When I owned my home, I was an activist in my neighborhood. I organized 4 blocks surrounding my property as a neighborhood-watch-group and, together, we managed to eject a prostitution ring from the area. I also joined the city’s emergency network and trained to be a responder in a natural disaster. Eventually, I sold my home and moved to a retirement center. Within a few months, I was down on my knees, cutting plastic squares large enough to cover my apartment windows and those of my neighbors’. I had left one community but joined another.
As Aristotle observed centuries ago, we humans are social animals. We know in our DNA survival depends upon cooperating with others. What’s surprising is that we’ve given so little thought to this fact when we design our cities. Planners think in terms of physical structures — how to build an edifice well enough to survive earthquakes, or storms, or floods. Lately, however, sociologists have been encouraging planners to think about social infrastructure. (“Strength In Numbers,” by Eric Klinenberg, Wired, November 2016, Pg. 106-110.)
The new emphasis comes from studies made after recent disasters. The assumption had been that survival rates in poor areas would be lower than those in affluent ones. The assumption proved false. More puzzling was that adjacent neighborhoods suffered different, rather than the same, survival rates. How were these findings to be explained?
Apparently, the social cohesiveness of a community made all the difference. (Ibid pg. 108) Neighborhoods where people sat on their porches and kept an eye on one another, or where well maintained sidewalks encouraged outdoor activity like walking and shopping, enabled people to grow aware of one another. The study concluded, “it’s the strength of a neighborhood that determines who lives and who dies in a disaster,” because, in a disaster, neighbors are likely to be first responders. (Ibid pg. 108.)
Robert Frost may have gotten it wrong about good neighbors. Fences may not matter. But good stoops do.