But when we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses. And when we have kids, we find ourselves tied to those houses. Many if not most neighborhoods these days are not safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. In lower-income areas there are no sidewalks; in higher-income areas there are wide streets abutted by large garages. In both cases, the neighborhoods are made for cars, not kids. So kids stay inside playing Xbox, and families don’t leave except to drive somewhere…
One is living in a real place, with shared public spaces, around which one can move relatively safely. It seems like a simple thing, but such places are rare even in the cities where they exist. (I live in North Seattle, undoubtedly coded as urban for census purposes, but my walkshed is pretty lame. Meanwhile, a few miles south of me they’re building million-dollar single-family homes square in the middle of a perfect walkshed, right across from the zoo.)
A robust walkshed is an area in which a community of people regularly mingles doing errands, walking their dogs, playing in the parks, going to school and work, etc. Ideally, cities would be composed of clusters of such walksheds, connected by good public transit…
Both these alternatives — walkable communities and co-housing — likely sound exotic to American ears. Thanks to shifting baselines, most Americans only know single-family dwellings and auto-dependent land use. They cannot even articulate what they are missing and often misidentify the solution as more or different private consumption.
Five quick thoughts:
- There is a lot of emphasis on the nuclear family in the United States, whether in suburbs or other areas. This could be contrasted with other societies that place more emphasis on multigenerational households or living near extended families.
- You don’t necessarily have to be in a city to have public spaces or walksheds like these. Many Americans express a preference for small towns and these communities can often be tight knit. Or, you could have denser areas in suburbs that have such public spaces.
- The article argues that college is a good example of what can happen when people are put in close proximity. I would argue that college is a very unusual outlier for many Americans where they are forced (they pay for this too) to live in close proximity and then spread out as soon as they get a chance. In fact, many college students try to get out of dorms ASAP while many others are commuters. The residential college experience is not one everyone experiences and it is an unusual setting for relationships.
- The broader American emphasis on individualism makes friendships more difficult regardless of public spaces. Think of the frontier or pioneer mentality or our current celebration of mavericks and solo entrepreneurs. Did Steve Jobs need friends? Would Americans have fulfilled their Manifest Destiny if they had stayed in their neighborhoods or small towns?
- Does the data back this up? What if Americans are satisfied with their friendships? Does the number of close friends differ by spatial context? This argument is made via anecdote but there are plenty of surveys that ask about friendships. For example, here is a simple table with GSS data on how much satisfaction Americans get from their friendships by spatial context:
The differences in this table are not large but this incomplete analysis suggests people from smaller communities derive more satisfaction from their friendships.