Sustainability through Massive abundance.

Episode 23: Reinventing a Neighborhood

A step-by-step guide to making a neighborhood happier and healthier for its residents and the planet. With worked examples and a free downloadable checklist.

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Finding a place like Edenicity
Intro [music]
Early lessons in community
Green Acres, Bloomington, IN
Design Patterns
Pattern Language
The CAP formula
Close [music]

Finding a place like Edenicity

People are starting to write me with questions like "how can I turn my neighborhood into something a little bit more like Edenicity?" And that's a really good question because although there are some very green neighborhoods such as village homes, Davis, California that I mentioned back in Episode 3, they're still quite rare.

Now, I hope to change that as soon as possible, but it's prudent not to wait. If we want to move toward Edenicity, most of us must start to invent it where we live.

This has several advantages. First of all, it increases the social capital of our neighborhoods (as detailed in Episode 4), making them safer and healthier places to live. It also restores natural habitat, and lightens the load on the planet.

Now, there are some limitations that I have to warn you about right up front. First of all, practically every neighborhood you could live in today has legacy infrastructure that really doesn't serve us in the long run. I'm talking about cars, streets, roads, single family dwelling units. None of these are good for the planet, or people or economies for that matter. Also, when you try to green a neighborhood, there's a lot of resistance to change. That limits how much you can do.

So is it worth it? Well, yes, I've seen it happen over and over again. And even if you fall short of your goal, it's great to build a community that cares about you. Today, I'll walk you through my experiences making my neighborhood a greener village.

Intro [music]

Cities designed like modern Edens, for economic and ecological abundance. I'm Kev Polk your guide to Edenicity.

Welcome to Episode 23, where I'll discuss how to improve the Edenicity of your own neighborhood.

Early lessons in community

In this area, I count myself very fortunate. My first few years were in Lafayette Park, Detroit, which is a development of townhouses and apartment buildings surrounding a large public park and school. This was really easy living. As a child, you could visit friends and go to school and even go to two or three different stores without ever crossing a street. There were trees to climb. It was great.

We moved to Honolulu, Hawaii when I was still a child, and lived in a 29 storey apartment building. The roof had a pool and a large sundeck and that was the commons for the building. It was a great place to meet other kids from all over the world who were there on timeshares in some cases. And I got close to several other kids who lived in the building full time. Families with children got involved with managing that commons for regular events, such as Halloween parties.

It was a big community, there were about 300 apartments in the building. And in that big of a community, there was a little bit of weirdness, which was definitely not helped by the highly anonymizing interior layout of each floor, which basically dumped you out into a hallway with 18 doors and three elevator doors.

Later empirical work, as documented in Charles Montgomery's 2013 book Happy City, has shown that it would have been much better to cluster the apartments in sets of maybe four or five doorways so that there would be a little bit more chunking by zones of decreased intimacy as you leave your apartment and head out into the public sphere. So basically, what I'm saying is that the interior layout did not help us make as many friends as we could have. And this did lead to alienation and occasionally strange behavior: there was a guy who used to hide in the fire exits with rubber gloves and leap out and scare the kids.

Like I said, a little bit weird, but also very fun and exciting: lots of people, a rooftop commons, a built in social scene: it was great.

Now I lived in the dorms in college, and the dorms had lots of built in commons. We lived in suites of two rooms, two people each, with a small living room and a fireplace. There were bathrooms that I think were shared by up to 12 different suites. There were the large dining halls, which were actually called the Commons. It wasn't a wealthy life by any means, but it was a convivial life.

Now in graduate school, I lived in Seattle, and in my first year, I moved three times from one shared house to another and hated it. So eventually, I got together three other grad students from my department, and we fanned out by bicycle and scoured the city for a house we could share. Eventually, we found a lavish house with four bedrooms and a hot tub. That cost each of us $300 a month, plus maybe another $30 for utilities. I was making maybe $700 a month, nine months of the year. I got around by bicycle, and actually saved about $5,000 during my three years of grad school.

Now my experience in Seattle taught me that community does not just happen by itself.

When I returned from a summer internship, I found that my roommates were all at each other's throats. So I made a fancy dinner, sat them down, divided the weekly chores, instituted a cooking rotation, set expectations such as personal refrigerator zones and when to close the kitchen so the guy in the basement could sleep. We planned a weekly movie night and seasonal parties. And that did the trick. It was a relaxing, fun place to live for years.

Green Acres, Bloomington, IN

These early experiences really set the tone for my work years later in Bloomington, Indiana.

Now, if you want to green your neighborhood, town or city, I've distilled the process that I'm about to lay out into a document that I call Greener Village Blueprint.

So anyway, in the mid 2000s, I was living in Bloomington, Indiana, and took my first permaculture design course. For my student project, I joined two other students to redesign a neighborhood of 400 houses next to the university. It was called Green Acres. My two projects partners Ann and Sylvia actually lived there.

Our process was simple: we mapped the neighborhood, interviewed residents, got a sense of what they liked and didn't like about the neighborhood, and drew up a plan to address their concerns.

Now, what they told us is actually pretty generic. These are problems that you'll run into in most neighborhoods, especially University neighborhoods. They complained about traffic, flooding, and noise and trash from the Indiana University students nearby.

And there was a general feeling of apathy. People really didn't want to get involved in any kind of neighborhood association or changing the neighborhood in any way.

Now my classmate Ann was recently widowed, and grief had left her temporarily prickly. She could only take so much social time. She was wondering, given these problems, whether she could even stay in that neighborhood. I mean, it became obvious that she would have to take the lead, and she just didn't feel like she had all that much energy for social interaction at the time. So when crafting our plan, one of the major areas of focus for us was how to leverage her energy and her efforts. Here's what we came up with.

First of all, the neighborhood had a lot of through traffic because it was right next to the university. People tended to cut right through the neighborhood, which was never designed to take that kind of heavy traffic. So our plan included neighborhood signage that would help to define the place. We also were looking for ways to exclude the traffic, perhaps even have no interior traffic and move parking to the periphery with a car share club, or at the very least put in traffic calming, such as speed humps, and roundabouts.

For the flooding problem, we decided to implement rain gardens that would buffer the storm water upstream of where it would flood in the intersections.

We put a lot of time into thinking about building a neighborhood commons, which would include, among other things, a neighborhood garden.

For all the noise and damage that the students caused, there was the permaculture concept that "the problem is the solution." So the question we asked ourselves was: "how can we harness student energy via partnerships with Indiana University?"

To me, this really seemed to be key, because if we could rebrand the neighborhood as a sustainable neighborhood, students interested in sustainability would gravitate to the neighborhood as renters, and some might even stay after graduation to become permanent residents. And so this would displace destructive elements that would otherwise be there.

We also added a lot of pie in the sky concepts such as windmills and a common house and solar roofs. There's a list of 36 ideas at the site. The amazing thing is we actually ended up achieving 18 out of those 36 ideas. Not bad! Anyway, over the next two years, Ann and Sylvia and a few allies that they had developed in the neighborhood relaunched the Neighborhood Association and started holding meetings with the city to rewrite the Neighborhood Plan.

During this time, I moved in and discovered that the neighborhood was filled with hidden compost heaps and greenhouses and other somewhat green activities. So this was actually already culturally a very green neighborhood among the permanent residents. But again, the Neighborhood Association meetings were a little bit dull, there was little engagement. So we went back to our course material from permaculture to see what tools were available to leverage our efforts and get people engaged.

Design Patterns

This is where design patterns came to our rescue. What's a design pattern? A design pattern is an arrangement that solves a problem occurring in many different contexts. These were made popular by Christopher Alexander's two books, A Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language.

Here's an example problem to illustrate how this works: Imagine that you need something to cook soup. That's your problem. The pattern that solves this is a big, deep pot.

In the case of the Green Acres neighborhood, our first problem was how do you get people involved? We had pored over Alexander's book and found a set of patterns to address this. Now it was time to put them into action.

The first pattern we found was public-private space. In other words, expand the commons, which I talked about in detail in Episode 21.

The specific pattern that Ann chose was called the Pocket Park. Basically what she did was put a bench out in front of her house—right there next to the street. There was no sidewalk, just her lawn, a bench with a pleasing little tree planting, and then the street.

There were no benches in the neighborhood until Ann installed one in front of her house. People told her: "you'll just attract bums and druggies!" Well, instead, it attracted elderly strollers, parents and children, dog walkers and students. When they came and rested on her bench, Ann came out with lemonade or coffee, depending on the time of day and season, and met with them all.

The conversation began.

Pattern Language

In his books, Christopher Alexander talks about how you can have interrelated design patterns that address clusters of problems that occur together. This is called a pattern language. An example of a kitchen pattern language might be a variety of pots and pans, special purpose utensils, large and small burners, an oven, a work counter, a cupboard, a pantry and so on.

In the case of the Green Acres neighborhood, the next problem that we were trying to solve is that Ann bought the double lot next to her house as a rental property, and she wanted to turn the corner lawn between the two houses into an expanded commons of some sort. Unfortunately, the corner lawn was a mess: students cut through it, leaving ruts and trash, and it had a slow draining mud puddle that attracted mosquitoes. We needed patterns to harness and redirect the flows of water and human energy on that property. And so our Pattern Language for that site was a neighborhood garden with sheet mulch (which is a permaculture technique), contour plantings (another permaculture technique), keyhole beds, a pond fed by rainwater caught from the roofs of the two houses, filtered through what's called a reed bed filter, which is a pebbly bed with plants that have a large root networks that filter the incoming water.

Now, how did this all come together? And how did it engage people? Well Ann started with the water. She hired one of our permaculture instructors with machine experience to dig a pit. We lined it with thin plastic film between swaths of old carpet. We broke up her driveway with sledgehammers in a neighborhood workday. This had the effect of increasing infiltration and reducing surface runoff from her property, thus reducing the flooding problem downhill of her property.

We took the rubble from the demolition project and used that to hold down the plastic liner and the carpeting around the edges of the pond. The water from two roofs passed through a reed bed filter with hostas, mini cat tails, and cannas into the pond. In the garden area, we laid out sheet mulch on contour.

Sheet mulch, where you layer straw, compost and other materials that break down and become soil over a weed suppressing layer of newspaper or cardboard is a very common permaculture technique that builds soil and suppresses weeds.

Planting on contour slowed and held the water and nutrients in the soil, reducing the need for irrigation and for fertilization. In these beds, we installed key holes which provide maximum access with minimum area devoted to paths. All of these are classic permaculture patterns taught in any decent permaculture course.

When it came time to plant the pond, people came out of the woodwork with all sorts of pond plants. I drove out to the country myself to dig plants out of a friend's pond. The pond plants provided aeration, fish and amphibian habitat. Now this is important because, according to a Purdue Extension study, healthy ponds, meaning ponds with amphibians and fish, can cut mosquito populations by 90% or more. And they did. The aeration from the plants in the pond was so good that when Ann accidentally flooded the pond with a garden hose, the fish seemed to die, but revived within 10 minutes after shutting off the hose.

The CAP formula

But this was just one third of what made our work there a success. I've distilled my methods down to a simple formula: CAP—Commons, Activities and Partnerships. That's the core of the Greener Village Blueprint, which you can download free.


So let's look at the first of those three parts of the CAP formula, the Commons. In the case of Green Acres, mission accomplished! Now we had a bench, a neighborhood garden and a pond. These were public-private spaces that brought people together, young and old.

Now we also campaigned for a roundabout in the busiest intersection, where young mothers complained of many near misses with speeding cars. These were interior streets inside a residential neighborhood. They were never designed for high speed, high volume commuting. The intersection also flooded frequently. So we wondered if the roundabout could be built with an integral rain garden. Imagine what that would look like: a low maintenance traffic calming feature filled with flowers.

We met with the city engineer and guess what? She had already designed it! She showed us drawings and they were perfect. Combined with rain gardens in the green strips along the cross streets, the new drainage design could even avert a much more expensive drain and mechanical pump that was planned near the intersection.

So we were good to go, right? Not! A few elderly members of the Neighborhood Association complained loudly that they couldn't learn new ways of driving, and roundabouts were dangerous. Now, Episode Five of this podcast debunks that thoroughly with data. Nevertheless, they dug in and resisted. So the initiative died. The expensive mechanical drain was scheduled, and mothers still fear for their children's lives there to this day.

Now, in Episode Five, I mentioned that design does not compromise, but redesign in an existing neighborhood is inherently political and politics is all about compromise. Of course, it would be better with new construction as in Edenicity. But does that mean we shouldn't have bothered in Green Acres? Not at all. We lost one important battle out of many and still built a much better neighborhood.


Our next component is Activities. The key to these is to make them frequent, fun and useful. We had weekly potlucks and gardening days, monthly workshops (mostly about gardening topics) and annual events, including children's parades, an ice cream social, a plant share, and cleanup days. Many of the celebrations featured produce from the neighborhood garden. And there were lots of surprises as that garden matured, including morel mushrooms, which established there spontaneously. Students and old timers who were there more than 50 years before, found time for each other, for the land and for dreaming together.


The final component was Partnerships. And these were important for a very subtle reason. You see at first, our Neighborhood Association meetings were kind of a bummer because people liked to spend a lot of time complaining about noise and trash and other mundanities rather than planning the big and wonderful things that we could do together that would—oh, by the way—also solve the noise and trash problems.

What we were missing was energy: outside energy. And the way to get it was not to just go and find people to come in and talk to us on occasion, but to build ongoing partnerships that would bring people into the neighborhood on a renewing basis.

One such source of energy was already built into our relationship with the city. There were representatives from the city who would come by and alert us to the grant programs. So we wrote and received grants for things like cleanup days, putting signage and landscaping into the neighborhood that would really start to define our sense of place, and also expanding our commons with things like a shared tool shed. I ended up writing grant proposals for all of these.

Our second partnership was reaching out to the university that was right adjacent to our neighborhood. I remember phoning the Indiana University Service Learning Office and the School of Public and Environmental Affairs in the middle of winter and scheduling meetings. When I walked into their offices, they always hit me with a question like, "um... why are you here? I mean, what are you trying to accomplish here? You're just a neighborhood. What does that have to do with anything that we're trying to do here in academia?" Well, I persisted and had to make the case over and over again, that as a school of Environmental Affairs, they had an opportunity to restore the natural environments, and the social commons of a neighborhood right next door, and so we could function as a laboratory for their programs.

Gradually, they warmed to the idea and eventually this did indeed lead to an ongoing relationship that led to such things as tree plantings in the neighborhood by the SPEA students (the School of Public and Environmental Affairs students) and the building of permanent composting facilities for the neighborhood garden, and other projects. So that turned into a big, ongoing success.


Let's look at the results of these efforts more than a decade later. First of all, the neighborhood did attract environmental studies students as renters. And some service learning students did move to the neighborhood after graduating if they ended up having a job in town. The community grew and the garden grew. It was a wonderful hangout, and we had such a high frequency of programming there that it was really easy to get to know your neighbors in a very deep way that very few Americans get to today.

We also enjoyed green branding among the neighborhoods. This allowed us to recruit sustainability minded student renters and residents.


Along the way, of course, there were some setbacks. There was the resistance to roundabouts that I mentioned earlier. There were occupancy limits that remained on the books that you could have no more than three unrelated adults per house, with big fines like $10,000 a day, if you're found in violation of those rules. I think it's ironic that those of us who ran afoul of those rules did so in houses that had fewer cars than their neighbors, when these occupancy limits were justified mainly because people coveted their street parking places.

The other little setback for me personally was that though my ex and I bought a house there in mid 2007, we ended up leaving in 2010 and had to sell. Were we in for a surprise! More about that... next time!

Close [music]

If you enjoyed Episode 23, please be sure to subscribe so you don't miss a show. If you haven't already done so, please visit to download a copy of the reference design and the Greener Village Blueprint. And be sure to join me next time when I'll discuss the $14 million effect of our work in Green Acres, and some surprising trends in real estate. I'm Kev Polk and this has been Edenicity.


Edenicity 23: Reinventing a Neighborhood

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