Calling All People Places

5 10 2008

Two recent articles, one in the New York Times, and another in the Globe and Mail, extoll the virtues of living in inner city neighborhoods. The NYT article is pretty interesting in its discussion of the social aspects of neighborhoods populated with families of mixed incomes, age groups, ethnicities and religious affiliations. It also talks about the social utility of front porches and wide sidewalks a la New Urbanist thinking. The G&M article talks about trading a big suburban home with a pool for a smaller home in a neighborhood with character that cuts commuting time and offers easy access to restaurants, museums and all the other activities of the central city. The three families interviewed for that article had decided the trade was well worth it; they realized that with the city at their doorstep, they didn’t need all that extra junk and space anyway.

The last half century or so has seen the progressive privatization or degradation of communal spaces. Public shopping streets have given way to private shopping malls, which then gave way again to the communal wastelands of big box power centers. The development of carefully-designed public parks has shifted to the practice of setting aside playing fields in every district; functional but utterly devoid of charm, trading quantity for quality. In the meantime, houses have gotten larger and larger, even while shrinking family sizes mean fewer and fewer people live in each one.

Our spare time is spent either at home (usually in front of the TV or computer) or out shopping in environments that are designed to encourage spending, not to linger or engage with friends and neighbors. Well, unless those neighbors are shopping together. Our suburban neighborhoods, most often single-use expanses of residential development, have encouraged this.

People-watching or tv watching? I prefer the former.

People-watching or TV watching? I prefer the former.

Certainly, other things have contributed to it, too: the proliferation of cars that make it easy for us to go where we want whenever we want; the development of  technologies that have meant we no longer need to leave the home to find ways to pass the time. Watching a movie isn’t the same as engaging socially with other people, but it can seem like a satisfying substitute.

So, it is interesting to read articles arguing in support of a shift back to environments that value and encourage community, that are more conducive to real interactions between people, not mediated interactions that occur on a television or computer screen. Ultimately, community requires the interest of individuals to engage with others; no neighborhood will create that. But I think a poorly-designed neighborhood will certainly discourage people from trying.

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