Our lives are defined by relationships. Our happiness and well-being are largely determined by those relationships we carry throughout our lives. Some are good, some are bad, some change us profoundly and shape our lives more than we could have ever expected. Relationships make us who we are and are essential for a healthy life.
Yet not all relationships are healthy. Every one of us has experienced a relationship that was less than ideal. Those friendships that never felt on equal footing, or a romantic relationship that felt like one person was giving so much more than the other. Sometimes two people are not compatible. Often times, one person is just not capable of being in a healthy relationship because of their own personal challenges.
When you find yourself in a relationship that isn’t healthy, you really just have three choices.
There is a relationship that we are all in, but we pay it so little mind. We all have a relationship with our community, whether we acknowledge it or not- and if you weren’t even aware you were in a relationship, then I’m guessing it’s not a good one. The relationships we have with our communities used to be much healthier. Our grandparents had a different kind of relationship with their town than we do and it’s safe to assume it was a better one. I like to look at photos of my grandparents’ city. Sadly, that place no longer exists in the same form. They tore it down and replaced it with some strip malls, but everyone is pretending everything is the same.
I feel confident saying my grandparents had a good relationship with their city. I mean first off, their city was HOT. Like I said, I’ve seen the photos. Stone and brick buildings, three, or even five stories high. Nice wide sidewalks for people and business and narrow streets for cars. Cute little local shops, big storefront windows. Block after block of well-built houses, all walkable to school and work. 🔥 🔥 🔥
I think about the part of my town that I never got to visit and all the towns across the country that have disappeared. All the lovable little towns that we used to call home, that were scrapped, abandoned and replaced. Not all at once, of course- the process happened over the course of decades, but building by building, business by business, we swapped out pretty, durable, quality and local for cheap, ugly, disposable and national chains.
I think about these places that disappeared and what it must have been like to have a relationship with them. These forgotten towns served residents well. Kids knew growing up that they could make a nice life for themselves without leaving. They had sufficient opportunity. They could start a small business, maybe build something, or go work for a local business owner. There was no requirement for the best and brightest to depart for greener pastures.
These towns embraced the ideas of progress and effort. City leaders and residents understood that it takes hard work to get better, but when you get better, you feel better. A community that was constantly making strides, constantly progressing, was a place you could be proud of. Think of what it feels like personally, every time you make an improvement to your home- how you experience a sense of reward and pride when you update a room or repair a problem. That feeling lifts you up and makes you feel a sense of accomplishment. Our cities used to improve all the time. Progress was expected. They were updating rooms and making repairs every year. To live in those cities was to experience your surroundings getting better year after year.
The towns that went away were particularly good at fostering a sense of community. They were designed to bring people together and provide people with a sense of belonging. This was the nature of the built environment residents enjoyed. Our town builders were simply following the civilization playbook we’ve been using for 7000 years. City founders, leaders and builders understood that a vibrant public realm was critical to the health of the city and its citizens.
Ahhh…the public realm. We don’t do much public realm these days, do we? A real tragedy. This is the place people go to be a part of their community, to experience the bond they have with their fellow citizens, the place they get to go to feel an attachment to their town. As we have diminished the public part of our cities and expanded the private part, we have taken something special away from residents. We have weakened residents’ sense of belonging and denied locals a place to bring goods and services to market. In taking away the public square, we have extinguished the beating heart of our cities.
The changes we have made to our cities have deprived us of the basics of civic life and in doing so, we have made our communities into bad partners. It’s hard to be in a good relationship with a bad partner. If there is so little to love about a place, it will be very hard for people to love it. If a partner doesn’t bother to take care of themselves, they become hard to love. Our cities used to give us so much. So much beauty, so much pride, so many connections. So many attributes that made them lovable, attributes that fostered a deep and rich attachment.
Those cities understood how to be a good partner. They knew how to be part of a healthy relationship. There was a give and take. Our cities today…so many of them aren’t capable of being a good partner. So many of them drive good partners away.
If your city is hard to love, if it’s not taking care of itself, if it’s not giving you anything back in return, you are in a bad relationship. Your city is not holding up its end of the bargain. So you have a choice.
You stay, and you get used to it. You adjust to your surroundings. You adapt to the rundown conditions. You just accept things as they way they are and you lower your own personal standards to accommodate the place you call home. You don’t change your place, you are changed by your place.
The second option is that you leave. You move on to a place that suits you. You seek out a healthy relationship. You find a partner that deserves your care and concern. A partner city that is capable of giving you something back in return. This is expected. We can’t keep hoping that those people willing to hold themselves to a higher standard will remain in towns that don’t.
Finally, you can fight to fix it, and I hope you do. We need more people sticking around for the fight. Instead of lowering your personal standards to accommodate your town, help your community lift its civic standards. Find other people that feel the same way, because most of them do, they just don’t know it yet. Everyone wants to live in a nice place, you just have to find them and band together. Together, people have the power to reshape their place. It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick, but if this is the place you call home, there is nothing more meaningful you can do.