Neighbors in Conover Commons in Redmond, Washington, share an open field as their community gathering spot. This photo originally appeared in Jay Walljasper's book, How to Design Our World for Happiness.
Biology is destiny, declared Sigmund Freud.
But if Freud were around today, he might say “design is destiny”—especially after taking a stroll through most modern cities.
The way we design our communities plays a huge role in how we experience our lives. Neighborhoods built without sidewalks, for instance, mean that people walk less and therefore enjoy fewer spontaneous encounters, which is what instills a spirit of community to a place. A neighborly sense of the commons is missing.
You don’t have to be a therapist to realize that this creates lasting psychological effects. It thwarts the connections between people that encourage us to congregate, cooperate, and work for the common good. We retreat into ever more privatized existences.
Of course, this is no startling revelation. Over the past 40 years, the shrinking sense of community across America has been widely discussed, and many proposals outlined about how to bring us back together.
One of the notable solutions being put into practice to combat this problem is New Urbanism, an architectural movement to build new communities (and revitalize existing ones) by maximizing opportunities for social exchange: public plazas, front porches, corner stores, coffee shops, neighborhood schools, narrow streets, and, yes, sidewalks.
But while New Urbanism is making strides at the level of the neighborhood, we still spend most of our time at home, which today means seeing no one other than our nuclear family. How could we widen that circle just a bit? Cooperative living and cohousing communities are gaining popularity, especially among young people. Yet, millions more people are looking for more informal arrangements with neighbors, where they share more than a property line.
That’s an idea Seattle-area architect Ross Chapin has explored for many years, and now showcases in an inspiring book: Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating a Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World.
He believes that groupings of four to twelve households make an ideal community “where meaningful ‘neighborly’ relationships are fostered.” But even here, design shapes our destiny. Chapin explains that strong connections between neighbors develop most fully and organically when everyone shares some “common ground.”
That can be a semi-public space, as in the pocket neighborhoods Chapin designs in the Seattle area. In the book’s bright photographs, they look like grassy patches of paradise, where kids scamper, flowers bloom, and neighbors stop to chat.
But Chapin points out these commons can take many different forms—an apartment building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a shared backyard; a group of neighbors in Oakland who tore down their backyard fences to create a commons; a block in Baltimore that turned their alley into a public commons; or the residential pedestrian streets found in Manhattan Beach, California, and all around Europe.
The benefits of a living in such a community go farther than you might imagine. I lived in one while in graduate school, a rundown 1886 row house with a common courtyard near the University of Minnesota campus. At no other time in my life have I become such close friends with my neighbors. We shared impromptu afternoon conversations at the picnic table and parties that went into the early hours of the morning under Italian lights we strung from the trees.
When the property was sold to a speculator who jacked up the rents to raise capital for the eventual demolition of the building, we organized a rent strike. And we won, which would never have happened if we had not already forged strong bonds with each other. Because the judge ruled that the landlord could not raise our rents until he fixed up the building, he abandoned plans to knock it down. It still stands today, and I still remain in contact with some of the old gang that partied in the courtyard.
Jay Walljasper wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jay is a senior fellow at On the Commons and editor of OnTheCommons.org.