Whenever I visited New York, where I knew virtually no one outside my family, I was interacting almost non-stop, face to face. On my bicycle, I discovered funky galleries in rehabilitated lofts, a hair salon with a bongo drummer at the door – the salon manager handing me a small drum when I stepped in for a look-and-see. I also discovered folk musicians in Washington Square, break dancers on Fifth Avenue, and buildings in all shapes, some dating back to the American Revolution, all waiting to be explored. I talked and listened to people of all ages and religions, interacted with a kaleidoscope of New Yorkers with unfamiliar accents and skin colors and sexualities (My favorite New Yorker was a 20-something waitress who was half black, half Chinese, fluent in French, and working a French cafe in Chinatown).
Some interactions lasted the time it takes for a red light to turn green; others on park benches or the Staten Island ferry lasted for minutes or more. Humanity was showing me its collective face, and I got more energized by the day.
So, I moved to New York - joining a trend to forsake isolation and impersonal cyber communication in favor of people-oriented community.
Rather than being new, that emphasis on creating community dates back at least to 1961, with the publication of Jane Jacobs’s seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. At that time, uber-planner Robert Moses intended to blast a roadway through Washington Square Park, gut many of Greenwich Village and Soho’s still “undiscovered” brownstones and lofts in favor of sterile high rises, and build a Lower Manhattan Expressway which would have destroyed New York’s Lower East Side – all of this in the name of efficient transportation and structure.
Jacobs, a freelance writer with a savvy for publicity, organized the mothers around Washington Square to bring their kids out while she attracted the newspapers and TV stations. This diverse urban paradise, she told reporters, would be destroyed – for what?
Fighting the well-financed and politically powerful Moses machine, she won. Today, the threatened areas she championed are among the most vibrant in New York City. As Wikipedia summed it up, “Jacobs argued that modernist urban planning rejects the city, because it rejects human beings living in a community characterized by layered complexity and seeming chaos.”
Today, after America’s long detour into suburban isolation, the core of Jacobs’ teachings are back. This is reflected in the New Urbanism movement.
Taking off on urban stoops, which serve as places to people watch crowded sidewalks, promoting safety by doubling as the “eyes of the street,” the New Urbanism locates suburban porches in the front — not the back — of homes. Thus, residents are not shielded from passersby in their backyards, but interact with them. The New Urbanism is also reflected in the resuscitation of downtown residential lofts and art districts. Meanwhile, traditional suburban malls built mainly to promote shopping — a role much narrower than that of urban streets where life is lived, bagpipes are played, and people watching is rich — are being abandoned or converted to uses such as schools or gardens.
All of this is not new. What is new, though, is that America is also belatedly discovering that living in community makes us healthier, says Stacy Sinclair, director of education at the Media and Policy Center Foundation, a non-profit in Santa Monica. In fact, Sinclair and other public policy experts argue that the suburban, vehicle-dependent environments we built over the last 50 years foster not a “Leave It to Beaver” type paradise. Rather, they foster obesity, poor health, social isolation, stress, and depression.
Our suburbanization had led to children who can go virtually nowhere without being driven, and are developing diseases once found only in adults such as Type 2 diabetes. In fact, our “built environment,” the places where we work, play, and shop, has become a leading cause of disability and death in the 21st-century, wrote Jane Brody in the New York Times. And unless we dramatically change course, those born after 1980 are slated to be the first generation to live shorter lives than their parents.
The solution, Sinclair and others argue, is to rethink how we build community public places. “People would gather at public library not just to read books,” she told me in a phone interview. “We go to connect with objects, with people, with architecture. We go not just for the planned connections, but also for the unplanned ones. This is what makes for community – people having their needs met in a way that reduces stress.”
From the 70s through the 90s, she said, “We had perspective that if something is old, we can get rid of it and replace it with something new. Now, we are giving a rebirth to historical architecture, mixing the old with the new.”
That shared source of communal history and pride creates environments in which people connect better. And as they do so, they care for each other. So, “If I care about you enough, I will take care of me,” she said.
Dr. Richard Jackson, chairman of environmental health sciences at UCLA, who with Sinclair wrote “Designing Healthy Communities,” concurs that people who walk weigh less and live longer. People who are fit live longer. People who remain socially active live longer.
And yet, although 66 percent of all children walked to school as recently as 1974, a quarter of a century later, that number had dropped drastically to 13 percent. That drop is paralleled by suburban senior citizens who lose their autonomy when they can no longer drive. No longer can they run an errand to what was once the corner store; instead, they become shut-ins, more dependent on their children for life’s basics while being captive to their TVs and computers.
All this takes its toll. And, says Jackson, “Health happens in neighborhoods, not in doctors’ offices.”
Planners, at last, are responding by creating more public spaces and de-emphasizing the car. Over the last several years, for example, New York City has not only converted streets to pedestrian plazas with tables and chairs (see Times Square); it has also built small new parks (see Brooklyn Bridge Park) as well as 250 miles of new bike paths, those bike paths increasingly separated from traffic by parked cars or elevated traffic islands. With such changes, it is now possible to bike from East 34th Street along the East River down to the Battery, and then up the Westside to Harlem and beyond without ever encountering a car. This year, New York also plans to open bicycle kiosks, modeled on those in Paris and Vienna, from which residents can “rent” a bike — free if for an hour or so — and drop it off at another kiosk near their destination.
It is still an uphill battle. Leaving aside recreational riders, just one percent of New Yorkers commuter to work by bike. Those numbers are growing, however, thanks to the popularization of bike rooms not just in residential high rises but also in office buildings. In fact, bike accessibility has become a major selling point in the sale or rental of Manhattan apartments.
Meanwhile, more (mostly younger male) bicycle commuters ride into Manhattan on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges, while others – including yours truly - discover that cycling crosstown is often the quickest mode of transport. Not only does biking provide more exercise than pressing on a gas pedal; connections are made along the way not just with other bikers or pedestrians waiting at stop lights, but also at coffee shops and the like where bikers can stop without having to search for an auto parking space.
These types of efforts to pull away from our car-enforced isolation are spreading. In Atlanta, whose workers drive an average of 66 miles a day, the city is transforming an abandoned railroad corridor into a park serviced by both light rail and 22 miles of walking and hiking trails. Meanwhile, Elgin Park, Ill. has created an island park hosting picnics and concerts amid a rejuvenated Fox River. And my former home of Santa Monica not only features a free summer Twilight Dance series on its pier, where I caught performers from Joan Baez to the Coasters, but a “subway to the sea” is being built from downtown Los Angeles, bringing in more day trippers and tourists, minus cars and parking lots.
Still, more can be done, believe visionaries, including the late Steve Jobs, who personally oversaw the design for Apple’s Silicon Valley headquarters to maximize the random interaction of Apple employees — and thus their creativity. That will be discussed in next week’s column: How good urban design fosters creativity, both on the job and off.By Joseph Hanania, Aslan Media Columnist