The Commons

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

[work in progress]

What's in a block?

Why try to co-operify as much as a whole city block, and why not more than a block? Couldn't the collective incorporate a larger or a smaller domain? The answer is, of course, the collective can buy and rent out as much or as little as its membership chooses and can afford. There are good reasons to aim for one block, or one half or one quarter if it's a large block. For this discussion, a "block" is the interior lots of one cell in the street grid. Typically that's the area bounded by four streets intersecting each other at right angles, but of course it varies from place to place. The "block" doesn't cross the street, for reasons that will become clear.

The main reason not to go larger than one block is that governance will be too complex, with too many stakeholders for the average resident to feel able and interested to take part in decision making. Most city dwellers care about their neighborhoods, and some will even attend neighborhood council meetings, especially if there's a contentious issue. But an urban neighborhood is a big place, too big for most residents to take a very detailed interest in.

Thanks to density, even just an area of four blocks (much smaller than most official neighborhoods) could be home to over 500 people, and 16 businesses even with only a single business on each corner. That's more people than an average Facebook user has "friends," and the average person doesn't meaningfully interact with anywhere near that many people on a regular basis. To do so would be overwhelming to most. A single block, by contrast, will likely have closer to 50 households and a handful of businesses, which is much easier for most people to relate to. (Cohousing and other intentional communities movements have already learned this the hard way. There is no reason to re-learn it.)

On the other hand, there are reasons of perception as well as land-use logistics for trying to include the whole block, or at least one whole side or corner of it. Perceptually, a block feels like a natural unit. If there is a house with broken windows one block over, it has much less impact on a resident's or a potential buyer's perception than if that house were on our block. The reason is that the public domain, in the form of the street and its traffic, separates one block from another with a kind of wall. This separation also impacts land use, because those same streets enclose the area of contiguous private property.

Under collective ownership, literal and figurative fences between adjacent lots can be removed to create common goods, like gardens, play areas, greywater management, or an electrical microgrid. Homes can also be opened up to each other at what is conventionally the back, to make a (traffic-free!) shared space distinctly oriented to the immediate community rather than to the general public. This is only possible if the collectively-owned lots are contiguous, and it is easiest if the domain extends all the way to the (public) street rather than being surrounded by other (private) owners' properties.

It should be noted that the whole-block domain is an ideal and a goal, not a necessary condition for getting co-oprification started. What may be necessary is to have contiguous lots and a certain critical mass of them. What number is enough can only be discovered by trying.

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