The Desire for Community

14 05 2009

In 1985 Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death, an insightful critique of television culture and its effect on public discourse. Rather than being a predictable blanket slam of television-as-boobtube, it was a nuanced discussion of the pervasive but largely unnoticed changes wrought by a culture based on watching: a lack of depth in discussions about our common future and decay in ties of community and place. Although the internet was just a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye in 1985, Postman’s perspective seems to apply almost equally to this new medium, contributing as it does to a weakening of ties to physical place, and the largely contextless way in which most news is presented via television and the internet. Postman’s prescient thoughts on how the internet would change our lives can be heard in this interview from 1995, which gets really interesting around the 2 and a half minute mark:

Two weeks ago I had my second overwhelmingly positive public meeting experience (the first being this one), a meeting at which most people who attended went home happy and pleasantly surprised. The reason for this, I believe, was that the project being discussed takes a very different approach to development than we have come to expect in our cities. The project is a cohousing development, and the proponents of it actually intend to live there.

Cohousing, in brief, is a form of housing in which residents intentionally create their community. Usually cluster or row housing complexes, cohousing developments are designed with lots of shared amenity spaces that encourage and support interaction between neighbors and with surrounding neighborhoods. According to the Canadian Cohousing Network, cohousing provides:

“…personal privacy combined with the benefits of living in a community where people know and interact with their neighbours. It’s about living in a way that’s responsive to a world that has changed dramatically in the last fifty years-a world in which the home life has changed, women are integral in the labour force, resource limitations and environmental concerns are on the rise, and many people feel over extended. Cohousing offers hope in our often dissociated society.” 

The applicant spoke at great length about the philosophy of the future residents and the design of the project as it relates to the fostering of a real internal community, as well as how that might relate to the existing external community. This is in stark contrast to the standard model of development, which seems to value community only insofar as it works as a trite but meaningless advertising slogan. “Join our vibrant community” can be seen on signs advertising neighborhoods still being prepared by the bulldozer. Most of these “communities” are then constructed to maximize privacy and seclusion (read: loneliness?), packaging up what consumers are assumed to want into discrete lots or apartments. In the pursuit of private comfort and independence, the pursuit of real community of place seems largely ignored. 

Most people seem to crave community, even if they don’t know how to achieve it. I’m not convinced that we planners really know how to create it, either. The responsibility, of course, does not fall solely on our shoulders, but that is an excellent reason why we  should be asking more questions and listening carefully to the answers. The new age may demand new urban forms to suit new ways of living. If we can’t grasp that, then are we really planners, or are we just treading old paths?

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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.