Saturday, February 13, 2010

Strengthening and Greening My Community

I live in a really wonderful neighborhood. It's an interesting place, built in the 1960s, in part by my own grandparents. The idea was to create a community by essentially building a neighborhood set in the middle of a park. The houses were, at the time, luxury townhomes, 1500 or so square feet at the smallest and 2500 square feet or so at the largest. The neighborhood shares use of two pools, two tennis courts, a basketball court, a volleyball court, a playground, two duck ponds, several formal gardens and quite a lot of walking paths. It's a lovely place to live. It's in a tiny first-ring suburb (I can walk to Minneapolis from here) and convenient to everything and it's in a fabulous (and very tiny) school district.

A few weeks ago, on a particularly difficult day, my husband turned me out of the house and sent me to the coffee shop at the park, where I ran into an old friend and neighbor. We sat by the fire for about an hour with our organic herbal tea chatting about the neighborhood. There is so much potential here for both building community and reducing our environmental impact. Even as it is, the houses here use a lot less energy than the typical house in our area. My house, for example, is built into a hill. Two of my six floors are underground, insulated by the earth. Two sides of my house are insulated by my neighbor's heated spaces leaving only two sides of the top four levels exposed to the elements.

The homeowners association has taken steps in the last few years to reduce the number of chemicals it uses, opting for environmentally friendly products for salting the roads and making other similar changes. All organic materials collected by the groundskeepers; leaves, branches, grass clippings and such, are taken to the local compost site to be composted. Clotheslines are encouraged.

We do have some community events (the more we can do right here, the less we tend to drive) like our National Night Out (which routinely wins awards), our neighborhood book club and our monthly coffee hour, but when I talk to the neighbors I can hear them hungering for more. The wonderful things we already do feel like just the tip of the iceberg.

I've composed a list of ideas I plan to take to the board.

Community Builders:

-Create a neighborhood website, blog and facebook page. We could have a craigslist style section for classifieds where people could post things for sale, things they want to give away, services they have to offer. The blog could have announcements, an online version of the neighborhood newsletter (to save paper) and possibly minutes from the neighborhood meetings.

-Neighborhood wide participation in the National Wildlife Federations Great American Backyard Campout. We could pair with the park and have some outdoorsy activities like canoeing, nature programs and marshmallow roasting.

-A neighborhood prayer and meditation group. My friend, who is a spiritual director, came up with this one. We're planning to alternate meeting at people's houses, and in the summer in the gardens.

-A neighborhood exercise group. We could walk or swim in the summer and snow shoe or cross country ski in the winter. We could also possibly put together a yoga or pilates class outdoors in the summer or join the yoga class at the park.

-A group to bring meals to sick, injured or post-partum neighbors. It's always good when a community can pull together to help each other.

-Lobby the city to bring back the puppet wagon! The puppet wagon, which I know for a fact they still have in a neighboring community. The puppet wagon is a big truck with a puppet theater cut out of the side of it. It travels to various parks around the city putting on puppet shows for kids. When I was a kid Peter Krause (from Six Feet Under) was an actor for the puppet wagon. While it's doubtfull there's anyone of that caliber still working on the puppet wagon, it's still a classic good time.

-A chess club or card club

-A Mommy and Me coffee hour. There are lots of moms of small kids here. We need to get to know each other better. I'm envisioning us meeting at each others houses, outside or at the coffee shop at the park.

-A neighborhood garage sale.

-A Handmade Holidays craft boutique. This area is home to more crafters and artists than you can shake a stick at. It would be nice to have an easy way of supporting them.

-Potluck Christmas party at the park.

Green Initiatives

-There is a big lawn on the East side of the neighborhood I've been itching to turn into a community garden since I was about 6 years old.

-Lobby the city for more frequent recycling pick-up. Every other week is not cutting it, and I suspect people throw things away just so they don't have to find storage for all that recycling.

-Recycling bins at the pools and playground. Make it easy for people.

-Neighborhood composting of household organic materials.

-Negotiate with a CSA to provide drop off at the HOA office. If we got enough people together we could probably make it worth the stop. There is already a group of people who go in together to buy large boxes of sweet corn in the summer to split. Why not take it a step further?

-Apparently we already have a neighborhood book swap. I found this out the other day when I went to the office. I've lived here on and off for decades and I never knew that. I think it should be better publicized.

-Offer classes on weatherization and other simple techniques for greening our homes.

-Work with the architectural control comittee to come up with a list of improvements that can be made to houses for the purpose of making them more environmentally friendly that are deemed acceptable by Architectural Control. Things like skylights for passive solar lighting, solar panels, and passive solar greenhouses.

So that's my plan to launch this neighborhood into the 21st century. We'll see how it flies.


  1. What a fantastic place you live in! And your ideas are SO cool--a puppet wagon! Book swaps! Composting!

  2. Thanks! I am feeling really excited about all of the possibilities here!

  3. Stella, this is so awesome! I love your ideas for what 21st century living can and should be -- how exciting to see these opportunities and act on them! Where do you want to start?

  4. I'm thinking I'm going to start with the website. It really seems like it ties a whole bunch of the other ideas together and I found a website that hosts free neighborhood websites with almost exactly the template I was imagining in my head. I'm going to get it set up and then ask the board to put the link in the newsletter. I may make a little flyer too, and have the office distribute it.

    Once that's up and people are on it, setting up some of the groups will be an easy thing to do. The facebook thing would be easy to do also.

  5. Oh, and I found out that our house, even with our crappy front door that leaks energy like a seive and pops open all the time and our 40 year old windows, still spends about $1400 less a year than the average MN household for our energy bill. Can you imagine the savings when I get the door replaced and fix the insulation in the attic?

  6. You. ROCK!!

    This is awesome and so inspiring! Now you have me thinking of becoming more active in our HOA...... That could be dangerous. LOL

    Seriously though, I'll be joining you and we'll be doubling our efforts. Way to go!

  7. Excellent Valerie! I think it's an amazing thing when people can band together and improve their neighborhoods. I'm so excited to do this!

  8. Amranth asked me to post this for her as she is having trouble getting her comment to go through.

    Sounds like a great neighborhood and an inspiring set of new ideas too. Other things I can think of:
    *Twice a year children's clothing swap
    *Twice a year children's sports equipment swap
    *Maternity clothes pass along
    *Once a year children's toy swap
    *Children's toy library
    *Needlework group (weekly or monthly)
    *Seed exchange (January)--also teach seed saving
    *Plant/bulb/tuber/cutting exchange (spring and fall)
    *Neighborhood workshop on edible landscaping
    *Group to increase access to local food (edible landscaping, Kitchen gardens, container gardening, community gardens, CSA drop off point in neighborhood, weekly farmer's market in neighborhood, buying local bulk food cooperatively, etc)
    *Neighborhood cookbook or recipes on neighborhood website. Interview older residents in Slow Food style
    *Supper clubs (themed or not)
    *Potlucks with a seasonal focus
    *Neighborhood green projects such as solar panels--opportunity for group purchases or discounts if contractors can make fewer trips. (One neighborhood we lived in all got chimmney caps at once, saving the chimney guys from 100s of separate trips.)
    *Language learning and practice groups
    *Skills workshops such as bicycle tune up and repair, knitting, quilts, gardening, computer usage, soap making, candlemaking, beekeeping, grafting, plant propagation, backyard chickens, etc depending on the skills in your neighborhood

  9. Amaranth your ideas are just fabulous! I am copying and pasting them into a file!

    Just an uipdate, I have officially thrown my hat into the ring! Very exciting stuff!

  10. Stephanie, what a great post - fantastic ideas for strengthening your community. I can't wait to hear how it all goes!

    There is a great community building site I am sure you will be inspired by - Take a look at their fabulous resources page. I LOVE their list of "154 things I can do to build social capital in my community"

  11. Thanks for the link kiwimeg! I'm going to check that out right now.