Livable places

Hazel Borys writes:

Tonight I was thinking back through all of the places I’ve lived, correlating the physical form of the places to the size of my circle of friends. While completely an anecdote of a sample size of one, I noticed that when I lived in more walkable locations, I certainly had a much more engaged urban tribe. Just out of university, I moved into a flat on High Street. Most every morning, I’d go for a run with a friend, then meet up at the coffee shop with three or four friends before work. Saturday mornings at the farmers’ market with a larger circle were a weekly standard. Some of those friends are still close today, despite the long distances between us. I had more social capital paid in before 8 a.m. than I did all day that time I lived in the suburbs, where I only lasted two and a quarter years.

Another chapter of life was in a small town, a five minute walk to the town square. We frequently had dinner on the front porch, where friends would meander by and stop awhile. Gardening in my front yard, a complete stranger stopped on the sidewalk to chat, and she soon became one of my closest friends in town.

I had plenty of time to think through this today as we completed a favourite holiday ritual of baking cookies for 31 of our closest neighbours. This is something we never did while living in a suburban environment, even though we had a small child, who is more likely to connect us to others. While I’m sure that that there are just as many lovable people in the auto-oriented suburbs as there are in walkable, complete communities, livable places connect people, and make social bonds more likely. …

I realize there are significant stage-of-life factors that figure in to how connected we are to others. Most people tend to have significantly stronger social bonds just out of college than later in life. And having a young child strengthens those bonds as our kids open doors to community.

… as Charles Montgomery writes in The Happy City, social isolation has much to do with the form of our built environment. Those connections that are essential for well-being are particularly difficult to come by in the auto-centric dispersed city, and are more likely in walkable, connected neighbourhoods. Charles points to happiness economist John Helliwell at UBC, who found that in Canadian cities, trust in neighbors was the key for life satisfaction, not income or wealth. He also cites Elizabeth Dunn, who found even superficial contact with strangers generates a “social-tie density” that supports wellness and productivity.

It’s good to live in a place where you can walk to all of the places you really need to get to, or at minimum hop in a subway/train or reasonably-priced Uber/etc.

Being receptive

Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture is a book of essays on our culture’s love of labor for labor’s sake:

The concept of intellectual work may be traced back and explored in terms of various historical sources. It implies, in the first place, a very definite view of the mode and manner of man’s intellectual knowledge. What happens when we look at a rose? What do we do as we become aware of color and form? Our soul is passive and receptive. We are, to be sure, awake and active, but our attention is not strained; we simply “look”—in so far, that is, as we “contemplate” it and are not already “observing” it (for “observing” implies that we are beginning to count, to measure and to weigh up).

Observation is a tense activity; which is what Ernst Jünger meant when he called seeing an “act of aggression”. To contemplate, on the other hand, to “look” in this sense, means to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision, and the things seen enter into us, so to speak, without calling for any effort or strain on our part to possess them. There can hardly be any doubt that that, or something like it, is the way we become sensorially aware of a thing.

In approaching Ernst Jünger’s seeing as “act of aggression,” we can understand why the child and childhood is so wonderful, because it’s the time when burdens recede, or before they impose, to allow the mind to work without laboring. To be human, to wonder. This is true both for the child and for the adults who love her.

We want to become aware of a thing without feeling the need to possess it. This idea cuts to the core of the Christian notion of temptation, and Alan Watts’s addresses this “appreciation v. possession” dynamic in The Wisdom of Insecurity, that unhappiness draws its power from our futile attempts to possess that which is fleeting.

Being receptive seems to be about appreciating the things that are unfolding in front of you, and appreciating those things as they are—without running ahead intellectually to ask what use you can put them, or how to turn them to your advantage or purposes.

Complete neighborhoods

Andrew Price writes on “complete neighborhoods,” where peoples’ needs are close at hand:

I’m interested in creating livable, walkable, human-scale cities, and one of the most important elements to creating a livable city is the development pattern of your local neighborhood. We talk about car dependency being bad and limiting our freedom, but what does ‘transportation freedom’ look like? Waiting for a bus every time you leave home? Not so much. I believe that the most free mode of transportation is one that doesn’t require any vehicle to get around — thus, our largest gains with building livable, human-scale cities come from building foot-oriented neighborhoods. …

The best way to easily and affordable get people around is to reduce the distance they have to travel. If you move things close enough and make it comfortable to get around, people will walk.

Cities are divided into neighborhoods, and if you’ve ever spent time living in a walkable city without a car, you know that your quality of life is largely dependent on the amenities within your neighborhood — the walkshed of your home.

A good neighborhood will have enough variety of restaurants to keep you satisfied, along with schools, parks, grocery stores, walk-in clinics, entertainment, etc. If you were fortunate enough to work from or close to home, it’s the sort of neighborhood you could go months without leaving and not feel like you’re missing out on anything.

What I’m describing here is what I like to call a Complete Neighborhood. A Complete Neighborhood is one where, outside of commuting to work or having a “night out,” you can get everything you need within walking distance.

Pick a random neighborhood in Manhattan and it’ll likely be a Complete Neighborhood. (I know New York is an atypical American experience, but it’s the closest I can get to making this point without talking about foreign cities.) The further out into the outer boroughs and suburbs you go (unfortunately, you don’t have to go far) the less “complete” the neighborhood becomes, regardless of how long it takes to get into Manhattan via transit. …

Separating uses to a scale that requires a vehicle — whether it is a car, a bicycle, or transit — to get around for basic necessities is an artificial problem created by modern planning. Until we change our development pattern to build Complete Neighborhoods, any transportation infrastructure (whether widening roads to accommodate more cars or tunneling a subway line) is just wasteful spending.

Once we build foot-oriented neighborhoods, transit and cycling become productive investments.

Just as conservation requires context, it makes sense to me that a good life involves a “complete neighborhood” in this way.

Real towns and suburban myths

Rachel Quednau at Strong Towns writes:

Myth #1: The suburbs exist because that’s the way people want to live. The only reason we have the suburban style of development with its large homes, three car garages, big box stores and wide, fast-moving streets, is because people prefer that sort of living, right?

Busted: The suburbs exist because that’s the style of development that has been regulated into existence and funded by governments across the nation. …

Myth #2: Sprawl is the biggest problem with the suburbs. If we just stopped building so many one-story buildings and winding suburban roads, we’d be fine.

Busted: The problem is a development pattern that is financially insolvent. …

Myth #3: Suburban residents are paying for the cost of their lifestyle. However we feel about culs de sac and strip malls, we can at least agree that the people who live in suburban areas are paying for that way of life, so what’s the big deal?

Busted: Across the country, we see that urban areas subsidize suburban living to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. …

Myth #4: We can turn the suburbs into financially productive places if we just try our hardest.

Busted: No. There’s too much suburban development for this to ever happen.

There’s much more in what Rachel writes that I haven’t excerpted, and is worth checking out especially if the “Busted” answers don’t make sense. I’ve written before on this: A public square is built for people, Conservatives oppose ugliness, The perfect town, Suburbs are mostly disposable, and What suburbs do.

A common sense staircase

Josh K. Elliott writes:

A Toronto man who spent $550 building a set of stairs in his community park says he has no regrets, despite the city’s insistence that he should have waited for a $65,000 city project to handle the problem. The city is now threatening to tear down the stairs because they were not built to regulation standards.

Retired mechanic Adi Astl says he took it upon himself to build the stairs after several neighbours fell down the steep path to a community garden in Tom Riley Park, in Etobicoke, Ont. Astl says his neighbours chipped in on the project, which only ended up costing $550 – a far cry from the $65,000-$150,000 price tag the city had estimated for the job. …

Astl says he hired a homeless person to help him and built the eight steps in a matter of hours.

Astl’s wife, Gail Rutherford, says the stairs have already been a big help to people who routinely take that route through the park. “I’ve seen so many people fall over that rocky path that was there to begin with,” she said. “It’s a huge improvement over what was there.” …

Coun. Justin Di Ciano, who represents Astl’s area, said the spot seems safer with stairs than without them, so he’s asked his staff to leave them for now while plans are made for a city-approved upgrade that won’t cost too much.

“I think we all need to have a bit of common sense here,” he said.

Every aspect of this story is great, maybe most of all because it is subsidiarity in practice—accomplishing good things on the lowest possible level and without needless intervention or interference from higher levels of authority.

Councilman Di Ciano’s plea for having “a bit of common sense” seems strange to me, since Adi Astl’s decision to solve a pressing problem in an immediate, neighborly, and cheap way seems like the most common sense thing imagineable.

Neighborliness in design

The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia has in its rotunda an enormous statue of Benjamin Franklin, the city’s patron.

Notice the aesthetics in this photo: scale, proportion, and modesty. What struck me as I walked past this (for the first time in a long time) a few years ago was just how beautifully the classical aspects of the building complemented its contemporary aspects.

What do I mean? “The doors of wisdom are never shut,” isn’t simply a nicely lit sentiment. That entire panel is a display. The display area doesn’t try to outdo its surroundings. It doesn’t seek to shout over them or demand attention, but it’s there. It’s a part of the room.

The physical and digital should complement one another, not compete for attention. New media meets old forms, and each enriches the other.

Recipe for lively neighborhoods

After finishing Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, I decided I had to read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the great response by Jane Jacobs to all the excesses of central planners and the cult of the expert.

I’ve just finished it. It was surprising how heavily she leans on Philadelphia in addition to New York and Boston to cite examples of good and bad city life. I had imagined it was exclusively New York-focused, for whatever reason.

In this excerpt, Jacobs outlines the “four conditions” that guide her analysis of good city life:

So long as we are content to believe that city diversity represents accident and chaos, of course its erratic generation appears to represent a mystery.

However, the conditions that generate city diversity are quite easy to discover by observing place in which diversity flourishes and studying the economic reason why it can flourish in these places. Although the results are intricate, and the ingredients producing them may vary enormously, this complexity is based on tangible economic relationships which, in principle, are much simpler than the intricate urban mixtures they make possible.

To generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts, four conditions are indispensable:

  1. The district [neighborhood], and indeed as many of its internet parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.
  2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
  3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
  4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.

The necessity for these four conditions is the most important point this book has to make. In combination, these conditions create effective economic pools of use. Given these four conditions, not all city districts will produce a diversity equivalent to one another. The potentials of different districts differ for many reasons; but, given the development of these four conditions (or the best approximation to their full development that can be managed in real life), a city district should be able to realize its best potential, wherever that may lie. Obstacles to doing so will have been removed. The range may not stretch to African sculpture or schools of drama or Rumanian tea houses, but such as the possibilities are, whether for grocery stores, pottery schools, movies, candy stores, florists, art shows, immigrants’ clubs, hardware stores, eating places, or whatever, they will get their best chance. And along with them, city life will get its best chances.