What Builds Great Neighborhoods?

The-Great-Neighborhood-Book.jpgAs some of you may have heard, the NDDC is throwing a party this Thursday (October 23rd), 6 to 9 p.m. at the historic Grand Event Center in downtown Northfield. The event is free and open to the public.

Our special guest speaker is Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book. The book is a Do-It-Yourself guide to strengthening your community.

Several people have asked me to start, restart, or refresh (depending on their perspective) a discussion on Locally Grown. In his introduction, Jay suggests that “People who live in a particular locale are the experts on that place”. So let’s hear from the experts.

Walljasper’s chapters are:

1. Foster a sense of community

2. Create great places to hang out

3. Tame traffic and improve transportation

4. Assure safety and promote justice

5. Boost local economic vitality

6. Keep things clean and green

7. Nurture pleasure and pizzazz

8. Make your dreams a reality

Personally, I’m a big fan of prioritization and implementation. Which of these ideas do you think are the most important and how might we achieve these goals? Is there anything important that you think is missing? Finally, are some of these ideas particular opportunities or challenges for Northfield?

Thanks for sharing your expertise and See You Downtown (at the Grand, Thursday evening). See the poster (PDF) for more.

14 thoughts on “What Builds Great Neighborhoods?”

  1. We read this book for our book club and had an excellent discussion. One of our favorite ideas from the book was the simplest, it was smile, wave and greet everyone. We also thought that Northfield could use more benches for resting and visiting; and more outdoor destination places for walkers and bikers. I would like to see an outdoor chess/checkers destination. I highly recommend this book.

  2. Far and away, improving transportation is a critical issue for Northfield. I know, that is quite a statement. But I can asure you that of all the requests that WINGS gets or Healthy Community Iniciative receives is funding for transportation. What is in place is very expensive for those who need to use public transport, and even school classes who want to take a field trip have to come up with the money for school buses to transport the class to the location of the trip.

    There are a couple of ideas floating around – one is to create another not-for-profit organization that would cover liability, training and insurance costs of utilizing under-used vans and buses already residing within the city limits (church buses, Girl Scout vans, etc.) and would coordinate the use of these vehicles during down times. How often do you drive past the Girl Scout offices and see the two white vans parked in the back? I’m sure others can come up with great ideas.

    Another idea is to find a central location for services so people who needed public transportation could get everything done in one trip. As a child, I can remember the school being the central service location. Doctors came to the school for examionations. Polio vaccine was distributed at the school by dribbling the vaccine on sugar cubes – I remember standing in line for my vaccinations as well. And even dental exams were done at the schlool – we all had bright pinky-reddy lips and tongues from chewing those plaque revealing pills. Parents could opt out by sending notes with their children saying they did not wish to participate. I think it helped build a sense of community, as well. Remember?

  3. I think there is a big debate question in the offing as to the difference between what is good for a defined neighborhood, or in this case the Downtown.. I must admit, the Walljasper book, in my opinion, is most valuable as it relates to considering the Downtown a ‘neighborhood’ which is common to us all.

    But when you get to discussions of how the Wall St road annexation affects Northfield, the relevant issues are of two types: the impact specifically on the NESNA area(mostly transportation, inadequacy of 4th st., etc.) and the overall questions for the community, i.e. lack of need for more housing, annexing of good agricultural land, connectivity, etc.

    We must be careful of developing a ‘ghettoized’ series of priorities. The neighbors immediate to an area are going to be the ones who can genuinely raise the most extensive list of questions; the bigger, and MUCH more difficult issue, is defining the impact on the entire community.

    Carleton’s Arts Union is a prime example of this immediate, and general, differentiation of impact.

    If Northfield is the town it claims to be, then this is a discussion that it must be willing to have, without becoming nimby-istic or adversarial.

  4. How come no one’s picked up on the most immediate and exciting part of this?


    I’m really looking forward to hearing Jay Walljasper. He’s been a prominent voice in what might be called the “progressive community” movement (which is really about recovering what we used to have, but have pretty much lost in the past couple of generations).

    Let’s take advantage of the NDDC’s arranging to bring in a nationally-known speaker… This event is practically guaranteed to spark excellent face-to-face dialog, which I hope we can continue online here. The more, the merrier – please show up, meet some fellow Northfielders, and get energized.

  5. Griff criticized my approach to generating discussion on this topic as ineffective. I guess he was right. I’ll try again.

    Walljasper’s chapters are:

    1. Foster a sense of community

    2. Create great places to hang out

    3. Tame traffic and improve transportation

    4. Assure safety and promote justice

    5. Boost local economic vitality

    6. Keep things clean and green

    7. Nurture pleasure and pizzazz

    8. Make your dreams a reality

    Which of these ideas (represented by chapter titles) do you think are the most important and how might we achieve these goals?

    Is there anything important that you think is missing (from this list of chapters/ideas)?

    Finally, are some of these ideas (or chapters) that might be particular opportunities or challenges for Northfield?

  6. Ross, it’s not that your approach is wrong, it’s just that we’ve pretty much talked this subject to death. All these chapters are like discussions of Mom and apple pie — it’s hard to be against them.
    The problem is getting beyond the discussion to the delivery. Somebody actually has to get in the kitchen with Mom and make the pie.

  7. Anne –

    The NDDC has been baking away, no matter how hot it sometimes gets in this community’s kitchen, for almost ten years, ever since Jim Braucher, Keith Covey, Brett Reese and Bardwell Smith first put on their aprons and chef hats back in 1999.

    However, some cooks like to check the seasoning now and then, along the lines of “does it need more salt?”. A few cooks even strive for a process of on-going improvement and work to stay close to their most dedicated customers for much-valued feedback.

    The NDDC Board will be conducting their annual planning session next month; it’s a perfect time for stakeholder input.

    – Ross

  8. Ross, didn’t mean to be critical at all. In fact, I was going to mention how nice the riverfront project turned out and how that’s a great place to launch the discussion of what comes next. Perhaps if you posted the current recipe/plan/timeline, everyone could be more constructive and specific in their comments.
    Obviously, your piece of the pie is downtown, so perhaps more details on how the NDDC sharing civic resources in the next couple of years would steer the conversation as well.
    Best of luck in your efforts.

  9. Number 2 (create great hangouts) has to be the most important for when people get together in an unplanned, unsupervised manner to mingle and talk to each other it enables all kinds of ideas and initiatives to be generated, thereby subsuming above.

  10. Norman –

    Thanks. Clearly you’ve got a personal passion for creating great hang-outs. Back when NDDC Founder Bardwell Smith was still a Board Member, a number of us passed around Ray Oldenburg’s book “The Great Good Place”, which talks about those ‘third places”, beyond the first and second places of home and work, which, he argues, are essential for community vitality.

    It would seem to me that we take the next step and be clear about what actions are necessary to allow the creation of such places. I’m sure we could probably identify a thing or two relating to Ordinance Writing or Code Enforcement that would either help or hinder this creation.

    How about your second priority? Personally I believe that the NDDC can walk and chew gum at the same time. Challenge us!

    Anne –

    Of course you’re not being critical or accusing us of beating dead horses. It’s just that I am, personally, and, I believe that, the NDDC is, organizationally, committed to both listening to our stakeholders regarding our goals and on-going improvement in the implementation of our plans.

    As you know, the NDDC doesn’t claim credit for the enhancement of the Riverwalk between 4th and 5th Streets. It was a City of Northfield investment of TIF District residuals. The NDDC does have a representative (tagged-teamed by Joe Grundhoefer and Keith Covey) on the Mayor’s Streetscape Task Force, along with other representatives of downtown businesses and organizations. The Task Force gives input to our Elected Officials and City Staff on the spending of the Commercial Property Owner’s taxes (generated from within that particular downtown TIF District) on Streetscape spending.

    The NDDC’s annual priorities are posted on our website: http://nddc.org/weblog/post/960/. In anticipation of the Board’s work on our 2009 priorities next month, I hope that other stakeholders like Norman will offer their input.

    Thanks much,


  11. I agree with Norman.
    “4. Assure safety and promote justice” and
    “5. Boost local economic vitality”
    are basic functions of a civil society that need to be met, but don’t in and of themselves make a community – just a functional place to exist.

    “2. Create great places to hang out”
    Is what makes a community vibrant. The great thing about Northfield is that whichever restaurant/watering hole/park/library/used book store I go to, I’m fairly likely to run into someone interesting, and a conversation will ensue. That’s the real start of building a great community.

    But since this is the Nfld Downtown Dev Corp we’re talking about, I think the biggest shortcoming of our downtown is how it is cut off from the west side of town by Hwy 3. Any thoughts on how to make the west side of the river more vibrant and fully a part of “downtown” – and to reduce the physical separation between the west side of Northfield and downtown – would be most welcome.

    Personally, I think we should just institute our own Northfield “Big Dig,” and bury the railroad and Highways 3 and 19 underground. It worked for Boston, right?

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