The Fabric of Community
This week’s blog post is the first to be composed by the sea. This is not a habit I plan to get used to. While the sea may inspire some to beautiful prose, it only makes me hungry for meat that swims. I have been consistent in posting once a week since the beginning of the year and I have found I really enjoy the process and am glad to get back to it. For those of you that follow regularly, you might have noticed there was no post last week. This is the first time since the beginning of the year I failed to put out a weekly blog. The reason being, my father orchestrated a family trip to the British Virgin Islands and I was on a boat all week. While I certainly could have composed something, the fog of rum and the temptation of snorkeling were far too great for my weak will to overcome. While there are thousand virtues of the sea and endless opportunities for pontificating on its vastness and meaning, in the end, it does not inspire me. There is no pristine view of endless white sandy beaches, crystal clear water and a dazzling sunset over the ocean that cant be completely ruined by the music of Kenny Chesney.
The sea is not my place. I know that and will not pretend otherwise. I enjoyed the trip immensely because nothing pleases me more than uninterrupted family time. That is what I cherish. I feel the same about boats as I do about cars. They are loud and ugly, but are a means of moving people from place to place. I absolutely hate that no one can resist the temptation to give their boat a stupid cutesy name. Just once, I want to see a boat named Gary or Pam. I am under no false impression that this Caribbean lager is tastes any different from a Miller Lite., it just has a turtle on the label. And while rum might be in my blood literally, it is not figuratively.
The cities and landscape of Appalachia and the Rustbelt inspire me. These are the views that I look at longingly. These are the neighborhoods that make me feel connected in a place deeper than I can comprehend. Paradise has nothing to do with Corona and Jimmy Buffet playing at some cheesy beach bar with the obligatory stapled up t-shirts. Give me a rye neat and the Black Keys on a front porch any damn day. The dive bars of Detroit will always be cooler than the Kokomo Reef Rum Island Paradise Tropical Holiday Boat Beach Club.
This week has been fun, but I miss my city and more so, I miss my neighborhood. I miss my block and the people I share it with. I miss the coffee shop and I miss my bartender, (what’s up Cochran). I miss walking the dog and seeing all the people I care about, but am not related to. I miss my community because it is what inspires me. I miss the fabric of my community and it is not something, that no matter how far I travel, I can ever experience elsewhere. My community only exists in one place and that is what is so special about it. That is what is special about every community. Having moved around, I know not every community has a fabric as strong mine, but that is why I do the work I do, because everyone should.
I find metaphors extremely useful. The challenge in city planning and revitalization is to try and take complicated ideas and explain them in a way that makes them more easily accessible to a larger number of people. I don’t believe people need anything dumbed down, but I do believe people have a limited attention span and useful metaphors can help convey a concept that requires nuance in a shorter period of time, thus giving me a better chance of connecting with my audience. And if I am able to better connect with my audience and help them understand a concept, that increases the likelihood of local leaders passing better policy and making more informed decisions. This is my goal, to assist communities in making decisions that will improve their economy, enhance the quality of life and make them stronger and more resilient. Right now the majority of smaller communities receive a significant amount of poor advice and feel pressured to continue to make the decisions that led to the to their current predicament. I hope to be one voice that breaks through the noise and have the good fortune to provide city leaders with better advice.
One of the metaphors I find the most helpful is the concept of community being a fabric. A fabric is made up of threads and the strength of that fabric is dependent on the amount of those threads and how they are woven together. A community fabric is made up of personal interactions and the strength of that fabric is dependent on the amount of interactions and how they are woven together. As people move about their community ON FOOT, they encounter one another face to face and bonds are forged. Those bonds are strengthened throughout time as the number of interactions increase and deepen. As an interaction moves from a casual nod of the head at school pickup, to catching up over coffee, the roots we crave extend so much deeper into the ground we call home. Those are the threads of community fabric and those bonds are what hold it together. The neighborhoods where these interactions are greatest in terms of breadth and depth are the strongest, most resilient, most desirable, and most valuable. These are the neighborhoods that engender the greatest sense of ownership, belonging, engagement and passion. These are the places that foster deep roots and residents feel an incredible sense of loyalty and responsibility towards. In economic terms, these are also the neighborhoods that can and will command a premium. Residents have an emotional attachment to these places because of the connections they share with neighbors. They are less likely to leave, which creates scarcity and increases values. These are the neighborhoods that make a city leaders’ job easier. These are the neighborhoods we need.
These are also the neighborhoods we don't build anymore and haven’t for decades. Car dependent communities will never have a strong fabric. By their very nature, they do not foster social interaction. I am no more neighborly by birth than someone that lives in a cul-de-sac, but I live in a neighborhood designed to foster social interaction. It’s the front porches, detached garages, small yards, coffee shops, and local pubs that tie us together. The trade-off between a strong sense of community and a two car garage and a great room is no trade off at all. The richness of knowing my neighbors cannot be replaced by a breakfast nook, not even the sweetest breakfast nook. I understand the desire for a larger home. I would love to not share my bathroom with five other people, but this is the cost of being in a walkable neighborhood. There is nothing to me that can replace the value of the kids being able to walk out the front door and spend the day roaming the neighborhood with friends. The autonomy we are providing them and how it will shape their lives cannot be replaced by more grass. I find it a little hard to swallow when I hear boomer suburbanites complain about kids not playing outside these days. The nature of children has not changed over the centuries, but their environment has. You can’t isolate kids and then act surprised when they don't know what to do with themselves. Of course kids are on social media all the time, they are desperate for social interaction.
I am not suggesting my moral superiority over those living in subdivisions. Like many of my generation, I never understood the virtues of living in a walkable neighborhood until I did so myself. Only in experiencing this lifestyle firsthand, can one begin to appreciate its value. No, this is not a call for people to scrap their subdivisions for traditional neighborhoods, though I believe many would find it preferable, my message is this; if city leaders want to create stronger, more vibrant and resilient neighborhoods, they have to reconsider what neighborhoods get built. City leaders looking to make their communities stronger, more lovable and fostering more engaged citizens, need to rethink local policy and investment strategies. In some places, due to out of date zoning ordinances, the types of neighborhoods we need cant even be built today.
I believe this metaphor is valuable in that it helps us to understand how communities function. A community is a complicated concept due to its intangible nature. A sense of community can only be felt, and it can only be experienced first hand. There is no way to measure the strength of community, it can only be conveyed anecdotally. But a sense of community is real and its vital to our places and to our wellbeing. Each and every one of us deserves to experience a strong sense of community and every city would benefit from fostering it. A community is a fabric and as we increase the thread count, it grows stronger. As the fabric grows stronger, a community becomes more resilient. Everyone that shares that fabric benefits from greater support. The fabric of community is what holds us together as a neighborhood and a society and the stronger it is, the harder we are to pull apart.