What makes a neighborhood or a community? It's more than a collection of houses planted side by side on a street. It's a place where people connect with each other.
Residents know who's who and recognize familiar faces. They embrace their commonalities and appreciate their diversities. They share events of the day, celebrations and sorrows. Whether they form close friendships or remain casual acquaintances, they are bonded with each other.
Historically, town streets were one or two lanes wide and laid out on a grid. There were frequent cross streets and paths providing access to anywhere one needed to go, whether by foot, bicycle or horseback, carriage or car.
Our local, historic downtowns are good examples of that scale. Houses were built with large front porches. Garages or stables were located in the back of a lot or off of an alley. Kids played together in the front yards or in a nearby field.
Over the years, the automobile has taken priority over people. Our lives are busier and our work often takes us further from home. Kids play their games at regional sports fields. We enter and leave through attached garages instead of front doors.
We may go days or weeks without even seeing our next-door neighbors. Front yards have gone from the family room of the yard to the decorative, unused living room.
No one is suggesting that we rebuild our existing neighborhoods -- not at all! But we can plan better in the future to encourage the community interaction that creates and feeds the souls of our towns.
We can bring back the front porches and narrower streets that encourage connections among families. While residential lots grow smaller we need to remember to incorporate pocket parks in new developments so parents and kids can gather to play close to home.
As we plan for the future of our region, we are striving to preserve our valuable agricultural lands, parks and open spaces. While our existing neighborhoods will not change, we will build more densely near transportation hubs and employment centers.
We must include green spaces for activities and peaceful reflection. We must have easy access to daily services with sidewalks and trails as well as well-planned streets, parking and transit access.
While the physical environment is important, it's the people who build communities. Those centers must also reflect the human, family scale and provide abundant opportunities for interaction and community building. Whether in a long-established subdivision or a planned new development, it takes initiative to build a real community.
School, church activities, Scouting, youth sports, service groups and local events bring people together where they have an interest in common.
Indeed, in Clayton, our local Fourth of July parade on Main Street, Art & Wine Festival, Okoberfest and summer Concerts in The Grove are sources of civic pride and citywide community.
Bringing that sense of connection to a neighborhood with people of different ages, occupations, schedules and interests requires motivation and enterprise.
Neighborhood groups can meet in groups to walk together, meet in a driveway for block parties or barbecues. National Night Out gets our neighborhood together in August to exchange contact information and talk about Neighborhood Watch.
Next week is our annual pumpkin carving party. Families gather in a driveway or yard, bringing their pumpkins to carve and a dish to share. Creative juices flow and jack-o'-lanterns emerge to shine in a group photo after dark. Every year produces the best ones ever!
Everyone comments on how the kids have grown since last year, who's in what class at school, how work is going, who needs help in the neighborhood and how can we all help. It's only a few hours, but everyone leaves feeling closer and more connected.
We gather again at someone else's house in mid-December for the holiday cookie decorating contest, where everyone competes (in three age categories) for the coveted championships. The only prize is bragging rights for the next year, but it's a lot of fun.
In spring, the Easter egg hunt is another group activity and of course, there are smaller get-togethers throughout the year. Traditions like these build community.
As we plan for the future of our region, we need to remember that communities are built on human interaction and networking, not just proximity.
Whether filling in the vacant lots in existing traditional single-family neighborhoods or planning much higher density homes near BART and offices, we need parks, trails and neighborhood meeting places that support the building of real, healthy communities.
Pierce is the mayor of Clayton. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.