Secrets of a Great Neighborhood Revealed

Margaret Dick TocknellNamed one of the American Planning Association's "Great Places in America," Riverside Avondale is home to Florida’s most diverse collection of architecture. Once threatened by commercial development, the neighborhood banded together to preserve its residential fabric. Image: Margaret Dick Tocknell/APA

OK. It’s not really complicated or a secret: Great neighbors make great neighborhoods.

For instance, my friend Lynne lives on a block where neighbors celebrate holidays, discuss books, cook meals, and even vacation together. On back-to-school day each autumn, someone always throws a grateful parents’ brunch.

Lynne lives in a great neighborhood.

On the other hand, I live two miles away on a block where neighbors are polite but standoffish. If we see a flashing ambulance light, we’re there for each other. If not, we keep our distance.

I live in a decent neighborhood — but it’s no fun.

Technically, great neighborhoods have access to mass transit, bike lanes, and sidewalks, says David Morley of the American Planning Association, which annually tracks down and designates Great Places in America

“But there are intangible qualities that go into a great neighborhood,” Morley says. “Maybe it isn’t about being a great place, but a great community.”

Morley’s on to something. Great neighbors pull together; they give up a little privacy in favor of connection.

Like Ramaesh Bhagirat’s neighbors in Anacostia’s Ward 7, a Washington, DC, neighborhood that nobody thinks is particularly great. But after Bhagirat’s Thai restaurant was robbed at gunpoint, 50 neighbors who didn’t much like chive dumplings flooded the place to show support. They wanted to keep open a rare sit-down restaurant in a ward of plexigass-protected takeout and delivery joints.

What’s more, on the second Tuesday of every month, 40 members of the neighborhood’s planning commission now convene at the restaurant for an $11-per-plate buffet.

“They don’t want us to move, to even think about moving,” Bhagirat says. “Now, we feel a responsibility to Anacostia. And we have a lot of people who like the food.”

Ward 7 may not become a great neighborhood in my lifetime, but it’s getting better.

Great neighborhoods are more about point of view than view. Residents see their houses as rooms in a larger home — their community, says Ross Chapin, a Washington state architect and author of Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World.

Chapin designs what he preaches. To foster connections, his homes feature street-facing porches with railings that have “comfortably perchable” extra-wide tops so neighbors can set a spell. The small “pocket neighborhoods” he designs feature 8 to 10 houses with kitchens and living rooms that look onto common areas.

Great places are messy with life and shared activity. For example, Chapin has friends who dragged their dining room table onto their front lawn so, in a sense, they could dine with neighbors each evening.

Want to raise your neighborhood a notch on the greatness scale? Chapin has a few suggestions:

  • Barbecue in the front yard, rather than the back, and throw more hot dogs on the grill when neighbors stop by.
  • Turn a vacant lot into a community garden, then share the harvest and dine together.
  • If you’ve got a front porch, sit on it. If you’ve got a sidewalk, walk on it.
  • On a hot day, set out a bowl of water for thirsty dogs: Pets are neighbors, too.

How does your neighborhood rate on a scale from 1 to 10 (the highest)? Tell us what makes it special.