July 2011

The Thursday List: 5 Ways to Bring Schools and the Community Together

This week I’m adding something new to the blog, a more in-depth, quick facts way to start applying principles I discuss on the blog directly back into the community. This week’s theme was education, so I’m revisiting  steps we need  to bridge the gap between our schools and the community. Here are five of those steps:

Host Community Events Free of Charge

School lunchrooms, auditoriums, gymnasiums and classrooms are perfect event spaces. If need be, bring in food and supplies to offset rental and staffing costs.

Use The Yard Space(If You Have It) For Community Gardens

Most schools gladly use their yards for sporting events. While this is a great release for kids sometimes, how much better would it be to teach kids how to grow their own food  and even run their own small business by using a community garden.

Establish Apprenticeship and Internship Programs with Students as Young as Middle School Age.

Go ahead and build brand loyalty, as well as introducing kids to a sure career path. They will be more motivated to do well in school and pick a college or trade school that gets them exactly where they need to go. Then they can come back and build up communities themselves by repeating the cycle. Also consider becoming a Big Sibling

Create a Carpool/Bikepool/Walking Group

In my neighborhood, the kids could walk to school with one or two adults in tow. If the schools a little further away in your neighborhood, but the streets are safe, get a bike group together. And if walking is dangerous or the school is across town, get a carpool together. Also, the school bus works too, but not every district pays for busing all students to school. Also, what if your child is in a charter or private school, where busing is optional.

Sponsor and Donate to the School.

Lastly, unless the district has established a district-wide endowment, donate to the closest, most needy school you can find. This can be your time or your money. However, keep in mind that the school you think may not give the ROI you expect may be the most grateful. If you want to get your feet wet, check out a few projects on Donors Choose.

Urban Design Must Have Heart and Soul


We must be careful that the Southside neighborhood and others like it, not fall back into the darkness at the expense of other vibrant neighborhoods, such as our traditional downtown (Image Credit: Unknown Flickr user via CityBoi at Skyscraper City Forums)

Recently the national-award winning, Duany Plater-Zyberk designed community of Southside in Greensboro lost a key tenant, Vintage 301. Outside of Manny’s Universal Café, this was the only restaurant in the neighborhood and only consistent draw of people outside of the small neighborhood inside. While there are a few hair salons and other small businesses left, the neighborhood has gradually gone from mixed use back to urban-esque suburbia.

I say this to deal with the idea that is at the core of much of new urbanism:

If you build it they will come + a cleaner urban form= success despite our economic and social failures

Yet, at the end of the day, many of us have no disposable income. We can’t sell our houses or afford to buy new ones. Some of us can’t even afford to rent homes, rent or buy cars or even eat. We want to start businesses, but you need money to do that too. Some existing business and homes are getting choked by the increased tax values. Cities are not working carefully with small businesses to deal with tax liabilities (yet continually give breaks to big ones who can more than afford to pay).

So what does one do in a situation like this? What does this mean for urbanism (and suburbanism and ruralism)? I’m not sure of all the answers, but it starts in one place, working together.

When we lose money and get poor, we often retract into the worse of ourselves. We hoard, we covet, we criticize. The fear of losing our identity swells far and above our own minds and makes us create false stories about our friends, family, colleagues and leaders. With this negativity, we find it hard to go on in our present state and we spend time over-analyzing how others seem to be getting along.

I think this negativity is at the root of where we stand as a country right now. However, I recently learned that no matter what, it’s better to be grateful for what does exist. Even though I can’t rent a house, I am able to live with my mom and help her with things at our house. The bus still runs from 5 AM to 11PM here in Greensboro and 24 hours in some places. I could ride a bike. And at the basic level, I’m breathing, seeing, walking and talking and writing this post.

To bring this tangent back to a close, we have to look past the built environment for a minute and work on restoring the souls of our fellow community members. We have to have hard conversations and ask hard questions. We have to make hard demands. Yet, I don’t know of a person who has some means, yet is complaining about lost of livelihood, that doesn’t have something they can share. Maybe it’s a shoulder to cry on, an extra shirt, an extra plate or a ride to work.

Still, we will not be able to fill our communities and embrace a density until we desire to live in harmony again. A harmony that looks past differences in matters of the heart and makes sure people can have the freedom to wake up and live comfortably.

Just like I called on DC residents on Twitter to do, it’s not about race-baiting, it’s not about keeping improvements off the streets, it’s about getting our city economics back on track, and remembering all legal business is good business. Even if it’s just an upscale wing joint that moves into the old Vintage 301 space.

The Case for Better Neighborhood Associations

A group of people who are happy, is this your neighborhood association board? It should be.

You either pay exorbitant amounts of money to it or you have moved to a community on purpose to get away from it. You probably want to get rid of it, especially if you want to tear out your front yard or save for retirement without watching that $300 a month go down the drain. Yet, you might like your neighbors and the National Night Out picnic and block party every year is fun.

I’m talking about the neighborhood association and its related fees.

Neighborhood associations at their root go along with what I consider to be a successful community. They allow neighbors of all stripes and kinds to gather to solve problems, keep areas clean and presentable and provide families and friends with the opportunity to gather.

However, some neighborhood groups are contentious. With the cost of food and gas increasing, it is harder to justify spending money to give to neighbors who fight over what colors should be banned from houses. Also, many neighborhood associations are spending money defending their boundaries and fighting city governments. While this activity is expensive, and can be productive are these legal battles draining the productivity out of your neighborhood?

I’m not sure if this is what happened to my neighborhood, as we have never had one. The adjacent older neighborhood did but, according to a cousin who lived in the neighborhood at the time, the organization was cliquish and slightly discriminatory. Once the clique moved away, the organization died, along with the neighborhood pool the fees maintained. Despite these circumstances, we need to restart this group, with my end of the neighborhood included.

I also believe that neighborhood association funds can be better spent. Take this  example of  neighborhood association fees collected as a giving circle. In this giving circle the minimum payment is agreed upon and put in a hat and saved up, to be redeemed once a quarter for a specific community project. An example quarterly project schedule is below:

  • Winter: Snow and Ice Removal- (If the climate is warm, then dedicate this money to a spring time community garden or holiday decorations)
  • Spring: Community Garden setup
  • Summer: Clean-up of common areas such as parks, pools and neighborhood welcome signs
  • Fall: Fall Festival

Your four projects can be more tailored to your individual community’s needs. Also, consider having a fund set aside to pay for lawn care or other emergencies that happen to neighbors.  Even better if the four activities above can be done with sweat equity and all money collected can start a community foundation.

In my neighborhood, I would like for us to re-open the pool, clean up and build a few new neighborhood signs and have an official National Night Out event. We could also partner with the nearby shopping mall, three churches and elementary school for events. Also, we should go past preventing crime and keeping strange children off the streets. We also have a few bus stops that can be adopted through a program our city offers. All need benches and regular upkeep, as they are used by a number of neighbors throughout the day.

So you are now thinking, do I still need to be giving $300 a month to my association. Yes and no. If your association is engaged in greater community building activities such as those mentioned above, yes. You also can reduce that number and still have a good impact. Below are the effects of spending a $1 a month, $5 a month and $300 a month on a community. These numbers are based on a community of 50 homes with fees docked from property taxes and sent back to a neighborhood 501c3.

$1 month/$12 per year per neighbor= $600– While a bit small for an emergency fund, this can be split into three $200 parts to give towards a neighborhood boy or girl to clean up the common areas throughout the summer, seeds for a community garden and/or paying the same kids to shovel snow or dedicated to one big national night out party so that neighbors can meet each other and work on building bartering and trusting relationships. Also, if your neighborhood association is brand new, you can dedicate some of this funding to becoming a tax exempt organization.

$5 month/$60 per year=$3000– As you can see, we already have a nice increased sum here. You can pay for tax exemption, put $1500 away for a neighbor in need and then use the other $1500 to work on the community initiatives mentioned above.

$300month/3600 per year=$180,000– So this is the net gain for a $300 month neighborhood association fee. If you only use $1500 for the small community initiatives, you have a nice sized fund to start a community foundation fund for scholarships, medical bills, even small business ventures. This also covers legal fees, but my hope is that you are moving away from litigious activities.

No matter what, your neighborhood needs an association. Cities with less formally defined neighborhoods could start with census tracks. Neighborhoods could merge if there are not enough households to obtain a certain funding level. Even if no money is collected at first, a neighborhood watch will keep neighbors informed of basic needs. Those concerned with privacy should have the option of opting out of the neighborhood association. Renters should also be informed of meeting times and projects and invited to participate, especially if they have resided in the neighborhood longer than some homeowners.

I have mentioned to a few neighbors that I would like to implement the $5 a month model, so we can clean up our neighborhood signs and maybe look into adopting the bus stop.

So community developers and neighborhood leaders, what am I missing? What are some solutions in practice to the issues surrounding neighborhood associations? Are you a community who is putting similar practices at work with success?

Making Big Box Stores Part of the Urban Fabric

Urban Target Store in Minneapolis (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

Ahh, the urbanist’s dreaded big box. No one wants the thing in their neighborhood, but oh do we love having Trader Joes and Whole Foods nearby. Never mind that the Trader Joes moved into the old Wal-Mart space and the Whole Foods was built next door to a massive Petsmart, Babies R’ Us, and Target.

We need to be careful when we condemn the big box. You can keep talking if you are living completely off the land: making your own food, sewing your own clothes, even educating your children on site.How are these box stores any different from department stores, which have been around since the 1800s. Shopping plazas have been around for far longer than that and did not originate in the United States .Yet, why is it when it’s Wal-Mart or Costco and not Target or Barnes and Noble do we have the problems? Maybe it is because these stores were built and are continuing to be built to be car dependent? The stores take up too much room in the ‘burbs, therefore they must eat up the whole urban landscape? Also, there’s always the air of cheap or over-sized products. Also, there are the employee treatment issues and the “people” that shop there. However, we need to get over all these issues.

Having the boxes around has also allowed  us to possess more than we ever thought. Thanks to the supermarket, we can now have eggs or beer at any time of night in any metro(unless you are dry on Sunday mornings like we were even in NC metros for years). We don’t have to make our clothes, we can get all of them already made and cheap at Target.

I don’t mean for this post to be a slander or witch-hunt, however, I do want all of us to think about we manage our commerce. What stores could we really live without? Are there ways to make these stores better, such as pushing for them paying living wages and being taller and having less land mass around their stores?

Here’s what I think it will take for all box stores to succeed in the urban fabric:

Be Green: Seriously, have a LEED certification or some sort of historic redevelopment certification on the building. Consider having a green roof instead of a parking roof. Use natural light. Suburban Wal-Marts built in recent years have done a great job incorporating skylights. In an urban setting, the windows of the stores would be preserved and used as forms of light into upper floors. Use compact florescent if you must light the store via electronic means. Continue the work with suppliers to bring in local produce and reduce package sizes.

Reconfigure the store:
All big box stores should take the IKEA approach to selling their goods. Items that are difficult to carry down stairs or even on a Vermaport SC (a cart escalator commonly seen in urban stores), should be displayed in a special showroom area which can utilize higher floors and then be picked up at a special merchandise pick up area that is car friendly. Grocery should always be bottom floor, as it’s the most routine need in my opinion. Clothing, small appliances, electronics, music and books in their tangible forms and other objects that are not conventionally sold at grocery stores could occupy higher levels.

Free Delivery and A Prominent Package Pick-Up area:
Stores would not need parking if they offered these two options efficiently and carefully. The package pick-up area would be directly connected to a much smaller parking lot that also housed delivery trucks. Delivery trucks would have a bay and there would also be a lane for private vehicles.Sears does great with providing package pick-up areas. Many other stores have ship to store or ship home options now that are free or minimal cost.

Pay a Living Wage to Workers:
Wal-Mart was the main offender of this rule, but has taken steps to rectify issues with compensating and rewarding employees. With the revenue streams these stores produce being public, upping wages of employees is a goodwill measure to the public, as well as a stabilizer of the economy.

Be a good neighbor: Be willing to be the only anchor or locate yourself a few blocks away from the competition. Provide seed money to smaller businesses, that although are direct competitors in your category, offer a slightly different in-store experience that customers can alternate between. Be known for being the clean, but low price point and buy off the shelf store. Let the small store host the events, display the products and order the out of print or custom made products. Through it’s subsidiary Sam’s Club’s  small business loans, Wal-Mart could be financing lots of potential small-scale competitors. The loans will be targeted to firms led by women and minority groups, increasing the diversity of these ventures.Also, efforts to help schools, hospitals and other mission driven organizations and businesses to fund their causes and provide volunteers for their projects should continue.

These measures are not easy, nor cheap. A downtown Target store cost the chain 16 million to build. However, Chicago, New York, DC, Baltimore and countless other municipalities are figuring out ways to build big boxes in a urbanist manner.

So what did I miss? What else can we do to reconcile the price point and convenience of box stores with the need to maintain the traditional Main Streets and vibrant dense urban downtowns?