Room For Community

October 26, 2022

What does it take to bring a family closer together?

The amount of time a family spends together is the central factor. I can speak from experience, the more meals we have together in a week, the closer my family feels to one another. The time spent around the dining room table discussing one another’s accomplishments or challenges helps us feel more connected.

The act of spending time together in order to feel closer is not unique to our family, this is the way that most families foster a closer bond. It also isn’t specific to families in general, but also applicable to communities. A community is meant to be an extension of family. These people you share a block with, you also share a life with. Yes, maybe not as directly or intimately as the ones inside your home, but the people outside of your four walls have a tremendous impact on the quality of your life. 

Sadly, these days most of us don’t place enough importance on the notion of community and it’s much to our detriment. A rich sense of community provides people with a sense of belonging, a feeling of being connected as well as the more tangible benefits of having others around to call on in a time of need. These neighbors might show up when your basement is flooding or help you search for your dog when she goes missing. A community provides us with friendships, gives us a sense of familiarity and also makes life more meaningful. 

We should all be so lucky to experience a sense of community, but like all things in life, it takes work. A sense of community doesn’t just occur and it’s more difficult than ever to foster- yet all of us can take some lessons from our own families. The solutions to our most significant civic problems are often right in front of us. We can take the lessons from our personal lives and apply them to our civic lives.

Just like a family requires a place to convene, so does a community. In our home there are certain places where the family tends to gather and linger. Our top 3- the sun porch, the den, and of course, the dining room table. These are the 3 places where it all goes down- the jigsaw puzzles, the homework sessions, the pizza nights, the zoom meetings, the movie marathons, and the family dinners.  At my sister’s, my mom’s, and at our neighbor’s-  it’s the kitchen. This common spot with the big counter where you instantly go if you want to meet someone for coffee, or wine, or connection. 

Take these rooms away and what would happen? If a house was just bedrooms and bathrooms, families wouldn’t spend time together. The design would dictate our habits, and such a place would push people apart instead of pulling them together. Is this the kind of design you would pick for your home? A dwelling with no common place, nowhere to be together, no place to interact? It’s a quick and easy “nope” for homes, but once we get past our own four walls, things change for the worse.

This perfectly describes the places most people live in. The very spaces that were designed to bring together the community, no longer exist. There is no real mystery as to why our nation’s collective sense of community has dwindled, it directly relates to the shift in the design and maintenance our our towns. 

It was no accident that a majority of the cities in this country were built around a town square. Town founders understood that quality civic space was central to the health of a community. These were the lessons they brought with the from their own countries, learned over centuries of city building. A town that does not provide a place for residents to gather will struggle to ever foster connections and residents will rarely put down roots. This is a house without rooms, a collection of buildings that never binds the occupants. 

City leaders in the last half century blatantly disregarded the importance of the public realm and taken away something integral to the civic experience. 

I have seen communities turn their town square into a war memorial. While well intentioned, it effectively keeps people from utilizing a space that was designed for the public. Memorials are absolutely an important part of the civic fabric, but can’t be allowed to replace something equally essential. 

Another common example of this is turning Main Street into a state highway. This has a similar impact of taking a place that was designed to bring community together, in changing the intention of the space, the use of the space us irrevocably diminished. Every Main Street was designed to be a pedestrian destination for acquiring local goods. The central market place allowed local producers to bring products to market and consumers to acquire those products. In creating a quality public setting for this, Main Street become a hub of activity and the center of the community. 

This worked well for decades until Main Street was redesigned around cars. It may have seemed like a harmless choice at the time it was made, but nothing could be further from the truth. As cars flooded the central market place, the people escaped. No longer was Main Street safe, or quiet or even pleasant. It was loud and scary and deadly. 

Imagine you installed a new refrigerator in your kitchen and it operated at 80 decibels at all hours and every once in awhile it would crush a member of your family for having the audacity to walk to the sink. Would you continue to use your kitchen knowing at best, you could not carry on a conversation and at worst, your spouse might have to be sacrificed for the fridge? Probably not. My guess is, you would rarely visit the kitchen and no child would ever be allowed in without holding your hand. 

A community behaves much like a family and when we take away a place for people together, we take away the place where it becomes possible to feel a sense of togetherness. A family will struggle to grow closer if there is nowhere they can be together and a community is the same. This notion of community does not exist in theory only, it requires PLACE. People have to come together for it to occur. It is by design and this is why it has always been designed into the urban fabric, because it is essential to the civic experience and the human one. 

It’s not just having the dedicated space either, but making sure that space is inviting and attractive. The space where you want your family to spend time together should be designed to  entice them. It won’t work if it is loud or dirty, if it’s not comfortable people won’t use it, therefore its function ceases to matter.

Main Street, the public plaza and town square, these are the places that are essential to the health of your town. These are the physical locations where a sense of community can occur. This is where the roots get put down and the attachment begins and deepens. These are the places we must begin to invest in if we aim to make our towns relevant to the people that call them home. 

Public places have to do more than just take up space, they have to be nice. They have to be welcoming and entertaining. They have to be better than all the other options to function properly. They must entice people from inferior places. The setting matters if good public space is going to bring people together and we must find ways to bring people together. 

Residents have to ask more of their places, demand more from their cities and towns. Of all the investments a community makes over the course of the year, what is more important than an investment in residents and creating quality public space to bring people together? It’s not just an investment in attachment though, it’s an investment in real estate as surrounding property will increase in value. It’s an investment in jobs as entrepreneurs will want to open retail and restaurants nearby. It’s also an investment in civic pride as people fall for their place they call home. 

A house is just a structure, but a home is something so much more. It’s where we belong and it’s a place we are attached to. A town is just a collection of those structures but a community is a collection of homes. It is a place we feel pride in and an idea that brings us together. 

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