What binds our communities together? The centerpieces of our neighborhoods answer that question eloquently.
It used to be a fringe idea that our physical environment both shapes us and says a lot about us. You mostly heard it from New Urbanist architects. You scoffed at it, and moved on—or you said significant change in that arena was unrealistic and we had bigger problems to deal with (as Rust Belt Philosophy recently wrote in a response to Miriel’s post on suburbia).
Nowadays, it’s a more mainstream notion—in the ‘80s and ‘90s, many of our cities were in very bad shape, partly as a result of really bad building and zoning decisions. So cities like New York, Milwaukee, San Jose, Denver, St. Petersburg (FL), and others that underwent major turnarounds put the physical environment at the center of their revitalization plans (often to great effect). Their leaders realized what people pre-1940s had known for millennia: that people need a physical environment that unifies their neighborhoods—something to be proud of, something to provide access to the most important services, and something over which, and in which, to bond.
Because of this idea, humans have always put what they value most at the center of their neighborhoods. Visit third world villages, and this is obvious. But study city planning, and it becomes downright eloquent. As the following three stories from three moments in time can easily illustrate, we need only look to the focal point of a neighborhood to see what a culture values most–and, in the context of the narrative of time, what prior values it has abandoned.
London, 1611. As William stumbled out the door, he felt lost. He didn’t know how he would afford to keep feeding his family. The illnesses of his children had already eaten up more money than he could afford to pay. It was raining heavily outside, and he slipped as the flat soles of his shoes hit the wet cobblestones—he managed to keep his feet, and found himself wishing it were as easy to do so in life. What was he to do? No answer seemed forthcoming.
As he walked, he could see his neighbors at work in the shops before or under their homes. There was Geoffrey the butcher, and Richard the blacksmith. They smiled and greeted him as he passed, but their conversation held no interest for him now.
He looked up the street and saw the church door open. It always was. The neighborhood had been built around it (back when they had all been Catholic), and all roads led to it. It was where everyone went when they had no answers. He made for that open door, and the refuge of the house of God.
Boston, 1811. John’s practice was failing. When he’d started it two years ago, he thought Boston could never have too many lawyers. It seemed he had been wrong—or at least, he wasn’t good enough at his job to keep the business coming in the door. He wasn’t sure whether to feel a tremendous sense of failure or merely to pick himself up and try something else. All he knew at the moment was that the coat he was wearing probably wouldn’t be his much longer.
He needed guidance; he needed to think. He passed his church as he walked; like most Bostonians, he lived within walking distance of the place where his denomination met every Sunday. But he headed for the Common—there, or nearby in the tavern, he knew he would encounter his neighbors; in town meetings they often shouted raucously at each other, but in between they relied on each other. The neighborhood taverns and parks were their political and spiritual centers—John knew he would find help there.
Colorado Springs, 2011. Like many other residents of “the Springs,” Jeff had been in the military. And like many others, he was having difficulty keeping a job in the town he’d liked as a soldier. Outside the military, there wasn’t really an engine to the local economy—the Springs was mostly houses and chain stores. So like many other Americans, he found himself (post-2008) having difficulty living within his means. He was stuck with a lot of expensive electronics for which he still owed Best Buy a substantial sum of money. He couldn’t really afford his mortgage either, and the payments on that brand-new Toyota truck had looked a lot more affordable before the recession. In short, Jeff was in trouble—and he knew it.
Jeff lived at the top of a slight hill near Powers Boulevard, one of the main residential areas in town; and as he looked out his window, he could see no help—only mile after mile of identical single-family homes. He didn’t know his neighbors, and his church was a 20-minute drive away; and anyway, there wouldn’t be anyone there on a Tuesday; the rock band only came out on Sunday. His wife was at work, and his kids were at school. He was alone.
He needed to encourage himself somehow, but that stack of self-help books on his shelf didn’t quite seem to cut it. He climbed into the Toyota, and drove the 10 minutes to where everybody else went for everything–the Powers shopping corridor–the only thing for miles besides houses–the main reason he and all his neighbors lived where they did. There, he knew he would find literally hundreds of huge buildings, surrounded by huge parking lots, filled with huge stores and restaurants, all designed to tell him who he was (and that he was worth it). And he needed to hear that right now.
He didn’t know where else to go.
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.