The Neighborhood is the Unit of Change

The scale at which we choose to work makes all the difference. (Estimated Reading time: 4.5 minutes) *

Drawing of a Neighborhood Map with Arrows

During a recent ride on my local Metro bus, I noticed an advertisement encouraging me to “Get Involved!”

“Take The Survey Today!” it beseeched.

Apparently, our County Floodplain Management Agency urgently needed my input.

I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone from my city neighborhood would feel motivated to participate in something so abstract and removed as county-wide flood plain management.

Yeah, sure, I get it. Climate change and flooding is an important issue.

But I carry a somewhat cynical — or perhaps realistic — view of people’s attention spans and how they choose to spend their free time.

In my experience, folks are busy, overwhelmed, and largely motivated by self interest.

Which is why we need to pay special attention to the scale at which we conduct our work and seek solutions, especially with community engagement.

Let’s step back.

For most of our hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary history, our survival depended upon our intimacy with the people and places around us. We organized ourselves into groups of a certain sizes, and developed cultural and psychological mechanisms to determine who’s “in” and who’s “out” of our groups.

When we stopped huntering and gathering to settle down in town and cities, we kept this evolutionary hard-wiring. Our societies organized around place-based communities of a scale driven by the mental predispositions of our hunter-gatherer predecessors. Our social institutions and built environments followed suit.

These are our neighborhoods.

The “neighborhood” might seem like a quaint idea to some. But that speaks to how accustomed we’ve become to the radical changes to our social structure over the past few decades.

The neighborhood used to be an important center for American social life. But due to a constellation of forces, we’ve moved from a place-based society organized around neighborhoods to a networked-society of individualized interests.

This change has had significant — largely negative — consequences for our social and civic health.

A path towards a better future, or at least one that solicits people’s attention and involvement, lies in leveraging the neural tracks already well worn for the scale of our neighborhoods.

A path towards a better future lies in leveraging the neural tracks already well worn for the scale of our neighborhoods.

The neighborhood-scale is one that we can grasp and relate to. It’s not as big and abstract as our nation, state, or county floodplain. But it’s not as intimate as our family. We can feel ownership, group identity, and pride in our neighborhoods.

It’s also the scale where we are most motivated to feel agency and take action. We perceive things in our neighborhood as impacting us directly and within our collective control. Input into a new neighborhood playground? Sign me up! Long-range county-wide floodplain management? Not so much.

The neighborhood-scale is also where we can form deep and meaningful relationships with people and Place. It is where we can feel belonging or place-rootedness, an essential and often overlooked component of well-being.

As we grapple with epidemics of loneliness and disconnection, it’s as important as ever to leverage our work for such place-based social connection and belonging.

Perhaps most importantly, the neighborhood is where we can find common ground with people who differ from us.

The wonderful opportunity embodied in our neighborhoods is that there are so many people who are different residing so close together. At the neighborhood-scale we can see people as individuals and with a common interest.

It’s where we can build up that muscle memory for interacting with the diversity of the human diaspora. This is the foundational building block of a tolerant and inclusive democracy.

The neighborhood where we can build up that muscle memory for interacting with the diversity of the human diaspora

So, how do you define a neighborhood?

It’s not so easy. Multiple social and geographic factors are at play.

Yet look around and you’ll see a remarkable consistency in the pattern of our neighborhoods.

For example, the New York Times recently publish an interactive map of how people self-identify their New York City neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are surprisingly similar in scale, considering that no one intentionally sat down and drew their boundaries. I wager the same is true for cities across the world.

I didn’t have time to research it, but I’m sure some smart people have identified a formula for defining patterns of neighborhood boundaries. It probably involves some multipliers for population density, dominant transportation choice, and the presence of civic institutions like shopping districts or churches. Anyone want to point me in the right direction?

Regardless, when working with communities the key is to invest and operate at the neighborhood level.

We shouldn’t be afraid to emphasize clear distinct neighborhood boundaries and activate neighborhood identities.

If we are asking questions at a larger scale, we should seek ways to break down our messaging and engagement work to the level of our neighborhoods.

And if we are looking to restitch our social fabric, this is where we start.

The neighborhood is the unit of change.

*the title of this piece is taken from an identically titled 2018 New York Times article by David Brooks.