community. We need to communicate to be a community, and the quality of that communication determines the quality of the community. The word “civility” is often invoked at this point. (An observation: with some exceptions, the smaller the political arena, the more civil the political discourse.)

So communities need community newspapers, in print or on-line. In recent years, list serves have also aided community communication.

The foremost community institutions are schools, where some of the most important community communication should take place. Schools, like families, are inter-generational time binders. They communicate knowledge, tradition, culture and, most importantly, values — individual and community values.

Schools should be true community schools. And yes, we and our children should be able to walk to them SAFELY in 20 minutes.

Here’s a quibble with the Portland school district. Schools should be — and should be called — community learning centers. They should be open year round to all. We all need to learn, and we can learn from each other. Our current schools don’t teach enough about their surrounding communities. They overlook local history, archeology, commerce and, most woefully, our dreams for the future.

Finally, 20-minute communities should be places with of face-to-face communication. Travel was once equated with communication. You or a messenger hand-carried a message somewhere. (The telegraph ended that). Letters were highly valued. Then we “reached out and touched someone” by telephone. Now we “text” over cell phones or e-mail.

I recently stunned a community friend when I walked 10 minutes to her house and hand-delivered a thank you note to her.

When I walk to the post office or the library a lot more happens than getting there. I feel the topography of place. I slow down. Time and place become one. I am exposed to the warmth and cold. I feel the breeze. I hear the birds. I notice the tint of the leaves, I mark the changes, small changes. A newly painted fence, a strange car in a driveway, a plumber’s truck outside a house, a posted sign about a missing cat. And I encounter people. We greet each other. We sometimes stop and talk.

Dog walkers are often the easiest to talk to. Dogs are social lubricants. I met a Newfoundland walker the other day. It turned out he’s for McCain; I’m for Obama. We bonded because we are both for Newfoundlands.

Neighbors for Newfoundlands.

Neighborhoods are bound by things like Newfoundlands — and sidewalks and school auctions and farmers markets and encounters at the post office.

Our day-to-day community lives are not taken with deficit spending, stock market gyrations and car bombs in Kabul,

On my 20- minute walks (not drives) to the Hillsdale Town Center, I meet more and more friends. And, not surprisingly, the more I walk, the more friends I make and meet. And all of them are neighbors. Friends who live just minutes away, in a 20-minute neighborhood/community.

A final word about time. Think of how we have come to monetarize time. We are paid by the hour. Time is money. We have parking meters that rent time to park. Our months are marked by bills. Our years by taxes — we even have tax years.

The 20-minute neighborhood begins to return time to its proper place. Time is no longer money. Time is living. We are given a life time and the time of our lives. The 20-minute community/neighborhood restores our place in our time — and our time in our place.

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