Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Neighbors are Great, in Measured Doses

I have a regular reader who often responds when I write about socialization in urban settings.  After living for a number of years in a low-density, west Marin rural neighborhood, the reader and his wife moved several years ago into a moderately dense urban setting, on the outer fringe of what can be considered walkable.  (His Walk Score is 63.) 

The reader tells me that he found the socialization better in his rural neighborhood.  He reports that he and his wife have tried, with limited success, to make friends in their new neighborhood.

I’ve responded that social networks take time and that the buffer between public and private spaces is crucial.  My responses were generally adequate, but felt less informed and complete than I might have wished.

Luckily, Charles Montgomery came to my rescue with a story in “Happy City”, a story that also resonated with experiences from my own life.  Montgomery’s theory, for which I can vouch, is that socialization requires settings in which interaction can be initiated and sustained, but from which a graceful retreat is also possible.

Montgomery tells the story of a Vancouver resident.  Thinking that he would be happy in a small apartment with a great view, the man bought a condominium in one of the slender towers that define the Vancouver approach to urbanism.  But the skinny common hallway leading to his condominium front door wasn’t conducive to social contact.  Even when he bumped a neighbor, the greetings were brief and perfunctory.  The man soon found himself lonely, with the view taunting him in his isolation.

Chance led him to move to a different condominium, one in a two-story building near the foot of the tower.  In his new unit, the social interface was different.  He could retreat inside when he wanted privacy, linger on his balcony when he was willing to exchange greetings with neighbors, and even be lured into community volleyball games in the common area.

He blossomed in his new setting, building strong relationships that helped define his life.

I can relate a similar experience from my own life.  My first three post-college homes were in multi-family settings, two apartment complexes and one condominium development.  Each place had a different configuration, with differing socialization effects, although it took me years and “Happy City” to understand why that was.

My first home was an apartment with interior hallways.  There was no place to linger in the halls.  I only saw neighbors if we both happened to be in the hallway at the same moment.  There was a pool in the center of the complex, but with some 300 units in the development, the chance of seeing a familiar face at the pool was slight.

I lived in the apartment for a year and became acquainted with only a single person.  As I recall, the only knock on my door during the entire year was by a policeman with an arrest warrant for the previous tenant.

My second home was even less facilitating of socialization.  The front doors were reached by exterior walks and stairs that were shared by only one other apartment.  Nor was there an area for mingling anywhere within the development.  I lived there eight months and don’t recall a single other person.

I wouldn’t have described myself as lonely in either of the apartments.  But after five years of college with the shared living and laughter of dorm rooms and campus apartments, it was odd to find my social life existing only at work and elsewhere away from home.

And then I got lucky.  Having done my first full-year, post-college tax return and realizing that I desperately needed deductions, I looked for a home to buy.  I found a nearby condominium project that was nearly sold out.  But one of the units had fallen out of escrow.  I quickly snapped it up.

And so I found myself with a condominium overlooking a pool.  The front door access was much like the second apartment, an exterior walkway and stairs shared with only one other unit.

But the key feature was the balcony perhaps thirty feet from the end of the pool.  I would arrive home after work, shed my tie, and step onto the deck to see who was hanging out.  Spying a few friends, I could grab a beverage and join them.  Or if there was no one with whom I wanted to chat, I could retreat inside to begin dinner.

From the balcony launch pad, much like the latter condominium in Charles Montgomery’s Vancouver example, I quickly built a social circle.  At its peak, there were perhaps a dozen of us who gathered around the pool in various combinations, sometimes continuing onto dinner in one of our homes.  And all of us lived around the pool, giving us the opportunity to engage or to withdraw as we saw fit.

It’s been more than 30 years since I moved on after that condominium, but I still remain in regular contact with one of the couples from that social circle and their children who later in life completed their family.

And that’s the message that I’d give to my reader frustrated by the socialization of his semi-walkable neighborhood.  It’s not he and his wife.  It’s not unfriendly neighbors.  It’s the settings that fail to give us the range of social interaction possibilities.

We’re cautious in how we get to know people.  We want to meet new people.  But we also don’t want to find ourselves stuck in conversation with a boor for the evening.  Not do we want to risk being rebuffed if we move too quickly.  And so we need settings that allow us to dip our toes into the social whirl and that allow us to withdraw when we wish

Urbanism can meet that standard, as the photos from Paris and Venice show.  It can also fall badly short.  What are the chances of beginning a lifelong friendship while reclining on a balcony above a parking lot?

Socialization in urban settings is a solvable problem.  But only if we understand it and try to solve it.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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