Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Having More Trust in Our Neighbors

In my previous post, I wrote that site design can be effective at promoting public safety.  If land uses are designed to encourage people to be outside or to keep an eye on the public realm even when they’re inside, crime can be reduced.  Also, as Charles Montgomery writes in “Happy City”, we’re likely to live happier lives.

But there’s is a hurdle to clear before we fully engage in public space.  Many of us are wary of our fellow human beings.  Perhaps we’ve learned to enjoy the company of the folks who live across the hall or next door, but we cast a dubious eye on the folks we don’t know and who live on another floor or down the block.

Montgomery has an example that perfectly illustrates this mistrust.  A hypothetical situation is proposed.  People are told that they’ve lost a wallet with identification, credit cards, and cash in their neighborhoods, but beyond where they’re likely to be known by the finder of the wallet.  When asked if the cash would be returned, only 25 percent said yes.

But when a study testing this exact situation was done in Toronto, 80 percent of the wallets were returned with the cash intact.  The strangers whom we bump against in our daily lives are more than three times as honest as we expect them to be.  That’s a staggering difference.

It’s possible that mistrust of strangers is an evolutionary trait.  Perhaps our ancestors were more likely to survive and to procreate if they were instinctively distrustful of the tribe on the other side of the valley.

But we’ve reached a point in history where the evolutionary benefit may have reversed.  Now, mistrusting strangers may push us into living situations and lifestyles from which we fail to suppress crime, harm the environment, and undermine municipal finances.   Mistrust can prevent us from embracing urbanism.

And often, the people we mistrust are good people.

A couple in my family tells a story that illustrates the point.  The couple was moving into a new home in the North Bay when the family dog slipped away.  The first they knew of the dog’s absence was when the wife received a call from people who had found the dog and were holding it until it could be reclaimed.  The husband immediately went to meet the rescuers, gratefully recovered the beloved family pet, and offered a reward.  The rescuers declined.

But the couple still had the phone number of the rescuers.  So they bought a gift certificate and called to arrange a meeting to give the certificate.  The rescuers again declined.  Ensuring that the dog was safely home was the only reward they wanted.

Reading this story, many readers are likely picturing the rescuers as a clean-cut middle-class family or perhaps a senior couple with deep neighborhood roots.  Nope.  The rescuers were a trio of lank-haired skateboarders who interrupted an afternoon jaunt to save the dog from traffic and then sat on the curb until the owners could arrive.  The kind of youngsters at whom many would look askance if they were loitering on a sidewalk.

To be clear, none of this is meant to suggest a hippy-dippy, flower power, why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along world view.  Miscreants and crime will always be with us.  To completely eliminate crime would require eliminating the free will to choose between lawful and unlawful actions.  I wouldn’t want to live in a world so devoid of personal choice that crime no longer exists.  Being good means nothing if being bad isn’t an option.  We need a little yin and yang, good versus evil, etc.

But the fact that crime will always around shouldn’t stop us from starting with the assumption that the strangers whom we may occasionally bump shoulders are likely good people.  Or from designing our world to build upon that trust.

When you’re out and about today, make eye contact with a stranger and offer a smile.  You may be rewarded with a smile in return.

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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