You may get a glimpse of our future strolling the tree-lined streets of South Bend, Indiana, between the University of Notre Dame campus and downtown. That few people ever make that walk—too far, too slow, too dangerous—doesn’t diminish the importance of places like this in determining the fate of America and, perhaps, the earth.
These few blocks illuminate our hopes and fears, the problems we face and the solutions we seek. What happens in such neighborhoods over the next few years will decide whether or not we move in the direction of environmental sustainability, social harmony and economic stability.
Meandering down these streets you’ll come across big new dream homes, designed in turn-of-the-20th-century architectural splendor, sitting not far from 1970s prefab houses well on their way to becoming shambles. You’ll see a tidy old bungalow with a tree swing in a well-kept yard standing near an empty lot, where someone else’s dream home once stood. American flags and Blessed Virgin statues are sprinkled throughout the neighborhood in front of houses large and small.
Near the campus, blonde kids pilot tricycles along the sidewalk while their parents, coffee cups in hand, trail close behind. Closer to downtown, African-American teenage girls dance in the street, all smiles and agile footwork. There’s still a small store on Howard Street, presided over by an immigrant who sells much of what a household needs. On the East Bank Bike Trail, commuters in business suits whoosh by in one direction while joy-riders in spandex head the other way. People sit out on their front stoops throughout the area—some offering a friendly nod as you stroll past, others ignoring you with what feels like a note of wariness.
These streets, despite the troubles they’ve seen, offer us an opportunity to overcome such pressing problems as global warming, economic decline, energy upheavals, street crime, environmental destruction, housing affordability, racial polarization, family breakdown and social alienation.
Yeah, right, you might think. We’ve been tackling these issues for decades, and look where it’s got us. Little progress has been seen anywhere, especially the inner city.
But take a closer look. Things that would appear outlandishly optimistic in other places are everyday occurrences here. People leave their cars behind—along with CO2 emissions and congestion—to bike or walk to work. There’s racial diversity and a mix of incomes. Investment is flowing into the district, as witnessed by new houses the University constructed along Notre Dame Avenue and plans for a fresh-from-scratch business district on nearby Eddy Street, even though crime is still perceived as a problem by some.
One great asset of this part of town, and other older neighborhoods across America, is something as simple as sidewalks, which make it easier to break out of your private sphere by taking a walk and talking to neighbors. That’s an impossible dream in many new subdivisions.
The biggest reason this place is central to solving 21st-century challenges is that it remains a lively, intact neighborhood—which is the level of social organization most effective for fixing problems and pursuing opportunities. For a hundred years, however, we’ve been told that large problems need to be addressed with large-scale plans. And over and over, from Soviet bureaucracy to L.A. freeways to the Cabrini Green housing project, that notion has turned out to be spectacularly wrong.
The mounting crises today call for a shift in thinking. To engage people, long-term, in addressing the pressing issues of the day, they must see results where they live. Humans are by nature villagers—that’s how we lived for many centuries, and it’s the way most people still feel comfortable operating today. The neighborhood is simply the modern version of the village.
When people sit around a kitchen table with friends and neighbors to make improvements in their community, a kind of alchemy arises—their enthusiasm turns into something valuable. Drawing on local wisdom and shared personal bonds, they devise innovations no outside expert would ever conceive. And when they roll up their sleeves to put these ideas into action, results happen more quickly and smoothly than plans promoted by business, government or outside activists.
This is how you change the world, block by block, capitalizing on the brainstorms and hard work of people living in a particular place. Little improvements made in small corners throughout the world add up to something huge.
That’s why a growing number of social observers point to the neighborhood as a vastly underrated tool for human progress. Ron Sakal, co-director of the Center for Building Communities at the Notre Dame School of Architecture, says, “We believe that when you go in and repair what’s wrong in a neighborhood, make it a vital place again, that has a real influence on bigger issues like the environment and social justice.”
What’s particularly hopeful is that any neighborhood—wealthy or poor; newly built or long established; suburban, small town or city—has the potential to help change the world. All it takes is for people who care about that place, and about the broader threats facing us today, to put their heads together in search of solutions.
As Harry Boyte, a veteran of the civil rights movement and prominent author on community issues, notes, “In the 1960s, we thought the revolution was right around the corner. Now, we are coming to understand that it’s around every corner.”