A Sense of Community

Once our Garden Atrium project realized some success, I wondered what we had not included in our consideration of “sustainability.”  Trina and I brainstormed several factors, shared them with others, then ranked them in terms of their impact on quality of life and “sustainable living.”  My book, “Sustainability,” shares research in each of the topics we brainstormed.  Here’s some additional thinking about “sense of community.”

Everyone with whom we’ve shared our vision and research indicated a yearning for what they call, “A real sense of community.

Exactly what is that?

And how do you achieve it?

And what can people do about it in existing environments?

I think a “sense of community” has to include a feeling that others in your community care about you, whether you live or die, your happiness, your health, your career … and that of your family.  Most people I know who live in traditional subdivisions don’t know their neighbors … even if they’ve lived there for ten years.  They may know a few by sight, and they may even know a few names, but they rarely have a relationship that goes beyond that.

In “The End of Suburbia” (www.endofsuburbia.com), they provide a detailed history of how subdivisions grew.  They’re designed to foster automobile transportation – to and from work, shopping or schools.  You get in your car and drive to or away from your home in a contained metal vehicle isolated from walkers.  Many subdivisions have no sidewalks … nothing to encourage pedestrian movement, which doesn’t use gasoline.

Once the pattern was established, developers engaged civil engineers to do subdivision layouts.  Those professionals normally receive training in drainage and ease of car movement, but none whatever in how to design a subdivision in a way that fosters a “sense of community.”

While subdivisions are – consciously or unconsciously – designed
for isolation, what can you do to create some sense of community?

Long ago, I read Serge Chermayeff’s book, “Community and Privacy.” It clarifies the concept of privacy, by identifying different degrees of privacy, such as:  the world, our community, me and my immediate neighbors, my family and friends, me and my spouse, and … just me.  The book talked about the need for a “lock” – a transition space – between each level of privacy …

Go from the higher lake into the lock, into the lower lake.

Go from the restaurant‘s dining space (“patron privacy”) into
a small hallway (lock,) into the restroom (“gender privacy.”)

Go from our living room (friends & family privacy) into
a hallway (lock,) into a bedroom (personal privacy.)

As a transition space, locks help people in the activity spaces on both sides feel more comfortable. However, in typical subdivisions, we go from the front door or garage, (friends & family privacy,) to the entire subdivision, with no lock.  Too big a jump.  Before our Garden Atrium project, we lived in historic Georgetown, in Washington, D.C.  Whenever we opened our front door to go for a walk, tourists would stop to eyeball into our interior …

“Oooh, look … an historic house!”

It really felt intrusive.

Here are two suggestions that may help you create a better sense of community than may exist now …

Create a visual screen between the street and your home.

People rarely use their front yard.  There’s no privacy.  Just a plain patch of lawn.  So – using either landscape materials, such as a hedge, or a man-made product, such as a privacy fence, create a visual barrier between your home and the sidewalk or street.  You’ll end up with a semi-private front yard space that will feel much more comfortable.  (It’s done on many estates, and isn’t limited to the wealthy.)

You can also create a visual screen between you and your neighbors – such as around your back yard – to gain great comfort there, also.  It isn’t really rude.  What I learned from living in Georgetown – a high-density community – was:

When people have a private space into which they can retreat, they seem more comfortable coming out and mingling with neighbors.

Create a crossroads.

This is another method for fostering a great “sense of community.” (I detailed it in my Sustainability book.)  Historically, how is this done?

  • In Italy, the piazza … people gather in the square (usually in front of the church) for coffee or wine.  Café’s encircle them.
  • In “small town USA” – the courthouse square was often a place people gathered.  Shops surrounded them.  People sat in the park, fed pigeons, socialized.
  • In China, people gather at dawn for Tai Chi.  In the evening, they bring birds in cages, and play cards or Mahjong.
  • In New York’s Washington Square, people gather to play chess.  Others walk by, as activity begets activity.

Subdivision “clubhouses” – created to foster gathering – often don’t, because they’re out of the way.  If you wish to create a crossroads in your community, identify some central place.  Then think of activities in which many people might engage.

Can mailboxes be located there?

A Saturday morning farmers’ market?

If provided, would people use chess tables?

How about a basketball court or skateboard track?

If you created gardening plots, would people use them?

You’ll need to identify activities that a lot of people want.  Then you’ll have a space “where it’s happening.”  And if that space is central, so that everyone knows it’s there and is an easy walk from their home, people will gravitate there. It’s a magnet.  You will have created a true crossroads … a greater sense of community … and higher “quality of life” feelings for you and your neighbors.

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