Neighbours, Friends and ‘hoods

I was intrigued recently by an article published in Vox titled, “How our housing choices make friendships more difficult” (David Roberts, Jan. 16, 2017). It seems particularly important as Innisfil prepares its next Official Plan, Our Place, which seeks to define specific places for public gathering and interaction. Speaking of experience in the United States, the author says:

“Our ability to form and maintain friendships is shaped in crucial ways by the physical spaces in which we live. “Land use,” as it’s rather aridly known, shapes behavior and sociality. And in America we have settled on patterns of land use that might as well have been designed to prevent spontaneous encounters, the kind out of which rich social ties are built.”

The article goes on to discuss how friendships change as people age, form families and move into their own homes. The article references some research on the subject:

“The researchers believed that physical space was the key to friendship formation; that “friendships are likely to develop on the basis of brief and passive contacts made going to and from home or walking about the neighborhood.” In their view, it wasn’t so much that people with similar attitudes became friends, but rather that people who passed each other during the day tended to become friends and later adopted similar attitudes.”

The article notes how patterns of human settlement have changed over millennia: 

“It’s only been comparatively recently (about 10,000 years ago) that we developed agriculture and started living in semi-permanent communities, more recently still that were thrown into cities, crammed up against people we barely know, and more recently still that we bounced out of cities and into suburbs.”

“So everything about how we live now is “unnatural,” at least in terms of the scope of human history … There’s nothing fated or inevitable about each of us living in our own separate nuclear- family castles, with our own little faux-estate lawns, getting in a car to go anywhere, never seeing friends unless we make an effort to schedule it. Why should it require explicit scheduling to see a friend who lives “within striking distance”? Why shouldn’t proximity do some of the work? The answer, for many Americans, is that anything beyond a few blocks away might as well be miles; it all requires a car.”

So how can our cities support connection and friendship? The writer suggests some possibilities:

“One is living in a real place, a walkable area with lots of shared public spaces, around which one can move relatively safely and effectively without a car. It seems like a simple thing, but such places are rare even in the cities where they exist.”

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 …”

“The second, even more rare, is some form of co-housing… a common model in Germany, is baugruppen, or building groups. The basic idea is that a group of people comes together to work directly with architects and designers, bypassing developers, to build a shared dwelling that they own collectively (a co-op, basically). Taking developers out of the picture saves money — 25 to 30 percent in Berlin … [it] opens up space for much more ambitious, innovative, and sustainable architecture. It also fosters cooperation and community among members …”

It seems Innisfil may be on the right track in trying to foster a genuine sense of connection among residents through strategic design of a variety of public spaces flexible enough to accommodate a multitude of uses. The second of two public Open Houses was held this past week to inform and consult with residents. If we’re lucky, public support may help promote a thoughtful implementation to make our neighbourhoods more authentically ‘Our Place’.