Pictures of empty urban public spaces are jarring – but cannot compare with being there and feeling the emptiness

The Associated Press ran a series of photos of empty urban public spaces around the world. They are stark photos, recognizable sites in major centers that are typically full of residents and visitors. From the end of the accompanying text:

These are places meant for people, though. And the people will — we suspect, we think, we hope — return before too long.

But when?

Yet, the photos can only reveal so much. What makes these spaces – as well as many other urban spaces around the world – unique is the mix of people, the sounds of voices, the walking paths of people among a crowd with some getting to home or work or leisure while others linger, the collective activity. Times Square can look like a spectacle even without people but it is not the same. The Eiffel Tower looms over the surrounding space but is less interesting without the people around it. The structures can still impress but they are missing something when the people are gone. These spaces and settings are what can make cities so distinctive and alluring.

And, this activity is not confined to well-known or tourist spaces. Jane Jacobs famously discussed the lively street life in Greenwich Village, New York. Many urban neighborhoods around the world have a level of pedestrian and street activity that is lively, or at least consistent. People are coming and going, there are eyes on the street, stuff is happening.

With people confined inside, that outside life – even if it is just anonymous passing by others doing their own thing – disappears. Pictures show the lack of people but cannot easily capture the lost social interaction and activity.

 

My suburban neighborhood had the most pedestrians out that I have ever seen

We moved to a single-family home neighborhood nearly three years ago. Our street has a unique location; we have a mix of housing types within half a mile including single-family homes at several price ranges, condos, townhomes, and apartments and there is a good-sized city park around the corner. For a suburbanite, I am outside walking around pretty often and fairly observant.

Yesterday, I was outside for an hour in the afternoon. The weather was okay by Chicago-area spring standards: near 50, mostly sunny, no breeze. But, there was a big difference in the number of people walking and biking. A steady stream of people came by as couples, in family units, teenagers with friends, and single pedestrians out to walk the dog. From my front yard, I can see our street, a perpendicular arterial street, and a pathway through the park – all had a consistent set of people.

This was unusual. I am not usually out on a Tuesday afternoon but neither are all of these people. Living in a state with a shelter in place requirement, more people are home. Perhaps by the early afternoon, they want to get outside. Even though the weather was not great, it was warmer than the last few days and the snow had melted the day morning before. There is only so much Netflix someone can watch before needing a little break.

I am not sure this increased pedestrian behavior leads to more neighborliness or social interaction. We all are supposed to be six-plus feet apart. Some people wore headphones. Some of the people knew each other but others came from different micro-neighborhoods in the area. At the least, those outside saw more people than they typically would.

Will this last? Maybe as long as the shelter in place is required. A few people might turn these behaviors in uncertain times into more regular patterns in normal times. I would expect that pedestrian life will decrease significantly once work and school go back to more normal levels. And my suburban neighborhood will go back to relatively small numbers of people walking around on a regular basis.

 

Even in a country of sprawl and limited public life, there are plenty of places where people come in contact with many others

Watching reactions to the coronavirus in recent weeks presents a paradox connected to American social life and addressing contagious diseases: the country has pushed sprawl and private homes for decades and public life and community life is said to be in decline; yet, there are numerous spaces, public and private, where Americans regularly come together. And under the threat of disease, shutting down locations and/or quarantining large numbers of people would change social life dramatically even in an individualized, spread out society.

A few examples illustrate this well. One essential private space is the grocery store. Even in the age of the Internet deliveries and eating out, many Americans need to acquire food and other supplies for daily life. The experience of going to Walmart or another grocery chain is not necessarily a public experience – direct interaction with people there is likely limited – but the number of people who can cycle through a major store on a daily basis is high. Another semi-private space is churches. By choice, Americans attend religious services at a higher rate than most industrialized countries. Once there is a congregation of one hundred people or more, this brings together people who participate in a wide range of activities and go to a wide number of places.

An example of public spaces that would change dramatically are mass transit lines and transportation hubs. In a country where relatively few people take mass transit on a daily basis, there are a good number of Americans dependent on buses, trains, and subways and people who use multiple forms on a regular basis. Plus, the United States has relatively busy airports. A second example involves schools. Americans tend to think education is the secret to success and getting ahead and students from preschool to post-graduate settings gather in buildings to attend class and do related activities. For these students, school is about learning and social life, classrooms and lunchrooms, eating areas, and play or recreation areas. Schools and colleges can draw people from a broad set of backgrounds and locations.

Our public life may not be at the same level as it is in Italy; instead of sidewalk cafes, Americans can go through the drive-through of Starbucks. Perhaps this means it will be relatively easy for some Americans to quarantine or keep their social distance: many live in their private homes and have limited social interactions anyhow. At the same time, significant public health measures would change social life in ways that are noticeable and that some might miss. Indeed, could a national reminder of the social ties Americans do have lead to a revival in social interactions in times of more stability?

Separate places for home and work – even when you are working from home

The geographic and social distancing of home and work is a feature of modern, urbanized society. And it even matters when working from home:

Where you actually set up shop is entirely up to you. Maybe you have a dedicated office space with a desktop and a view. Sounds nice. If you don’t, that’s also fine; I usually work on my laptop at a kitchen counter. The point here is to clearly define the part of your house where work happens. That makes it more likely that you’ll actually get things done when you’re there, but just as importantly might help you disconnect when you’re not. Remember that when you work from home you’re always at home—but you’re also always at work. At all costs, you should avoid turning your entire house or apartment into an amorphous space where you’re always on the clock but also kind of not. It’s no way to live. (Full-time remote workers take note: You can also write off a few hundred square feet of in-home office space on your tax return.)…

Every few days I spend at least a few hours at a coffee shop. It’s a change of scenery, a good excuse to get some fresh air, and provides a tiny bit of human interaction that Slack conversations and Zoom meetings do not. Should that no longer be feasible for coronavirus reasons, at the very least see if you can walk around the block a couple of times a day. There’s no water cooler when you work from home, no snack table, no meetings down the block. It’s easy to stay locked in position all day. Don’t do it! Sitting is terrible for your health, and mind-numbing when you’re staring at the same wall or window all day…

I think what I miss the most about working in an office is the commute (I realize this may sound unhinged). Yes, traffic is terrible and subways are crowded and the weather is unpredictable. But it seems nice to have a clear separation between when you’re at work and when you’re not, and some time to decompress in between. That doesn’t exist when you work from home. It’s all on the same continuum.

I don’t have a great solution for this. Quitting out of Slack—or whatever your workplace uses—is probably a good start. People are less likely to ping you if your circle’s not green. Or maybe find a gym class or extracurricular that you have to leave the house for at a certain time every day and let that be your stopping point? In some ways it’s like figuring out how to ditch your shadow.

These tips hint at problems connected to the home-work divide Americans regularly encounter. A few examples from the paragraphs above:

  1. Creating a clear boundary between home and work is often seen as desirable or needed. This is harder to do when the same physical spaces do double duty.
  2. The need for interaction with coworkers or others is hard when working from home or even just with a clear work-home divide. There is a need for third places (and the coffee shop suggestion is a common, if problematic, solution). And with declining community life elsewhere, feeling disconnected from work might be a big loss.
  3. The Internet and other means that make it easier to connect to work or other workers from afar also threatens to pull people into never-ending work.
  4. Physical spaces actually matter for productivity, social interaction, and well-being. Simply being untethered from an office and the spaces there does not automatically lead to better outcomes. Single-family homes (or apartments, condos, townhomes, etc.) in the United States often emphasize private family space which may or may not be conducive to the kinds of work people do today.

All together, I am not convinced that people working from home or away from the office solves many of the problem of contemporary work places and social life. There are deeper issues at stake including how we design places (within buildings and across land uses), how we think about home and work (and additional places), and community and social life and what we desire for them to be.

Mode, plurality, and “the most popular way”

I recently stumbled across this headline from Stanford News: “Meeting online has become the most popular way U.S. couples connect, Stanford sociologist finds.” Would the average reader assume this means that more than 50% of couples meet online?

This is not what the headline or the story says. More details from the story:

Rosenfeld, a lead author on the research and a professor of sociology in the School of Humanities and Sciences, drew on a nationally representative 2017 survey of American adults and found that about 39 percent of heterosexual couples reported meeting their partner online, compared to 22 percent in 2009.

It appears 39% of couples meet online. According to the summary of the paper, the others ways couples meet are:

Traditional ways of meeting partners (through family, in church, in the neighborhood) have all been declining since World War II.

The 39% figure meets the definition of both the mode and a plurality, respectively (both definitions from Google):

the value that occurs most frequently in a given set of data.

the number of votes cast for a candidate who receives more than any other but does not receive an absolute majority.

Still, I suspect there might be some confusion. Online dating brings more Americans together than any other method but it is only responsible for a little less than forty percent of couples.

Install a video doorbell to “join the neighborhood” in fear

A recent ad from Ring shows the kind acts neighbors can perform for each other and visitors. The moments range from dropping off misdelivered mail to warning about a fire to capturing footage of someone shoveling a front sidewalk to a resident leaving out snacks for delivery drivers. All of this looks good…And yet: do people install video doorbells because they want to capture good deeds? Or, are they more likely motivated by fear and safety concerns?

I have written about the new possibilities for suburban neighborhoods: homeowners with video doorbells can work as an ever watching surveillance force. And the footage can be shared with police! And no one has to answer the door! But, all of these share motivations: this is about fear, not about neighborliness. Even looking out for others in the neighborhood via the camera is about fighting against crime, disorder, and threats.

On the whole, I would guess video cameras will not increase the number of good needs and neighborliness. American communities need more face-to-face interaction, not monitoring via cameras or online discussions through platforms like NextDoor or messages through yard signs. The commercial is a worthy attempt by Ring to bring a positive message regarding the doorbell camera but hides more of what is really going on.

 

Better methods than fines for encouraging the shoveling of sidewalks

Yesterday, I discussed how few local officials likely want to fine people for not shoveling their sidewalks. I’m not sure the answer to solving this problem involves regulations and fines. Instead, the best solution may involve encouraging community action and neighborliness. I wonder if shoveling sidewalks in neighborhoods and communities is a good proxy for communities working together and helping each other. In recent decades, social scientists have looked for ways to measure community spirit and activity. For example, Stanley Milgram’s lost letter experiment provided inspiration for Robert Sampson and his team to look at mailing rates across Chicago neighborhoods to understand collective efficacy. Are neighborhoods with more community spirit more likely to have more of the sidewalks shoveled? In contrast, neighborhoods where people know fewer of their neighbors, with fewer community organizations, and less collective activity might be less likely to clear their sidewalks. Instead of fines, neighbors could help each other out and/or take responsibility for their blocks or neighborhoods. This might mean that a few people end up tackling a lot of the problem but a web of relationships and a sense of doing good can go a long ways. Some residents may not be able to clear snow (health or mobility issues, out of town, etc.) and others step into the gap.

Two other options are possible. First, anger and public shaming is a possibility. Imagine a block where just one or two people do not clear the snow and everyone else does. Even without glances or words exchanged, this puts pressure on the people who do not participate. With conversation, gossip in local social networks, social media posts, and more, people who do not shovel may be motivated to act (or it could poison relationships). If people in many neighborhoods want to avoid direct confrontation or do not have deep relationships with each other, this may be the route taken.

Second, millions of Americans choose to pay people to remove their snow or live in communities where snow removal is taken care of. Want a third party to take care of the sidewalks rather than own a single-family home and have to take responsibility for all of your own exterior work? People now have a range of choices.

Fines are likely present because the three options above do not always work or are not possible. But, if fines are not terribly effective or popular, it is time to get at the deeper issue of building community bonds to consistently keep sideealks clear.