A long while ago, I heard Robert D. Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, speak at Franklin & Marshall College. His speech piqued my interest, and I read his book, in which he provides compelling evidence of the decline in America of what he calls “social capital”, a connectedness between the people in society. Although I agreed with part of the conclusions of his book, notably that there has been a major decline in social capital in the U.S., I was unsatisfied by his causal explanation for the decline. Putnam rightfully points to television as one major culprit, but he doesn’t fully explore why people started watching so much more television. Could it have something to do with the neighborhoods we live in?
My feelings about community gathering spaces:
I absolutely love neighborhood gathering spots, those places where people from a neighborhood come together to socialize and connect. There are many different types of spaces that could function as gathering spots in a neighborhood: coffee or tea shops, restaurants, bars, parks, town squares, and other outdoor spaces, churches, public-access buildings or outdoor terraces on a university campus, public government buildings like libraries, corporate office buildings with public areas, the possibilities are endless.
One of my favorite neighborhood gathering spots (which was also a gathering spot for interesting people of the Greater Cleveland metro area as a whole) is Algebra Tea House, pictured below:
I love this place because it’s the kind of place where you can easily strike up interesting and meaningful conversations with people. If you’re feeling more social, you can sit at the counter, or if you’re in a more private mood, you can seek out a more secluded corner in the back. People who live in the nearby neighborhood of Little Italy frequent the shop, as it not only sells coffee, tea, and baked goods, but also a reasonable selection of fresh produce, some food, and it provides wireless internet and a printer. This tea house is convenient and is a huge asset to the neighborhood in which it is located.
The Value of Community Gathering Spots:
Spaces in which people can get together and hang out are obviously fun. They help people to relax, and they provide a good place for groups to get together in a more public setting, or a place for single people to go if they just want to get out of their house or apartment.
But there are other values to these spaces as well. As someone who has run one successful business and is currently working on a second, I will testify to the immense economic value of meeting people and networking for business purposes: any business owner will likely confirm this. Even if you’re not an entrepreneur, networking and knowing people can be important when searching for a job or other opportunities.
Social gathering spaces are often one of the best ways to meet people for business networking purposes. Just by being present in these spaces, I would naturally end up in conversations where people would ask me about what I did, and express curiosity about my business. I picked up quite a few new clients, directly and indirectly, from these casual conversations. While I did also join a number of groups that were oriented specifically towards business networking, I made just as many valuable business connections in social contexts and public spaces that were not explicitly business-oriented, including coffee shops, bars, at social dances, and even on buses and trains.
Walkability is central in creating neighborhood businesses:
Integral to the neighborhood character of Algebra Tea House, and many similar bars, restaurants, and stores, is the fact that it is located in between houses and apartments, in a dense, walkable neighborhood. It’s so much easier to casually stop in a business or other gathering place, if you are already walking by it. A person can even glance in the window to see if any friends are inside. In car-oriented development, however, much more deliberate behavior is required in order to drive to, park, and enter a business or other space. In this newer type of development, connections only happen when they are specifically planned. In these businesses, where few people drop in or hang out, it’s less likely that you will strike up a conversation with someone you’ve never met before.
The local distribution of businesses is also important if businesses are to function as community gathering spaces. While businesses naturally like to locate near each other because of the synergy produced by having a bunch of commerce in one place, if all the commerce serving a large area is centered in a single place, such as a mall, you will be less likely to run into someone you know when going to that place. If, on the other hand, there are more small businesses scattered throughout different neighborhoods, you will be more likely to run into people from your neighborhood when you visit the businesses closest to where you live.
The lack of these community spaces can make it harder for newcomers to become connected into the community. As someone who has lived in 10 different neighborhoods in 6 different cities, towns, or metropolitan areas since graduating college, being able to connect easily in new location is important to me. But often, the lack of these spaces isn’t just something that affects newcomers, it’s something that reflects the fact that people in the community are not connected to each other!
Have these public spaces declined in America?
Yes. Look at the style of development that has been proliferating. Many newer areas in recent years have been developed in a car-oriented suburban style, with strip malls and shopping plazas instead of neighborhood-oriented businesses like those located in small storefronts in walkable neighborhoods. Even the physical layout of the streets has changed, as I wrote about in The Joys of Through Streets. Meanwhile, older neighborhoods are dying in cities across America:
While suburban-style shopping plazas are thriving across America, older urban areas that have infrastructure that lends themselves to smaller, neighborhood- and community-oriented businesses are dying. While there are many such areas that are thriving, there are many more that are in very bad shape, like the storefronts pictured above. Not only does the car-oriented nature of these suburbs, and their greater distance from employment centers require more car use (and thus more fossil fuel use) and thus provide a barrier to achieving sustainability, but these newer suburbs do not lend themselves to the spontaneous formation of community.
As I explained above, community gathering places are not just enjoyable, but they have measurable economic value. These newer suburbs are not only not sustainable environmentally, but they are poorer in economic opportunity for those who live in them!
Churches as an example of how people’s uses of existing spaces has tended away from neighborhood orientation:
The blog of St. George’s Anglican Community in Phoenix, AZ has an excellent post titled C.S. Lewis on Going to Church. The post remarks on the phenomenon of “church shopping”, noting how C.S. Lewis had an unwavering commitment to attend his own local church, even if he was getting little out of it. Lewis believed that the purpose of church was not for him to get something out of it, but rather, to bring something to church.
I struggle with this issue myself. Everywhere I have lived, I have visited some of the neighborhood churches near me; sometimes I find that they mesh or resonate well with my values and beliefs, whereas other times I find these churches are more of a stretch to relate to. But even in the churches where I haven’t found a good “fit”, I have still had meaningful conversations with people. It is almost always possible to find the best in any situation, and if we set out to visit a local church with the intention of becoming more connected to the local community, rather than to find a church that matches our beliefs, we will be more likely to be satisfied and successful in what we set out to do.
You do not need to join a church or religious organization as a member, believe what the church believes, or even be a believer in or member of the more general religion the church or organization is, in order to attend it now and then. In many cases, attending a church with differing views from your own could provide the additional benefit of giving you more perspective on life, or exposure to a new culture or new ideas.
Semi-Public, Semi-Private Spaces:
Not all community gathering spaces exist in businesses, organizations, or public property: people’s homes often fill this function to a degree. The architecture of the homes is very important. During the warm months, houses with large front porches often function as semi-public community spaces. Neighbors may gather casually on someone’s porch to chat, and if you sit on your own porch, you will be more likely to see (and thus connect with) others in your neighborhood.
Half-public, half-private spaces in people’s homes can take many different forms. In some neighborhoods, people use front lawns for this purpose. Some apartment complexes have shared courtyards. In dense urban areas with rowhouses and no porches, people sometimes sit and chat on the stoops of their homes. If you are creative, you can make a semi-public space out of the area you live in.
What can you do?
- Familiarize yourself with the neighborhood and community gathering spaces near where you live and work. Make an effort to spend time in them, either alone, or with groups of friends, in order to help keep these spaces vibrant.
- If you attend church, try attending a church in your neighborhood at least periodically, even if it doesn’t fit as closely with your values, and even if you choose to attend another church as your main church. Think both about what you can bring to the community in that church, and about being connected into the local community.
- Choose to live, shop, and spend time in walkable neighborhoods to whatever degree possible. Try to avoid spending time and money in more isolated, car-oriented areas unless you have a compelling reason to do so. Use your spending decisions as a way to exert influence over the direction in which society develops, so as to promote sustainability and strong communities.
- Spend time and money in the businesses that function as community gathering spaces so that they thrive. Use and voice your support for other community spaces, such as public space in colleges and universities, churches, park space, or other space run by public/government entities.
- Consider buying a house or renting an apartment where you will have access to a front porch, or other semi-public area, if possible. Brainstorm about what you can do to create a semi-public area in your home.