AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Creating Community: Neighborliness

Copyright 2011 AXIS Performance Advisors

Creating Community:

Neighborliness as a sustainability strategy

By Darcy Hitchcock

(Note: a version of this article was published by the Beaumont-Wilshire Neighborhood Association in Portland, Oregon in their May-June 2011 issue.)

Where’s the leverage now?

Courtesy Salvatore Vuono,

Courtesy Salvatore Vuono,

Over the last decade, the world has made a lot of progress related to sustainability. At AXIS we decided to focus on organizations in part because of our organizational development expertise. But we also figured that business is the most powerful institution in our society now and organizations are responsible for most of our impacts, either through their own processes or the products and services they provide. So getting organizations on boards eemed like a powerful leverage point.

With virtually all the Fortune 100 companies issuing sustainability reports, Wal-Mart demanding sustainability of their suppliers,and cleantech as the largest area of venture capital, it seems we’ve reached the tipping point for business. In other sectors, the US may not have a climate policy, but the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement now has 1049 signatories and a similar commitment has been made by almost 700 universities and colleges.While many don’t know it yet, they are going to have to address sustainability eventually.

So what’s the next point of leverage? What do we need to affect next? I think it might be our prevailing worldview. If the public saw the world differently, they would not only change their behavior; they would push on their politicians to implement more sustainable policies.

But yikes, changing worldviews? That’s a tall order! Maybe focusing on building community would be a step in that direction.

The power of community

Many people bemoan the fact that the United States has lost a sense of community. The book Bowling Alone chronicled what we have lost in our frenetic lifestyles. According to the author, communities with high social capital experience the following benefits:

  • They resolve collective problems more easily
  • They advance more smoothly and at a lower cost because of trusting relationships
  • They have increased tolerance because there is an increased awareness of linked fates
  • They have strong conduits for information exchange
  • They experience improved well-being (illness, recovery from traumas, etc.)
  • They have less violent crime
  • They have more effective government and politics
  • They experience more economic equality (which according to The Spirit Level, is tied to many other social benefits)

Who wouldn’t want this? Unfortunately much of our society is going in the opposite direction. But it’s not that hard to create a strong sense of community again. It just takes someone like you to get it started.

How my neighborhood became a community

When my husband and I moved into Portland, few people on our street knew one another. I was disappointed because we moved to the city in part to have closer relationships. We had just recovered from a disaster that led us to realize that we didn’t have a strong enough support network. I talked to some of the people on the street and most just shrugged. “People are busy,” or “They have friends elsewhere” were common refrains. But I knew from personal experience that knowing you can count on your neighbors is important.

It took me about a year to summon the courage to do something about this. Fortunately there were inklings that some on the block might share my desire; one family regularly hung out a flag on Friday nights in the summer to indicate a BYOB happy hour in their backyard. But I didn’t feel comfortable barging into their backyard without an express invitation. Perhaps some others felt the same way.

I decided to host a sustainability-related discussion course.It didn’t matter to me what the specific topic was; I just wanted to lock some neighbors in a room long enough for them to discover they liked one another and had a lot in common. Roughly eight households along our 5-block street agreed to participate. The course, as I recall, spanned 6 weeks with weekly discussions, hosted by a different member each time. One powerful practice was to start each meeting with an opening and offering. The opening was a short reading to get us all centered. That set the tone. Then someone shared an offering, something personal-an artifact of some type-explaining its significance. This was a great way to get to know people on a deeper level.

At the last class, the neighbors who participated all said this was so great, that we should keep meeting. It evolved into regular potlucks, which continue to this day. We laugh and eat good food; the kids know the neighbors by name so if they were ever in trouble, they would feel safe coming to our front doors to ask for help. Trust has built up such that many of us have keys to each others’ houses.

And when we have had a neighbor in need, we have rallied to help. One of our older neighbors got a compression fracture that might have landed her in a rehab facility; but instead, for a month until her kids could come help, one neighbor took her to the doctor, another got groceries, I cleaned the cat box. We have also come together to respond to a house fire, an act of vandalism, and noisy renters. We’ve experienced a stroke, a natural death and a suicide. Our email list makes it easy to organize a response to any problem. And when our old dog died, I got so many lovely cards and emails.

As I listed these crises over the past 11 years, both big and small, I wondered if perhaps I lived on a soap-opera street. I suspect instead that all neighborhoods have similar catastrophes. It’s just you don’t know about them.If I don’t know you, I can’t care…or help.

Even people who don’t live in our neighborhood seem to know what we have built. One day a group of us were chatting on the sidewalk and a woman drove up, rolled down her window and said, “I understand everyone knows everyone on Failing Street. I’m looking for Emma who baby-sits. Do you know which house is hers?” Of course we did.

For years, people thanked me for getting this started (the same people who didn’t seem bothered by the lack of community before). But I did it for me! I wanted to live in a lively and caring neighborhood where itcan take an hour to get from one end of the street to the other because of all the conversations that spring up.

Tips for creating community

If you are hungry for a stronger and more supportive community, you can easily make it happen. It just takes one person to get it started. Here are some tips I’ve discovered:

Define the natural neighborhood: What many cities call neighborhoods are really just cities within cities. I am not going to feel an affinity with a thousand households.You need to do this on a human scale, something no larger than roughly 40-50households or 150 people. Regardless of where the political boundaries are,think about what you and others probably consider as part of your neighborhood.It’s likely to be on one side of a busy street, not on both sides. There may be a hub like a park or business district or school. In our case, it’s a street with no cross streets for 5 blocks, a busy road on one end and a cemetery onthe other. That’s our neighborhood.

Build relationships: The catalyst needs to be more than a one-off event and it can’t be an open-ended commitment; you need something in the middle. A core group needs to get to know one another in more than just name. That’s why the discussion group format is so effective. Don’t just get together to chat. Include some team building exercise to take the conversation and relationships to a deeper level. Meet frequently enough to build those relationships. The once-a-year block parties will never suffice. Plan a set of 5-8 meetings; that’s enough for people to start to feel comfortable but not a huge commitment of time.

Pitch a big tent: With your initial events, you want the framing issue to be broad enough for many people to feel a connection. Sustainability with its triple bottom line is great for that; practically everyone has a ‘beef’ about some social, economic or environmental issue. Then explore how these are interconnected. Or perhaps there is an issue everyone in the neighborhood is concerned about (e.g., rising crime, closing a school). Find something that will bring together a starter group in the neighborhood. As I indicated before, discussion courses are great.You can check out the Northwest Earth Institute classes (; or if reading fiction sounds like more fun, check out the novella and discussion course I wrote about sustainability called Dragonfly’s Question: Principles for the Good Life after the Crash( I might even help kick off your Dragonfly Discussion Circle.

Find the core: In any neighborhood, there are people who are going to be actively involved, some who never come to anything and many in-between. Don’t expect everyone to be gungho. Find people who care about building community and ask them to do something,however small, to make them feel like this is their effort as much as yours.Maybe you rotate where the meetings are held. Maybe each person brings some food to share. Maybe one person keeps the neighbor list and someone else schedules the get-togethers.

Develop strategies to rope in the rest: You need to make it feel safe for people to show up to the events.We’ve found if we hold the parties in the front yard, more people come than ift hey are in the backyard. Some of our hosts hand out fliers that act as personal invitations. Ask people to invite their next-door neighbor to come with them the first time.

How communities support sustainability

Building community should not only make your neighborhood more fun. It should yield many sustainability benefits. Some communities share tools; carpools can be set up; people might take turns shopping at Costco for everyone; share baby sitters. And you might just discover that there are community improvement projects to work on together, for example, putting solar panels on the school and sharing the power or creating a community garden on a vacant lot.

How might building community help change our worldview? The US culture has long been about independence. As we rebuild community, we will rediscover our interdependence. United, we stand. Prejudice evaporates in the warmth of connection. Having deeper conversations may help us take responsibility for our own concerns and do something about them. And the connections can help us organize, become citizens again instead of just consumers. Choose a sustainability-related discussion course and you will help educate people in your community about the concepts. And as people feel more
secure and loved, they may be less dependent upon consumerism to fill the hole in their hearts.

I’ve found it just takes one person to get this started. Maybe you!


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