Taking it to the Streets: A Case Study in Creating a Sense of Community in Neighborhoods

Ron L. Taylor, ASLA, Principal                                 Taylor Siefker Williams Design Group

Sometimes you just know it. You step into a situation and you sense that this place is different and that something truly remarkable is happening here. Sometimes, you just know it! Such was the case with me on a recent weekend as I attended a concert in the Irvington neighborhood.  There I was in the role of dad, friend, and family guy going out with my family for an evening of fun and before I knew what happened, I turned back into urban designer, planner, and amateur cartographer in the events unfolding around me.

First, a bit of context…Irvington is an established and historic neighborhood about five miles east of downtown Indianapolis.  It was developed in the late 1870s as an early country “suburb” of the City.  The neighborhood is laid out in the style of the romantic-era with its curved, narrow streets flowing out of a central traffic circle and a small neighborhood park at its center. Historically, Irvington was a place where artists, industrialists, politicians and other elite members of Society could find respite in the grand houses far from the inner city.  Today, it’s part of the city, more urban than suburban, and while it still attracts many artists, its stately old homes have become a draw for young families wanting a unique urban experience in which to raise a family.

We weren’t there by chance. A friend of ours from the neighborhood plays in a band and there was a neighborhood concert in the park.  As it turns out, on one Saturday each month during the summer, the neighborhood closes the traffic circle and neighbors gather for a concert in the park.  They bring out their lawn chairs, coolers, and food and sit with other residents in the park listening to music and catching up with each other.  The traffic circle is closed to traffic, and the neighborhood kids quickly take over the street circling again and again on their bikes, tricycles, big wheels, scooters, skateboards or whatever other mode of wheeled movement they happened to bring with them. For several hours, the kids play, the parents socialize and dance, and the band fills the air with music.

To them, this isn’t a big deal—it’s just something their neighborhood does.  But as I sat there watching the people gather and the band warm up, I couldn’t help but take in all of the things that were happening around me, amazed at the authenticity and inspired by the simplicity.  We spend time on all of our planning projects working with clients and residents to identify things that help make a community more vibrant and more livable.  We help educate residents on taking ownership of their neighborhoods and creating opportunities to bring residents together.  Many communities struggle to ever achieve that vision.

But here, in Irvington, on this particular Saturday night, it was happening all around me.  Suddenly, I was no longer the music fan, but a junior William Whyte charting the movement of people, noting resident’s behavioral responses to the event, and observing all of the subtle interactions that were in play.  It was a perfect case study on how neighbors could come together and create a lasting, beneficial, and authentic experience completely unique to the neighborhood.  Within this context, here are a few things I observed:

  • Neighbors coming together- This wasn’t some large, corporate-sponsored event. This was simply residents coming together, spending time getting to know one another, and having a fun evening. It was pulling up a lawn chair and talking with the neighbor down the street.  It was the local neighborhood association selling popcorn.  It was the local band playing in front of the home crowd. Long after the music ended, residents remained on their front porches or in their front yards continuing their conversations longer into the night.
  • Taking ownership- Too often, a neighborhood’s own infrastructure limits what the community can do with its space.  Not tonight!  This was residents planting a flag in the center of their territory and proclaiming that this was their space.  Tonight, this place would serve a different function than usual for the benefit of the neighborhood. Tonight, this place was the heart of the neighborhood. The traffic circle was turned into the ultimate race track with kids of all ages (including adults) riding around the circle with others in tow.  While at first I was skeptical of how safe it would be letting my kid ride in the street, once I saw how the roads were closed and saw that residents were respecting the closure, I couldn’t help but think how awesome it would be to be a kid and to ride that circuit!  And they did…round and round and round…all night long! It was a great example of the neighborhood asserting their ownership of their neighborhood and their streets.
  • Engaged community policing– There were two police officers in the crowd throughout the evening.  But they didn’t just stand at the barricades or take up station in the park.  They mingled.  They walked around, shook hands with people, and talked with residents—and not just for short moments.  They engaged.  They took time to meet people, to talk to people, and to get to know residents.  One of my favorite stories from the night was when a small boy wrecked his bike and was sitting in the middle of the street crying.  One of the officers approached him, checked out his scrapes, and then with a “come on little man, let’s go find your mom,” carried the small boy through the park until they found his parents.  The boy went from crying to laughing in just a few minutes and the officer then spent time conversing with the family about the young kid.  It was impressive—the officers truly engaged the neighborhood and took the time to get to know the residents.

Overall, what I saw was residents invested in their neighborhood—whether organizing the event, setting up the stage, riding the race track, playing the music, or just talking with other people, the residents of this neighborhood were obviously invested in their community and that, perhaps, makes it a great case study in promoting a sense of community in a neighborhood.

Sometimes you just stumble into something that makes you say “yeah, this neighborhood gets it!”  The Irvington Saturday Night Concert in the Park, an unknown event for me up until recently, provides a great case study for creating a sense of community in a neighborhood and provides lessons on what residents can do to foster that sense of community.  What other local examples are out there and what are the lessons that can be learned from them?


Non-Traditional Strategies for a Non-Traditional Economy: “Where are the Fresh Approaches?”

Ron L. Taylor, ASLA, Principal                                  Taylor Siefker Williams Design Group

Albert Einstein is credited with saying that the definition of insanity was “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Yet often we stay the course because conventional experience tells us that is the proven way.  But what happens when the apple cart is turned upside down?  What happens when we experience the worst economic conditions since the great depression?  And what happens when those traditional sources of solutions—whether they are ideas, funding, or other critical tools of our collective trades—are rendered obsolete by new and often frustrating conditions?  What are the non-traditional approaches to the new society?

Several years ago I conducted a strategic planning session.  We initiated a planning process that challenged everyone to look beyond their formal job expectations and define the passion that was the true root of their calling.  With that defined, we undertook a “fresh approaches” exercise where we challenged people to rethink how they did their jobs.  Were there new, creative ways to engage in their jobs that would re-energize them and speak to their professional passions? The responses we received from this exercise were across the board, from new approaches to the work week, to new methods of engaging with our communities. Each idea was presented in the form of a proposal, or rather a call to action.  In these proposals were the seeds of change that allowed a group of urban design and planning professionals to re-think and re-direct the larger strategies of our strategic plan.

When you look at the planning and design profession today, you quickly see that the practice is evolving at an accelerated pace—the context, in many cases, has rotated out of a traditional alignment. Many traditional funding sources are at risk.  Sources of some municipal revenue have been altered.  The traditional planning and design disciplines are becoming, quite frankly, quickly non-traditional.  So how do we adjust the practice to still provide communities the valuable services they need?  Is it big ideas that provide a major overhaul or the smaller ideas that help re-direct conventional thinking?

I am fascinated by the concept of a “little idea” that takes root and swells into something that simply cannot be smothered.  The Arab Spring revolution has been an extraordinary case study in this— watching a grass-roots movement swell and gain momentum to completely alter long-established governments to launch new standards of life.  Another example includes the recent “Occupy Wall Street” protests which began on Wall Street and have since gained traction in over 40 cities across the country.  Even the Tea Party movement, love it or hate it, is a good example of a small movement—a re-direction in thinking—that takes hold and becomes something more influential than ever imagined at its origin.  These “small ideas” illustrate the value and vibrancy of even the smallest thoughts.

So where are the next “fresh approaches?”  They are out there.  Some are underway.  Others are still ideas being worked out in someone’s mind who is aiming to make a change in their community.

One recent “fresh approach” is a group called Awesome Tampa Bay. The group is made up of 10 local “trustees of awesomeness” who have each donated $400 to the organization for community micro-grants.  The goal is to give out four $1,000 grants each year to community groups, entrepreneurs, or others to help get creative ideas off the ground.  While it might not seem like much money, the idea behind the micro-grants is to provide a funding source where none might currently exist.  T. Hampton Dohrman, one of the founders of Awesome Tampa Bay, told the Tampa Tribune, “It’s really a great, simple model. If there’s no money, it’s hard to make something happen. But $1,000 is enough to get something new off the ground. That’s what we are about.” (Tampa Tribune, September 21, 2011.  Full story can be found at:

http://www.tampabay.com/news/business/awesome-tampa-bay-to-fund-creativity-with-1000-micro-grants/1192585  ). Like other small ideas, this one began local dialogue and is growing.  Originally organized in Boston, the movement has spread with chapters now in several US cities and cities in Europe and Australia, with Tampa being one of the newest.

Does $1,000 really change the world?  In this non-traditional economy, it might just be the catalyst for the launch of the next Apple, the next major urban investment project, or as simple as the genesis of a new community campaign.  In any case, it does provide an idea that could very well spark something bigger than itself.

So where are the next “fresh approaches?” We are eager to hear your ideas.  To follow this conservation and others, like us on Facebook or email Ron Taylor at rtaylor@TSWDesignGroup.com .