Conscious Urbanism: Sister Neighborhoods

Happy Valentine's Day. Who's your neighborhood's sweetheart this year? Yeah, you read that right. Who are you and your neighbors sending a gift to? If the answer is "nobody" (and I'm guessing that it is), consider this February 14th a missed opportunity.

There are no shortage of complaints about neighborhood associations and other community groups, the most common being that they tend to be insular, cliquey, out of touch, and outright anti-change. Another major complaint, which results directly from the aforementioned, is that these groups tend to be made up of only the higher end of the neighborhood's age range. Young people, we are reminded time and again, aren't active in their communities. They don't care enough to get involved, or they're too lazy, or they're something else that isn't the fault of the people doing the complaining.

But what if young people avoid joining community groups (as has been speculated before, no doubt) because the community groups just aren't active in a way that appeals to them? Could it be that college students, twenty- and thirtysomethings just aren't interested in joining what they view as stoic, regressive groups with their heads in the sand? I'm betting that, with a bit of elbow grease and some new ideas, we might see people below the age of 40 start to get more involved in their neighborhoods.

There are already examples of this, to be sure. Guerilla Gardening comes to mind, as do organizations like Neighbors Project and Rebar, as well as government programs like City Year. In its own (ironic) way, a lot of street art -- the kind that challenges and inspires, not those aimless spray-paint scribbles -- is evidence of young peoples' interest in their communities and their cities at large. It's not everyone's idea of being involved, but the desire to be involved in the neighborhood dynamic is apparent nonetheless. So what do all of these things have in common? What is it that gets younger generations excited about where they live, and what gets them involved? From the look of things, there is definitely an anti-bureaucratic attitude. These groups and activities are all perfect for someone who's looking to skip the runaround and get involved right away. Access is easy, and the activities are usually very social. In addition -- and more importantly -- these groups are defined more by what they stand for, not what they stand against.

Could there possibly be a way to create that kind of attitude on a larger scale within slightly more traditional community groups -- ones that might actually encourage people on both ends of the age spectrum to work together not just to improve their own neighborhoods, but their city as well? One idea: look at the Sister Cities movement.

While it is not particularly well-publicized (and, thus, utilized), Sister Cities International is an organization that pairs cities with similar economic structures, natural features, or demographics up in an effort to build a worldwide network of diplomatic relationships between urban areas. Cities help each other out by sharing policy ideas, discussing problems, and forging economic and trade agreements. What might this kind of program look like at a more local level?

On the international level, this might be a challenge, since getting people across oceans is much easier with large civic budgets instead of community group coffers (which are never full enough to begin with). But might it be productive to partner with community groups in the same city? Cross-community meetings could be held, local solutions and problems shared and discussed. The residents of a neighborhood across town cease to be faceless, and the city begins to feel smaller, its residents more tightly bound together.

There would be benefits within community groups, as well. The more hands-on, social activity of meeting and working proactively with neighbors-across-town could bring in a younger crowd. The older members of the group would gain new allies, as newly-joined young people will have more of a vested interest in preserving and strengthening their own communities through their involvement with their neighborhood group. As Matias wrote in a recent Airoots post: "[C]ommunity groups...do not defend 'local identity' as much as they create it. In other words, the moment of activism is more meaningful than the cause being defended."

Try getting together with some neighbors to form a Sister Neighborhood-esque relationship with a community group across town. Maybe next year you'll be planting a flower garden for your neighborhood's sweetheart in addition to buying a bouquet for your own. (Unless you live somewhere where it snows in February. Then you'll have to figure something else out).

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons. The original full-color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

Sister Cities International

Guerilla Gardening

Neighbors Project


City Year

The Moment of Activism (airoots)

Buy One House Get One Free (Springwise) (Not mentioned in the post, but a cool related idea)

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