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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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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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Keillor omits Portland from Le Guin profile

Today's "Writer's Almanac" has a sketch about Portland's Ursula Le Guin.

Oddly, Garrison Keillor's description neglects to mention the Northwest and Portland, where Le Guin has lived for 50 years.

I have Keillor's Almanac e-mailed to me every day, mostly for its anecdotes about writers. Usually they don't disappoint. Often Keillor shares an illuminating, influential aspect of the chosen author's childhood. He does that in today's piece about Le Guin.

But where a writer lives — the writer's vantage — is also important to his or her writing and should be given its due. Tellingly, the view from Le Guin's northwest Portland home is of Mount Hood).

After placing the author, the description should give some sense of how the place has influenced the writer's work — the settings, the characters, the plots, the tone etc.

I'm no expert on Le Guin so I'll leave it to others to comment, but The Corvallis Gazette-Time's Theresa Hogue touches on the subject in a recent Q&A interview with Le Guin.

Le Guin's answer is short but tantalizing.

Hogue: As a long-time Portlander, how has the landscape of the Pacific Northwest influenced your work? Do you think that your characters or settings sometimes reflect your experiences as an Oregonian?

Le Guin: I grew up in Northern California and have lived in Oregon for 50 years, and those sceneries are all through my stories and poems. The novel “The Tombs of Atuan” grew from my very first trip out to eastern Oregon . . . and “The Lathe of Heaven” is a kind of inside-out love song to Portland, and “Searoad” is another one to the Oregon beach towns . . . The West Coast is my place and its people are my people.

The ellipses beg to be filled in.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

A "tetchy" letter from England

Richard Wood is an old friend of 40 years. He's also a Yorkshireman, which means he speaks his mind.

So it was that I opened my e-mail this morning to find this letter (below), which he himself describes as "tetchy."

You can sense his impatience (even anger) not only with America generally but with me in particular for my choice of subjects these past few days. He is accusing us of ignorant trivializing of this election's significance to the planet.

The rest of the world has about had it with the American electorate and this campaign. Richard doesn't even cite the worst of it. The attack ads, the voting machines that change your vote (go here), the voter suppression, the robo-calls, the transformation of politics into entertainment (Read "Amusing Ourselves to Death"), the racism, the hateful claques at the rallies.

There's a lot to get tetchy about.

Here is Richard's letter.

Are climate change, ecology, the environment, the immediate future of the physical planet itself issues at all with the American public?

In your three current posted stories - the disastrous local landslide, Cindy's dollars, and the debate by the would-be presidents, there is no hint of awareness that there are huge policy questions waiting to be answered.

The whole world is watching.

We don't care what the next president looks like, his sex appeal, whether he makes eye contact, how many zillion dollars his wife earns, how heroic or cowardly he was in Vietnam. We want to know if he is going to kick-start America's involvement in saving the planet. Does he (do you) make the link between natural disaster and climate change? Did a natural fault line create the landslide or was it the result of more than usually violent weather patterns? If the latter, are they related to what used to be called global warming?

Here in North Yorkshire we have had three successive relentlessly wet summers, as predicted by the climate change theorists. We have had massive flooding, with water pouring through the homes of thousands of people more than once each summer. Snow is a thing of the past. A whole generation of under-20s has grown up without ever seeing snow, in a county whose winters were once dominated by snow and ice.

There are climate change skeptics, but not many. Most people are now making uncomfortable shifts in the way they live, think and behave.

There are many, many great American scientists standing by for signals from the new American political leadership that the dark days of Bush ignorance are over, that your country is ready to play its part in combating man-induced climate change. You are the greatest users of non-renewable energy in the world. How willing is the new leadership going to be to wake the people up, get them started on massive changes in personal habits?

Does Obama mean what he says when he promises America will have cut off its dependence on Middle East oil within 10 years? Dare he and does he know how to go about this? What are his links with Al Gore; how prepared is he to listen to and learn from him?

Let's hear these questions asked loudly so that we know what these guys are truly made of.
Maybe the mesmerising line running across the TV screen during the next debate could reflect the responses of the political blog writers!

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Day 11 after the Burlingame-Terwilliger landslide

The devastation caused by the Oct. 8 slide between Burlingame Place and Terwilliger Parkway is sinking in.

The City had the wisdom to step up and stabilize the area instead of shoving the responsibility on to the slide's victims. The beleaguered, displaced families were simply unable to assume that additional burden.

The streets remain closed. Thousands of commuters are being detoured around Terwilliger.

The seven affected families now know that insurance policies don't cover the damage. The losses will be in the millions.

Neighbors have stepped up to help. One of the first things they did was establish a web site that leads to other sites dedicated to helping individual families.

I've taken the photo from the main web site page and posted it here because it graphically puts the names on the losses.

The local press is doing a good job of covering the slide and its aftermath. I'm planning to augment that reporting where needed in the on-line The Hillsdale News.

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