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Citizen Toolkit

Projects That Bring People Together

Neighbors will join forces when they feel their community needs protecting.

By Charles Dobson 24 Dec 2003 | TheTyee.ca
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Fifth of a ten part series from The Troublemaker's Teaparty, A Manual for Effective Citizen Action.

Neighborhood projects introduce people to one another. They help to create a sense of social place, extending neighborhood beyond buildings and streets to the people who actually live there.

Projects that bring people together also provide a basis for daily congeniality; and for getting together to address local issues However, because these projects are brief and require no ongoing contact amongst participants, they do not contribute substantially to the social life of a community. This requires the kind of community building practices some of which will be outlined in the next segment of this series.

This column is about community protection projects. There are many other projects that help to bring people together: environmental projects, community art projects, and celebrations. For more on these projects see the web version of the Citizens Handbook.

What is meant by community protection projects? Some examples:

Block cleanups

A simple litter cleanup can provide an opportunity for everyone on a block to meet one another. In many small towns, one-day neighborhood cleanups involving adults, kids, and a variety of civic officials have become a recognized way of building community and instilling pride in place.

Cleanups aimed at removing major junk, like rotting mattresses, require partners and more planning. Local government will often supply trucks to haul away the products of large events; local businesses might contribute dumpster bins. Cleaning up your block can include graffiti removal, weeding, fence painting, and hedge trimming. It can also extend to helping those on your block who lack the strength or resources to maintain their own property.

Block Watch

One of the most formal community-building activities is a police-sponsored Block Watch program. Block Watch attempts to reduce crime by encouraging people to keep an eye on the street and their neighbors' property, and to report any suspicious activity to 911.

Typically a block is organized across the rear lane, since most forced entries into buildings occur from the rear. Each Block Watch has a captain and often a co-captain, who undergo a police security check and then receive an identification badge. Block captains usually set up an initial organizing meeting to introduce neighbors to one another. A volunteer draws up a map of the block with names and phone numbers, and supplies copies to the police and other members of the Watch. Police officers will attend the meeting, if requested, to talk about local policing issues and ways of securing your home.

In many cases, Block Watch leads to other block activities, from block cleanups and pet minding to plant swapping. When neighbors get together they find they have more in common than an interest in security.

Evaluations of Block Watch programs indicate they reduce crime when neighbors know one another. Cop-driven efforts with little resident involvement contribute little to security or a sense of community.

Community crime prevention

Taking part in community crime prevention is a way to meet your neighbors and help make your community a safer place to live. Organized citizen participation in crime prevention usually begins with the opening of a community crime prevention office where people can meet with one another and the police to address local concerns. The activities of an office staffed almost entirely by volunteers include meeting and talking with locals, running crime prevention programs, referring people to various agencies, sharing community information, conducting workshops, operating foot patrols, and organizing other local projects.

The premise behind community crime prevention is that police need to do more than react to incidents. They can be more effective if they spend time on public awareness, partnerships with citizens, and local problem solving. The most common problem with community crime prevention is too much police and not enough community.

Heritage home guard

Large numbers of heritage and other buildings have burned down because they have been left vacant. Homeless people and drug users move into empty buildings and set fires accidentally; delinquents or arsonists target empty buildings and set fires deliberately. Empty buildings are so vulnerable that insurance contracts usually include a clause that allows insurance companies to avoid paying on a claim if an owner fails to inform them when a building is vacated. Boarding up the building helps a little, but it identifies the building as empty; people only need to pry the boards off to get inside.

The best way to protect any building is to solicit the help of neighbors. Battery-powered trips and sensors can be wired to turn on battery-powered electric flares mounted in the widows on a side of the building observed by a neighbor. Flashing lights are the signal to call in the authorities. Trips or sensors can also be wired to switch on a wireless intercom, walkie-talkie, or baby monitor with a receiver in a neighbor's house. Alternatively, one can adapt many of the small, inexpensive, burglar alarm gizmos available at hardware stores. Simple technology coupled with monitoring by neighbors could save a lot of buildings and, in the process, introduce a lot of people to one another.

Urban Signaling

Crime and urban decay increase in neighborhoods that signal crime and urban decay have already begun to set in. A downward spiral begins as criminals and drug dealers move in and families and businesses move out. The opposite process happens when there are signals that residents care about the neighborhood. Well-kept yards, well-maintained buildings, and clean streets attract families and businesses, and the neighborhood gets a reputation for being a good place to live.

Urban signaling is an interesting phenomenon because it suggests that appearances trigger a process that converts inferences into reality. The appearance of only a few derelict buildings may do nothing more than hint at the onset of decline, but this hint can alter people's behavior, turning an isolated suggestion into a widespread fact. The consequence of small matters of appearance is so pronounced that community groups have learned it is wise to address "broken window syndrome" by quickly eliminating the signals of neglect.

Community groups can erase signals of decline as soon as they appear by forming partnerships with businesses, schools, and local government. They can fix broken windows, paint out graffiti, remove junk, and mow overgrown yards. In the process they will build community networks that make it easier to continue in the right direction as more people get involved.

In addition to removing signals of neglect, residents can add signals of caring. They can plant flowers in traffic circles and along back lanes.  They can also make colorful signs for the street. Residents of block-long Rose Street in Vancouver hand-painted "cat" signs that identify the street and ask motorists to slow down. Numerous signs saying "Slow down, Kids playing" also help to warn off street drug dealers, who suspect the neighborhood is full of hostile mothers.

Charles Dobson teaches creative problem solving at the Emily Carr Insitute of Art and Design in Vancouver and is author of The Troublemaker's Teaparty, A Manual for Effective Citizen Action, available from bookstores and New Society Publishers.  [Tyee]

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