12 Nifty Ideas to Improve Your City

Since our launch in October, Shareable.net has published lots of nifty DIY ideas for making cities more sociable, resilient, and sustainable. Here are twelve of my personal favorites, ranging in scale from the simplest and most personal to the most complicated and collective:

1. Start a Sock Exchange (or a Barter Wall): My wife walked into a laundromat seeking coins for a dollar, and there she discovered the "sock exchange." It's obvious, isn't it? And not terribly world-shaking, I suppose. Yet I think gestures like the sock exchange make city living more fun, and they suggest another way to live, where resources (like socks!) are conserved and shared. Perhaps you're not in a position to facilitate the sharing of socks, but the same idea can be applied in different, creative ways: In Eugene, Oregon, Omer and Dave Orian put up a board in their restaurant to facilitate barter among customers. That's something anyone can do.

2. Plant a Habitat Garden: When friends went to the city and asked if we could plant a habitat garden (which exists to support wildlife) in our neighborhood playground, the park and recreation department said "yes," and even provided tons of support. Now, of course, we have to maintain the garden -- and that's a good thing. When my friend Karen took her son Argus to check on the plot, "he pointed out what he planted, and his friend Ezra planted," says Karen. "Then he pointed to a bunch of other plants to find out who planted what. I felt like he had a sense of pride that he and his friends could make something grow." What a gift! And here's how you can do it yourself.

3. Share Your Car: In the context of this website, "share your car" does not qualify as a nifty idea; here at Shareable.net, that's a commonplace one, and a no-brainer.  But I mean something really specific: If you must own a car -- most people feel like they do -- please do use it in a way that reduces the number of other cars on the road. My neighbor and friend Noah has three cars, and he loves them all. My family has no car, but we feel pressure to give in and get one. Noah knows that he probably shouldn't drive so much, but he hasn't yet reached a place where he's willing to give up a car or two. Instead, he makes it a point to give us rides when we absolutely need one, as a way of supporting our carfree lifestyle and reducing the pressure we feel to buy one. Noah's not unique; I know lots of people who intentionally share their cars. That helps carfree people like us out, but it also helps the environment and helps tie our little community together. (Hey, want to organize a carfree day on your entire street? Sara Stout tells you how.)

4. Start a Stranger Exchange: "John Wilson stopped in Chicago during a road trip from Boston. He was walking by Wicker Park when he noticed a 'totally anonymous and unsupervised' local drop box where you could leave or take unwanted books and DVD’s," writes Rachel Botsman. He wondered: Would something similar work in his city, Cambridge, MA? Wilson and friends launched the Stranger Exchange, which has been a huge success. “There is this unexpected curiosity and respect for something like this,” says Wilson. “I am not sure where it comes from. Perhaps people value things made with care and honor systems built on trust?” Why not start a Stranger Exchange in your town, and see what happens?

5. Share Your Yard: "Yard-sharing has many benefits, from access to fresh food to stronger neighborhood connections to environmental sustainability," writes Janelle Orsi. "But there are also potential pitfalls to sharing a garden, which you can avoid by discussing them early on with your neighbor." Janelle walks the reader through all the steps to yard-sharing, from setting expectations to overcoming rules forbidding gardens in front yards. "After all, such rules are archaic and predate our society’s growing awareness of problems such as farmland depletion," writes Janelle. "People everywhere have decided to grow food, not lawns!"

6. Turn Your Cornerstore into a CSA Pick-Up Point: When a University of San Francisco professor assigned her students to increase the sustainability of a corner store in the city's diverse, low-income Western Addition neighborhood, they came up with a nifty suggestion: make the store a pick-up point for a local Community Supported Agriculture box. This is a brilliant idea: Life in dense cities revolves around corner stores, and making yours a CSA pick-up point overcomes a logistical obstacle to getting organic, locally grown food into urban hands. Why not walk over to your corner store right now and suggest this idea? 

7. Organize a Community Swap Meet: Share Tompkins, a volunteer-run group based in Ithaca, NY, organizes monthly Community Swap Meets, "where people give-away and barter everything from homemade apple butter and original art, to music lessons, and massage," as Shira Golding writes in her Shareable how-to article. Beyond the tangible activities, writes Shira, "we feel we are contributing to the creation of a social fabric rich in giving and sharing." It's such a simple, fun thing, and yet through neighborhood-level activities like swap meets, I think we can glimpse another, even more shareable society.

8. Start a Skillshare: "Organizing a Skillshare is fun and easy, since everyone really has something to teach, and something to learn," writes Meg Wachter in her how-to article. "The seeds for the Brooklyn Skillshare began in the Spring of 2009 when I attended a similar event in Boston, and was inspired by the weekend-long workshops offered on a regular basis, free of charge." Though she had never attempted anything like it before, here's the skillshare Meg managed to start in her own neighborhood:

9. Make a Memory Map of Your Neighborhood: "I made a map of my neighborhood, intending to mark it with stories of people I had known, but quickly ran out of space," writes Claire Kessler-Bradner. "I began to seek the participation of my neighbors, strangers and friends with whom I share this space. The intersection of my important places with the narratives of other lives lived in the neighborhood reveals an intrinsic connection to people I didn’t think I knew." Claire is a trained artist, but anyone can create a "memory map" of his or her neighborhood. 

10. Weatherize Your Home, the Shareable Way: "The Cambridge MA group Home Energy Efficiency Team has been organizing monthly weatherization barnraisings for over a year," writes Shareable reader George Mokray. The "barnraisings" save energy and money, of course, but they also build community. Here's a little video of what they did:

11. Start a Farmers' Market: This is not a small project, but a farmers' market can enrich your neighborhood in countless ways. "One of the joys of having a neighborhood market is that it can become the equivalent of the village green," writes Elizabeth Crane in "How to Start a Farmers' Market." "Many American cities lack a casual, consistent gathering place; a farmer’s market can fill that need. It can also be a platform for education on farm-related topics like the importance of eating locally grown and seasonal products, going green, buying organic, participating in composting, and general overall health." (Need eggs more than veggies? Here's how to start an urban chicken cooperative.)

12. Turn Libraries into Neighborhood Share Centers: We stumbled into this idea in a conversation on Shareable.net about what things should be more shareable. I suggested that libraries should lend out toys and games as well as books. Contributor Abby Quillen added:

Our public library loans out puppets and learning kits (with lots of small pieces), so games wouldn't be much different. It seems like the public library would be a great place for a community to share more things, since libraries already have a record system set up for cataloging and lending. Our library lends out a device you can plug into your outlets to measure the electric usage of your appliances, and it's incredibly popular. I also know of two different public libraries that lend out ukuleles.

An idea hit me: What if we re-conceptualized libraries as neighborhood share centers? So books would be just one part of the mix, along with musical instruments, toys, games, lawn mowers, tools -- the local carshare and bikeshare pods could be based at the library as well. It'd be your one-stop-shop for shareable resources. But is this really a good idea? What would it take to make this idea a reality?

What are your nifty ideas for making cities even more shareable than they already are?

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