A Placemaking Journal

Hey, Buddy: Adult friendships and the future of our communities

David Roberts over at Vox posted a new piece recently — “How our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult” — that really got me thinking.

In it, he builds upon ideas previously explored in The Atlantic and makes a compelling case that forging new relationships as an adult — the ones we characterize as genuine friendships — is simply more difficult in places that aren’t particularly walkable and where participation in one’s surroundings requires a car most of the time.

As Roberts puts it, in contrast to walkable places where new connections are routinely and serendipitously made on foot over the course of one’s daily patterns, “We do not encounter one another in cars. We grind along together anonymously, often in misery.”

This, he asserts, not only works against the formation of new friendships. It also contributes to the withering of existing relationships, as the casual exchanges and interactions that keep relationships healthy over time become burdened by an onerous degree of logistics, transportation chief among them.

Connecting (or not)

Any time I read a persuasive piece that positions traditional, compact, walkable forms of human settlement as inherently better than the more isolated, single use patterns we’ve come to characterize as sprawl, I immediately start imagining the counter arguments of those who’ve found perfectly happy and fulfilling circumstances in a subdivision somewhere.

I can’t relate to this, they’d likely say. I live on a cul-de-sac that’s exactly the kind of car-reliant place you’re talking about. And yet I’ve made a slew of new friends, our children play together, and we gather in all the ways neighbors do — watching the game, evening drinks, helping each other out.

It’s about the people, I imagine them saying. Not the place. And you know what? At the end of the day, they’re right. People who feel the evolutionary pull to connect with other people will invariably make the effort, regardless of the hurdles.

No one is saying these people don't like each other. Source: Roger Wilkerson, the Suburban Legend.

No one is saying these people don’t like each other. Source: Roger Wilkerson, the Suburban Legend.

But that doesn’t make Roberts wrong. No one’s saying that sprawling subdivisions prevent friendships or that walkable, mixed-use places guarantee them. Only that the latter makes them easier. And that’s something that matters to someone like me because, as an introvert, I’m emphatically not a motivated connector.

For me, the ease with which connections get made is crucial. And because I understand, from a rational (and professional) perspective, just how valuable human relationships and interdependence are — from our mental health to our physical health to our safety, opportunity and prospects for prosperity — I purposefully make the choice to live in walkable places. For all the reasons Roberts mentions.

Quite frankly, I need the assist.

The larger tribe

But here’s the thing: The counter arguments I willingly accept start to break down when you begin exploring what all these relationships add up to.

When you live in a diverse, walkable, human-scaled place, your serendipitous encounters and subsequent relationships cover a wider swath of the community overall. You’re more inclined to meet a greater number of people who define quality of life in different terms. Perhaps they earn their livelihood locally, or work for local government, or are involved with local charitable causes. Perhaps they come from different backgrounds, make different amounts of money, or see the world through a wholly different set of glasses.

The point is that this all adds up to you developing a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of your community overall. Which means that, as all these connections are made and people begin exploring ideas for collectively improving their circumstances, they do so understanding how their own wants exist in a broader context with the often very different wants of others.

That’s where things start getting effectively worked out — the point where all these wants get reconciled and strategies for collective advancement take shape. When people have a broader understanding of how others, particularly those of different circumstances, think and feel, this process is inherently easier because it illuminates how strategies for collective advancement may not necessarily mirror directly those most tuned to personal benefit. And when that understanding involves actual relationships wherein those outside your immediate surroundings aren’t viewed solely as some amorphous and unrelated entity competing for resources, we begin to see the promise of a more effective democracy.

We begin to see the promise of we at a scale that matters.

In contrast, let’s revisit the cul-de-sac. No one is arguing that meaningful relationships can’t be forged there. They clearly can. But because such places tend to be built and sold on the basis of price point, shared taste, number of bedrooms, and a defined offering of amenities, the scope of differences across the neighborhood is equally limited. And because walkability is minimized, connections made will tend to be among those closest to your home. Those on your immediate street.

This is where we get to the impact on the broader community. Because, when people grow together and work together to improve things collectively, they do so based on their shared interests and wants. And when your local relationships are limited as they tend to be on the cul-de-sac, that menu of wants is equally limited and more likely to bear little resemblance to the broader strategic needs of the community overall.

The shared interest of a single cul-de-sac might be to keep traffic out, but that’s in opposition to the broader community need to increase physical connections. Or, it might be to limit rentals or the number of unrelated people who can occupy a home, but that’s in opposition to the broader community need to create a diverse inventory of housing to meet the needs of a diverse collection of personal circumstances.

You get the idea.

The point is that communities rise and fall on their ability to work together and get things done. And that just doesn’t work once a community has devolved to a disparate collection of self-motivated, homogenous bands of neighbors. Regardless of how friendly those neighbors might be.

That’s the real value of the kind of walkable places Roberts celebrates. They don’t just excel at serving our individual needs. They excel at serving our collective needs as well. Which, as history shows, is the scale at which our species has survived and prospered most dramatically over time.

Scott Doyon

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