If there’s one near-universal norm for meetings, it’s this: Hold them inside. There’s logical reasons: The climate can be controlled, drinks and snacks easily dispensed, comfortable chairs made accessible. And frankly, indoors is where polite people hold meetings. It’s just the done thing.
When I say “meeting” you’re probably thinking of something like this:
The people in the above photo look bored, which is apt. The word “meeting” itself used to be a cause for excitement, something that happened between the weary traveler and the innkeeper at the crossroads, an occasion of relief and celebration. Today “meeting” conjures up grey images of nodding off during dull conversations in a climate-controlled room as (much more interesting) life goes by outside. In my own affairs, I avoid the word whenever I can, unless I really am intending to have a boring conversation.
But what might this meeting look like if it were taken outside? How about…
These really are photos of meetings, but it’s hard to tell because people look like they’re actually having fun (Heaven forbid!). These are meetings I convened for neighbors to organize their block parties. Having meetings outside on the sidewalk rather than inside is a powerful “innovation” for several reasons.
Are more inclusive. Shy people feel more comfortable on the sidewalk, which is publicly accessible and neutral, than indoors in a stranger’s home. Busy people can drop by for a moment, chip in with a comment, and then keep going. People who didn’t know about the meeting can walk by and get invited to join in. Children can say something and then go off and play in the more inviting outdoors when they get bored. I’ve seen all these situations happen. Furthermore, by being outside in public, sidewalk meetings communicate that everybody is equal and welcome.
Are more enjoyable. Being outside in the fresh air and seeing the world go by offers a more refreshing meeting context than the isolating indoor environment. And I suspect that this more stimulating environment leads to better ideas and conversations too.
Liven up places. When people linger outside they set an example and encourage others to come together outdoors. Groups of people together outside are a pleasant sight for folks walking by and even build community by making people more familiar to each other. Moreover, spending time outdoors together encourages people to assess and improve their surroundings. How about adding some benches for the next meeting?
Take the strain off hosts. I started organizing sidewalk meetings because neighbors were shy and busy and nobody wanted to host conversations in their homes. Meeting outdoors forces nobody to tidy up the house, provide snacks and drinks, or even have enough chairs (see the photo above where everybody is standing up).
It’s not just neighbors organizing block parties who would benefit from sidewalk meetings. I wonder how many urban planners, traffic engineers, pedestrian and bicycle advocates, and architects meet indoors when the very environment they’re impacting is right outdoors. Get them out on the street to connect more fully with their work. Office workers can brighten up their days by getting outside board rooms (and even cafes and restaurants, which still are removed from the public realm) and spending more time in the street. And even friends can bring chairs onto the sidewalk and chat as the world goes by.
If the sidewalk isn’t appropriate, you can choose a front yard or, if you’re up for it, a parking space as is the case for the annual International Park(ing) Day events.
A couple of years ago, I even brought my birthday party onto the street…
Passersby stopped to say hello, neighbors came out of their homes to see what was going on, my friend Bill’s young son took his first steps for us all to see. If you walked down the street during this time, you couldn’t avoid being a part of the party, even for just a moment. The event was so merry that it led to this happy photo:
Remember, the sidewalk is public space. Public space can, and should, be used to gather (although today we’re far more familiar with public space in its current degraded role: For passing through). When you use the sidewalk in this way you’re doing justice to this much neglected function. In an age marked by increasing isolation we must do all we can to bring ourselves outside to reconnect face to face.
If the weather is good and the time is right, give it a go.