My "friends" who follow me on Facebook probably get tired of my posts. I tend to write about three subjects very near and dear to my heart: My kids. The N.C. State Wolfpack. And urban planning. Well, that last one tends to fall more into "linking" than "writing" (I'm certainly no urban expert); however, as someone who lives, works and plays in DTR, I find urban trends compelling -- particularly in how they fit in with the community at large.
My FB followers probably think I look at no other website than The Atlantic Cities. For architecture, city planning or demographic nuts, it is absolutely magnificent. Three articles there recently reminded me of just why I love my neighborhood so much. (There are WAY more than these three, but the fact that The Atlantic Cities published these three articles in the span of a week caught my eye.) These pieces touch on three things that really make a neighborhood great. Here is a look at what those three traits. Feel free to discuss below.
Why you should say 'hello' to strangers on the street
Maybe it's a Southern thing, but I routinely find myself saying "hi" or "how's it going?" to friend and stranger alike on my walks around my neighborhood and Downtown Raleigh. Unfortunately, Tyler Falk (author of the linked article above) didn't have as good a success in D.C.
I started walking to Eastern Market on a sunny, humid early Sunday afternoon when, less than a block from my door, I passed by a boisterous man on the sidewalk and gave him a smile. He stopped his conversation, turned to me and said "hello, sir, how are you doing today?" That interaction was in sharp contrast with the remainder of my walk. Despite my effort to acknowledge the people I passed, not one met my eyes for a simple head nod or "hello." (We're not in Times Square, people!) I was disappointed.
On my way back I decided to count how many people would acknowledge me when I passed them on the sidewalk. I tried to make eye contact with anyone who passed me, along with anyone on their front lawn or porch. I gave an "acknowledgement point" to anyone who met my gaze, and tracked how many people made eye contact, said hello (even with no eye contact), or waved. Shoot, I would even count it if someone yelled at me for staring at them too much (that didn't happen).
All told, I passed 24 people or groups. Want to guess how many of them got acknowledgement points? . . . 3, or 12.5 percent. To put it another way, a higher percentage of American males have strokes than acknowledged me on the sidewalk last weekend. Bummer.
Thankfully, I would put my Raleigh experience percentage much higher. (Maybe I have a friendly face or something.) More from the article:
In the study "To Be Looked at as Though Air: Civil Attention Matters," published earlier this year in Psychological Science, the lead author Eric D. Wesselmann, a psychology professor at Purdue University, explains: "Because social connections are fundamental to survival, researchers argue that humans evolved systems to detect the slightest cues of inclusion or exclusion. For example, simple eye contact is sufficient to convey inclusion. In contrast, withholding eye contact can signal exclusion. ... Even though one person looks in the general direction of another, no eye contact is made, and the latter feels invisible." Similar to my feelings when I went unnoticed.
Why a good bar is essential to 'sustainable' communities
OK, so I don't think my neighborhood can claim to having its "own" bar, but you can't swing a bag of dog poop without hitting someone wanting to have a drink (and conversation) with you. Within a short walk are now a number of drinking establishments: The Remedy, Foundation, The Landmark, London Bridge, etc. And while I know people often worry about the "drink element," at the core, a good local pub is a good thing to have.
The more complete our neighborhoods, the less we have to travel to seek out goods, services and amenities. The less we have to travel, the more we can reduce emissions. People enjoy hanging out in bars and, especially if they are within walking distance of homes, we can also reduce the very serious risks that can accompany drinking and driving.
Why you should give away free stuff to your neighbors
Just this past week, neighbors via our 'hood listserv have offered up a free printer, free art, furniture, etc. It's quite remarkable how much "stuff" (and good stuff, at that) people give away. And there's something just plain quaint and reassuring knowing that that old carpet you've enjoyed for so long but just can't make work anymore is staying in your neighborhood.
The article linked above describes it as "freecycling."
Sociologists have long been intrigued by these kinds of benevolent "generalized exchange communities" (if you’ve ever given blood or participated in a Secret Santa, you’ve been a part of one). What motivates people to participate in them? And what happens to a community when its members willingly give to each other with no expectation of getting anything in return (at least not immediately)?
"This old idea that gift-giving communities generate lots of solidarity, is it true and does it hold up outside of the lab?" asks Robb Willer, a sociologist at the University of California. "We found that it does."
Freecycle generates feelings of group unity and cohesion [PDF] among the people who participate in it. "First, you sort of build this feeling of group identification," Willer says. "Then you build this feeling of solidarity. Then after that you’re more motivated to give to the system."
Interestingly, you don’t get the same benefits from participating on Craigslist, which is a more traditional type of "direct exchange system" based on the quid pro quo that you’ll give me something – probably cash – in return for my old love seat. The researchers drew their conclusions by conducting extensive surveys of hundreds of users of both of these networks.
Researchers don’t know this yet for sure, but it’s a compelling hypothesis (and one that might counter some of the cries that communities today have weaker ties and less social capital than they used to). Wouldn’t a neighborhood have greater group identification and solidarity if neighbors gave freely to each other? What if you’re bowling alone with a bowling ball you got on Freecycle?
These all come down to the simple fact that humans have an instinctive desire to belong. In conclusion, if you have access to these three types of offerings, then the safe bet is you are in a good neighborhood -- one that you will want to stay in for a long time.