Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Good Neighborhoods, Both Red and Blue

Dateline: 11:24 am July 16, 2008 Filed under:

Three recent articles got me thinking about neighborhoods and their importance in society. The first, a column by David Brooks in the New York Times, was a discussion of the rise of conservatism in Britain. It contains references to the importance of neighborhoods, community, and dense social bonds as ways to improve society rather than top-down government policy. I’m no expert on British politics, but it strikes me that the notion of strong neighborhoods and community can be both a liberal and conservative virtue. All politics is local, right? Dare I say it, neighborhoods may be the only places where we indeed have common ground. Is improving the world best achieved with a top-down or bottom-up approach?

The second article, also in the New York Times, was about the importance of getting to know your neighbors. The author, who incidentally is writing a book about neighborhoods, gets to know his neighbors by spending time with them during their everyday routines, and even sleeping over at their houses. I told a neighbor of mine about the article, and she seemed to think we could get to know each other just fine without a sleepover. Still, Peter Lovenheim’s article in the Times is very thought-provoking, and getting to know your neighbors better could have some far-reaching positive effects on our lives.

Bill Bishop just released a book called The Big Sort, which looks at how we Americans prefer to live near like-minded people, and have indeed sorted ourselves accordingly, often living in neighborhoods that are lopsided politically. An article in the Economist about the Big Sort, describes a Ron Paul-ville in west Texas where libertarian supporters can live free together.

Perhaps the Ron Paul neighborhood is a bit extreme, but as an observer and writer of the real estate development world, I can see how like-minded people wind up near each other. Housing and retail developers use complex psychographic analysis to identify target markets and determine design. The result is retirement communities, golf communities, green communities; you name it, you can probably find a place that suits you. We cannot hold developers accountable for the increasing divide among liberals and conservatives, but give them credit for idenifying niche markets in a society with many choices and building developments that resonate.

It does beg the question: what does a neighborhood that pleases both liberals and conservatives look like?

What is interesting about these three articles is they all relate to neighborhoods, how they work and the importance of strong community. I realize the very fact that I reference articles from the New York Times and the Economist probably pegs me as the latte-sipping sort who lives in an elite, blue-voting, urban neighborhood. That isn’t quite the case. My neighborhood in Minneapolis (I call it the Lower East Side) is a blue collar area of the city with mostly small homes. It is changing over from an older, blue collar neighborhood as younger, more white-collar buyers move in for the value and the proximity to parks and light rail.

I know many of my neighbors, albeit not too well until a few of us started having kids. But I value the neighborhood in general, and believe that neighbors need to work together to have a strong community.

Design of places is important, however. I have seen a great number of new developments that offer a range of housing and market to a broad cross section of the market, and, critically, they are designed so as to encourage a strong sense of community. Simple things like sidewalks, porches, and public gathering places like playgrounds, bandshells, and town squares, allow neighbors to meet and get to know each other. They aren’t forcing something on society, but they sure do make it easier to be neighborly.

My neighborhood is that way. Like I said, we are kind of diverse, we have small lots, sidewalks, playgrounds and other amenities for a healthy community. I wish we had a formal neighborhood square at our core, but at least we have some good neighborhood bars, bakeries and coffee shops that act as third places.

Yes, design is important, which informs how we interact with our world. It is hard to dislike a neighbor when you are sitting on their patio sharing a drink; it is easy to do so in an anonymous online forum. It is much easier to be civil when walking down a sidewalk or sharing a train than when you are behind the wheel of a car, enclosed in the safety of two tons of steel and glass. People become artificially empowered in their cars, and thus we have road rage. If you bump in to someone when you walk down the street, you can say sorry, or if you find each other attractive, exchange phone numbers. If you bump in to a friend on the sidewalk, you stop to chat and maybe head to the nearest pub or coffee shop. If you bump in to someone with your car, whether or not you know them or find them attractive, you have to call your insurance agent. If someone cuts you off, you honk, maybe make a gesture, and possibly become aggressive and race ahead and cut them off yourself. Now which urban reality is more neighborly? There is the potential for human interaction at an urban scale that cannot happen in automobile society. Which do you prefer?

Alas, design isn’t everything. To take up David Brooks’s discussion, good community only happens when members of the community get together to make it so. All the great design only goes so far when nobody is there to use it. My neighborhood is a great place because of design, but also because we neighbors want to make it so. We have a lot of civic involvement in Minneapolis because enough of my neighbors care to do something about it.

So I say spend more time in public. Get to know your neighbors, liberal and conservative. Make some positive change in your little corner of the world. Make your neighborhood more pleasant through design, or mere civility. Or just sit and watch the world go by, together.

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