12 Steps Toward a Better Neighborhood

by David Sloan Wilson

1) Create a Neighborhood Identity.
Name your neighborhood. Create and display a symbol for it. Design t-shirts, baseball caps, buttons, and decals, so that residents of the neighborhood feel like members of a team.

2) Develop an agenda.
Groups exist to get things done. The more you work together to achieve common goals, the more bonded you will become. Choose positive goals, such as creating a neighborhood park, in addition to solving problems such as reducing crime.

3) Meet face-to-face under pleasant circumstances.
The internet is great for many things, but there is no substitute for getting together in person. Mix work with play whenever possible. Meet in each other’s homes, quite cafes, or that park you are designing. Meeting under relaxed circumstances with people you trust to accomplish important objectives can be one of life’s greatest pleasures.

4) Be inclusive.
Ideally, a neighborhood group should include everyone in the neighborhood. If someone doesn’t want to participate, it should be their decision and not because they weren’t asked. Small steering committees might be necessary, but everyone should feel that they have an opportunity for input, as in a democracy.

5) Share the work and make it proportional to benefits. Too often, groups consist of a few people who do most of the work while the others enjoy the benefits. This is unsustainable over the long run. It’s only fair to share the work and to make sure that those who go above and beyond the call of duty are appropriately recognized and rewarded. Unfair inequality poisons cooperative efforts.

6) Make decisions by consensus or by another process regarded as fair by group members. Most people hate being bossed around but will work hard to implement their own decision. If consensus decision-making proves to be unwieldy, make sure that the decision-making process is transparent and faithfully represents the interest of the group. Even the potential of factionalism poisons cooperative efforts.

7) Monitor good behavior.
Research shows that in the best neighborhoods, neighbors not only like each other but can also enforce each other’s good conduct, which in turn requires monitoring. Monitoring need not be invasive; it’s just a matter of knowing whether we are keeping up our end of the bargain.

8) Graduated sanctions.
All of us fall out of step now and then, and a friendly good-natured reminder is sufficient to keep us in solid citizen mode. But stronger sanctions must be available for those who refuse to cooperate or actively exploit others. Not everyone is nice, much as we might wish otherwise, and nice people must be able to protect themselves. Develop the art of niceness with attitude.

9) Fast, fair, conflict resolution.
Most groups experience conflict now and then, which needs to be involved quickly and in a manner regarded as fair by all parties. A common best practice is for everyone to take turns serving on a judicial committee, like the jury system. There’s nothing like acting in the role of judge for making one behave responsibly the rest of the time!

10) Gain the authority to make your own decisions.
Your neighborhood won’t be able to pursue its agenda if it must ask permission every step along the way. Cities vary greatly in how much authority they grant local groups such as neighborhood associations. Try to get as much elbowroom as possible to accomplish your objectives. Nobody knows what’s good for your neighborhood better than the neighborhood itself.

11) Work with other groups, large and small.
Congratulations! After your neighborhood has become a well-organized group, you’ll find that you can interact with other groups more powerfully than before. Your city will take you more seriously. You’ll be able to work collectively with other neighborhoods. You’ll become a more important lobbying force at the state and federal levels. In short, your group will become a more effective member of society at a larger scale--like the cell of a multicellular organism.

12) Plan for the longevity of your group.
Your neighborhood group needs to last longer than any individual’s participation. Of course you want to make use of members with the most talent, skills, and initiative, but you must also plan for the day when they must leave or reduce their participation. Create offices with terms of service. The most dedicated people can serve multiple terms, but the mechanism will be in place for someone else to fill their shoes when the time comes.

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Voices on the Radio

is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University in New York.

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