Oli Davey, Urban Movement
In Eric Klinenbergs book Palaces for the People he makes the point that trust is the bedrock on which cities grow and thrive. Modern metropolitan cities depend on our ability to think beyond the family and the tribe and to trust the people who look, dress and act nothing like us to treat us fairly, to consider our well-being along with their own, and, most of all, to make sacrifices for the general good. He notes that this requires a sense of community that will only develop through repeated human interaction and joint participation in shared resources, not merely from a principled commitment to abstract values and beliefs. Building real understanding of the people that we share our neighbourhood with requires a shared physical environment. A place where people are brought together, free of charge, regardless of age, class, race or ethnicity.
Whilst his focus is primarily on the public buildings that we all use such as libraries and community centres, I would argue that no single resource is more important in this regard than our public spaces, primarily our streets. They help to shape our behaviour in ways we’ve mostly failed to recognise; they make us who we are and determine how we live, playing a critical but underappreciated role in modern societies. Whether we like it or not, the streets where we live, work and relax shape the way that we interact with other people and they determine whether social capital develops.
It follows that streets should be places where all kinds of people can gather. Rubbing shoulders with others outside of their immediate group of friends and family, helping us to understand and deal with difference, density, diversity, and other people’s needs. They foster cooperation and trust. It exposes people to unexpected behaviour and challenges stereotypes about group identity.
Just like good public buildings, a well-designed street fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration. It helps to develop strong and supportive relationships. People will know their neighbours - not because they make a special effort to meet them, but because they live in a place where casual interaction is a feature of everyday life. They are a powerful way to promote civic engagement and social interaction. A good street should provide the setting and context for social participation as well as develop a sense of where we belong. They are the essential starting point for fostering trust, solidarity, and a shared commitment to the common good, supporting shared experiences and group mixing. Good streets should be places where we can learn to deal with our differences in a civil manner.
By contrast, poorly designed streets discourage interaction and impede mutual support. They inhibit social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves. They can leave a community fragmented and divided. When the design of our streets is poor people reduce the time that they spend in them and hunker down in their own homes or selective spaces. Social networks weaken. Crime rises. Older and sick people grow isolated. Distrust rises and civic participation wanes. Streets that segregate us are breeding grounds for stereotypes and suspicion. They encourage communities to be fractured and distrustful and increase prejudice and discrimination.
Most people don’t ordinarily set-out to build communities, but, as Klinenberg eloquently points out, when people engage in sustained, recurrent interaction, particularly while doing things they enjoy, relationships inevitably grow along with a strong sense of security. I believe that our streets are a fundamental starting point in this process.