The Citizens Handbook
Making Better Social Places

Charles Dobson

Most people evaluate a place by assessing its physical characteristics: its parks, weather, walkability, buildings, parks, recreational facilities, schools, shopping, traffic, and so forth. Any positives show up in real estate brochures. What receives little attention are the social characteristics of a place. Are the people here friendly? Are they like me? Are they dangerous? Will they welcome those who are different? These are questions about social place.

People often move to a place because of its physical characteristics, but over time this wanes and social characteristics become more important. If social place does not measure up, they usually move. This frequently happens when people move to attractive rural places. The north end of Galiano Island in British Columbia is an especially attractive rural location with picturesque ocean and mountain views and the privacy of 10 acres lots. But social life is lacking, so most people move away after a few years. Social place can be positive or negative, or like the north end of Galiano Island, largely absent. A location full of people, however, is no guarantee of sociability.

Social place has a number of interesting characteristics. Almost all of them contrast with physical place. Social place can range from positive - to zero - to negative; from friendly - to unresponsive - to hostile. For many years I lived on the west side of Vancouver where many people seemed unresponsive. In some cases, residents said they didn’t care about their neighbors and didn’t want to have anything to do with them. But not everywhere. Social place varies from one city block to the next, and varies over time. Social place is not fixed like physical place, but dynamic and far more complicated. Certainly, if most people on a block prefer not to know their neighbors, it’s unlikely a place will suddenly become friendly. But I suspect most places are unresponsive out of simple neglect or a reluctance to approach strangers.

Poor neighbourhoods can be better places
Little attention has been paid to the influence of income levels on social place. In my experience, poorer neighborhoods, while less desirable physical places, are often better social places. This may be the result of people needing one another. In Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, a lack of cash drove a number of mothers to create a babysitting network, which allowed the sharing of child care, providing moms with some time off. In wealthier neighbourhoods, most moms preferred to purchase daycare or a nannie service. Low income people who live in less attractive physical places are more likely to share or take part in cooperative efforts, because they can’t pay for everything they need.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the lack of a physical asset can be a benefit. When Jon and Louise began building a house on Salt Spring Island, they first built a kitchen. A couple next-door, also building a house, first built a bathroom and shower. Since each couple had what their neighbours lacked, they decided to share. Thus, both households saw one another every day and ate most of their meals together. Once their houses were completed, however, they stopped seeing one another regularly. Visiting became an unnecessary intrusion on privacy. What a shame. What if they had decided community was more important than privacy? What if they had decided they only needed one kitchen? What if more people ignored the assumption that everyone needs their own cache of stuff.

People with more money usually want more privacy. Thus, expensive physical place often aligns with unresponsive or hostile social place. We’ve been brainwashed into believing that privacy is more important than community. People with too much money often spend a fortune on increased privacy, frequently walling themselves off from others behind high fences and tall hedges on large lots. Real estate maps paint a familiar picture of the most expensive houses remote from every neighbour. Realtors flog the benefits of privacy but ignore its downside. Most couldn’t care less about the importance of social contact for human happiness, health, and general well-being.

A sense of the difference between property-as-place and people-as-place comes from comparing Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Canada, with West Vancouver, one of the richest. In the Downtown Eastside the poor have created what many would call a good social place despite the negative influence of homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness. Compared to the rest of Vancouver, the residents of the Downtown Eastside are more likely to know one another, more likely to spend time with one another, and more likely to help one another. Michael Clague, former Director of the Downtown Eastside’s Carnegie Centre, notes that people congregate on the street because their living accommodations are tiny and often substandard. This and the lack of regular work promotes the social interaction that goes with small-scale buying and selling on the street. Every time I have visited the area, local residents have stopped to talk, question and tease me. My experience in West Vancouver has been just the opposite. I'm often left with impression that many who live in the area view strangers as service personnel. If a stranger is not providing a service, what are they but human clutter?

Physical place is easy to appreciate because it is visible. Social place is difficult to appreciate because it needs time to be recognized. Physical place may provide clues that reveal the nature of a few local actors. For instance, it may seem friendly with hand-painted signs saying: Slow Down Children Playing, but unresponsive with exterior walls covered with tag-graffiti. But to really appreciate the social dimensions of a place, you have to live there. Smart people rent before buying. They join community organizations and find ways of interacting with local residents to get a sense of social place.

The importance of conveners
The most important contributors to social place are convenors. These are people who organize block watches and block parties, who invite people to salons, who hold backyard barbeques for their neighbours, and "walking school buses" for children. Some host informal get-togethers as a way of life. I had two friends who made a practice of making sushi or pizza available for anyone who might want to drop in late on Friday afternoon – an occasion that resembled the Friday afternoon happy hour of some businesses. Eating together is a bonding ritual that turns acquaintances into friends. We need to recognize the importance of those who bring others together, given that so many people lead lonely lives.

The value of conveners extends beyond helping to create a positive social place. By creating and maintaining social networks, they are an important source of the "social determinants of health". Governments need to pay more attention to extensive research that shows the social determinants of health contribute more to health status than any healthcare system.

Agencies and neighborhood organizations as conveners
Neighborhood organizations can act as conveners by inviting residents to participate in planned activities. A neighborhood house, for instance, might provide a regular community kitchen activity where members of different ethnic groups can cook and eat together. Thus members of the Vietnamese community might show Mexicans how to cook Vietnamese food and vice versa. Without the effort of convening members of these two groups would probably never have anything to do with one another.

Wandering kids
Prior to the 1980s, children helped to build social place. Being in and out of one another’s houses, they created connections that wove families together. This doesn’t happen much anymore. Overly protective parents refuse to let their children out of the house without adult oversight. Kid networks have withered as parents have become more managerial and kids more addicted to screens.
Kid networks are an example of a centripetal force that brings people together. Opposing this are centrifugal forces that keep people apart. Heterogeneity makes it more difficult for people to connect to one another. When people cannot speak the same language, social connections are clumsy and difficult. Differences in age, education, ethnic background, and life experience make social connections more difficult. Mobility often ends connections when people move away. TV, the web and other forms of home entertainment preclude social interaction. Centrifugal forces have rendered most places pale versions of the close-knit communities of the past.

Better with live people
In an age of screens, the best friends of many people are unmet TV characters, or unmet "friends" on social media. In places like Silver Islet, Ontario where there is no electrical power, no internet and no cell phone service, children, teenagers and adults spend far more time with one another. Much of the decline of social place comes from the omnipresence of digital media. Even email can lead to social erosion, sometimes leading to unnecessary conflict. The way to resolve online and email conflict is to have combatants meet face-to-face.

Owning a dog provides companionship, and an excuse to stop and talk to anyone else who has a dog. We need to find more excuses to talk to people we don't know.

Size, proximity, frequency, mobility
Social place is enhanced by smaller size, proximity to others, daily contact, and contact over an extended period of time. Smaller communities are usually better places because of all the above. But not everyone is a fan. People who live in cities often say they like the anonymity of a large city, preferring it over a small town where too many people know their affairs. They see small towns as narrow-minded, intolerant, and hostile to newcomers. Understandably they avoid small towns, steer clear of civic engagement and choose privacy over community. But we know people are happier and healthier when they are woven into the robust social networks that are common in small towns. The problem is not the network or the interest that people have in one another. The real issue is the kind of relationships people have with one another. As I noted earlier these are not fixed like the elements of physical place but are created and shaped through social effort. A single convener in a small town can turn a closed community into a welcoming place by including people from away and those who seem strange.

Sometimes social place can be bonded to physical place in the design process. Cohousing is a good example.
Charles Durrett and Catherine McCamant are known for designing numerous cohousing projects in the United States and Canada. They’ve also written two books on cohousing, both published by New Society. When I drove through Vancouver with Charles Durrett, he said: “Look at these all these houses, all these people living by themselves; how sad.” I found the comments surprising. Wasn’t it normal for people to live by themselves in separate residences? Not according to Durrett. He and his wife reside in Nevada City Cohousing where they live with 90 other people.
Durrett tells a story about how he stumbled upon cohousing while studying architecture in Denmark. On the way to school he walked by numerous housing projects all of them showing few signs of life except for one where people always seemed to be outside talking to one another. Finally he stopped to ask why it was so different. Cohousing started off in Denmark with a newspaper article written by Bodil Graae titled, Children Should Have One Hundred Parents that spurred 50 families to organize a project in 1967. Currently 10% of housing built in Denmark is cohousing. There are about 300 cohousing projects operating in the Netherlands, 11 in Canada, and 120 in the United States with hundreds more in the planning stages. These are real communities where people look after one another and enjoy spending time with one another. Most resemble tiny villages with self-contained units built around a central open space that includes a common house. The common house always includes a large shared kitchen and dining room, and often workshops, guestrooms, and entertainment spaces. Almost all cohousing projects have common dinners 3 to 6 times a week. Helping to prepare a dinner once a month means others will cook for you the rest of the time. It also means that people see one another several times a week, far more often than people who live in private residences.

So, why aren’t there more cohousing communities in Canada and the United States? One of the reasons may be that it takes time and effort to define and build a cohousing project. Typically a group of people have to get together, identify a site, then hire professionals to co-design, build, finance and manage the project. It’s a long, complicated process. For most people it’s far easier to identify a nice place, arrange a payment scheme and move in. We are all inured to the shopping model which amounts to looking around for what you want then laying down the cash. Nothing is created, negotiated, or jointly decided with a group of others.
Besides the difficulty of assembling a project, some people assume it will fall prey to the nasty battles that frequently occur in strata projects. In many cases, the strata experience is so unpleasant that people desire nothing more than to move away and avoid anyone other than friends and family. But negative social behaviour does not seem to emerge in cohousing projects, perhaps because people see one another regularly, rather than infrequently or not at all. A cohousing project also takes some time to realize, so everyone in the group gets to know one another. If a bad apple succeeds in making the project an unpleasant experience, the group will usually fall apart. The great benefit of cohousing projects is that they bring people together. Ownership is still by strata title, but rather than detest their neighbors, people come to treasure them. Cohousing projects are not free of disagreement and they face many difficult decisions especially when they are forming. But they are capable of resolving their differences through consensus, making cohousing the model that every housing project should follow.

The benefits of dorms and shared houses
We need to devote more attention creating a balance of private and social in the same location. The best places to reside are those that provide a private place close to a social place. University dorms can offer this combination. Some have small rooms off a hallway, with a common room nearby. When people need peace and quiet, they retreat to their own rooms; when they want to connect with others they open their doors to the hallway or common room. Large houses converted into separate apartments can provide the same combination of privacy and community. In many of these places, shared washrooms encourage people to emerge from their apartments. In cohousing projects, residents regularly connect with one another in the central courtyard, or shared dining room, or other parts of the common house. 

Below Fort Camp, army huts used as student housing at the University of British Columbia for 40 years following the end of WW II. With 6x8 rooms and shared bathrooms, sociologists rated Fort Camp as first-rate housing.


Streets and accidental encounters
Adjacent social space increases the chances of accidental encounters. Modern life has increasingly given way to planned encounters, requiring people to arrange a time and a place to get together. David Engwicht in his book Reclaiming Our Cities and Towns shows that the street before the automobile served as a place for frequent social connection though accidental encounters. Accidental encounters facilitate social connection because they take little time and nothing has to be planned.
While cars have largely eliminated the street as a place for accidental encounters, it persists in a few places without traffic. When I first visited Sienna in Italy in 1992, I was surprised by the absence of cars and the crowds of people in the streets. At first I thought I had stumbled on some kind of parade, but there was no marching, no music, no movement in one direction. Instead people were just milling around. It was just before noon, the time when people wandered about buying food for lunch that preceded the afternoon siesta. It was also the time when they encountered friends and neighbors, and took time to stop and chat.
Numerous studies have shown that there are almost no social connections between people and opposite sides of a busy street. Traffic is an aggressive barrier that chops the city into isolated chunks. Removing the traffic makes the street available for prosocial encounters that were the norm in the past. But temporary removal does not seem to do much since people are not accustomed to using street for social contact. A temporary closure encourages people to wander aimlessly around looking for stuff to buy, in other words it turns the street into an outdoor mall.

Hangouts can also serve to bring people together. Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place calls these third places. They are cafés, coffee shops, corner stores, parks, bookstores, pubs, hair salons and other places where people can go any hour of the day to encounter people they know. For Oldenburg, the first and most important place is the home. It nurtures the child and provides enduring contact for family members. The second place is the work setting. It provides an income and regular contacts for people engaged in the same enterprise. Third places are “public places that host the regular voluntary informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work”. They are places of playful conversation, where regulars can stay in touch with one another. Third places are also neutral places where people can come and go as they please and no one has to play host. And they are great levelers, overcoming the tendency for people to cluster based on social rank. Because social places care little about social status they expand the possibilities for association. It is the “charm of one’s personality” irrespective of rank that counts.

Third places have declined in North America, paralleling the decline in social capital. But they survive in many small towns and in countries such as Ireland, France and Greece. In North America, many suburban housing developments have no third places. And those that remain have been invaded by screens. Robert Putnam the author of Bowling Alone has called for a broad effort to reverse the decline of third places and social capital.
Clearly we pay too much attention physical place and not enough to social place, too much to material goods and not enough to social goods, too much to privacy and not enough to community. Isn't it time we began challenging the values that separate us from one another?

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