Our cities are not machines, nor are we. We can’t simply engineer a more trusting society through the design of our built environment. But we are embodied, and visible variables like scale and shape, texture and material invariably affect the ways in which we interact with others. Design choices are not neutral, so which ones might reduce the friction of getting along with our neighbours?
- Sidewalks invite encounter. Jane Jacobs divided the world into car people and foot people. While this may reflect my bias as someone decidedly in the latter group, making neighbourhoods walkable is vital. Walking is an intimate activity, a way of getting to know your neighbourhood up close. And sidewalks are a place of encounter, where the familiar routines of the strangers on your street make them a little less strange, a little more approachable. This is true even for suburban neighbourhoods in sprawling cities: A car might be a necessity, but the design of the street should not actively discourage walking—as, for example, my parents’ residential neighbourhood does by having stretches of street without any sidewalk at all. Such neighbourhoods are designed for cars first and people second.
- Front porches suggest hospitality. A front porch creates an intermediary space from which to talk to neighbours and strangers passing by, or even just to nod and wave hello. It’s an architectural expression of welcome—and perhaps the first step toward the hospitality of the dinner table.
- Compact neighbourhoods often translate into close-knit communities. Dense, variegated neighbourhoods encourage the casual and continual interactions that can, over time, weave together our common threads of humanity into a community of trust. Sadly, modern zoning codes are often inimical to this variety, separating the places where people live from the small businesses and public amenities that they rely on. (Imagine New York City without bodegas.)
- Public spaces need to be human-scaled. Which is to say, they ought not be vast or uniform. Jan Gehl observed that people naturally place themselves at distances of four to twelve feet for casual social interactions, while spaces greater than twelve feet correspond to a colder and more impersonal public distance. People tend not to linger along the large, flat building facades or in the open, empty plazas that make up much of the modern city, instead seeking out anchors and alcoves.
- Nature makes people healthier and happier. Whether you call it biophilic design or just a common-sense love of trees, people thrive more—physically, mentally, and socially—when the built environment evokes nature, whether by including greenery outright, employing materials like cotton or wood, or simply imitating natural patterns.
There’s a popular dichotomy applied to everything from writing novels to governing a country: Are you an architect, or are you a gardener? Like all good metaphors, it has its uses and its limitations. When it comes to our cities and our communities, we need a combination of strategic planning and organic development in order to create the kinds of environments that are oriented toward community. There’s a place for zoning bylaws, and there’s a time to give neighbourhoods creative freedom. A community is more like a conversation—one that we’re all invited to participate in.
Design won’t straighten the crooked timber of our human hearts. But it can help sand and smooth that timber into something with which we can build our lives together.