Treat the Town Part 2 – Social Health

March 16, 2023

Social health isn’t a topic we talk about enough. Seen as somehow frivolous compared to the more noble endeavors of boosting the economy by shopping or attracting tourists, but a healthy social life isn’t a perk, it’s a necessity. People require other people. The greatest punishment we have devised for prisoners is to separate them from other prisoners. To make people suffer, we isolate them from other people. That should tell you something about the social needs of humans.

There are terrifying examples of kids from around the world that have turned feral from a lack of human interaction when they were young. After a certain age, they break. They are unable to integrate back into human society. Their brains are completely different from those that grow up in society. Human socialization isn’t some kind of want, it’s a fundamental need.

Social isolation has had devastating effects on our country. Between 25% and 45% of American adults have reported feeling lonely. (Fortune, June 2010) Loneliness increases the odds of premature death by 26% (J. CACIOPPO, UNIV. OF CHICAGO) Loneliness has the same impact on the body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. (Halt Lunstall, Perspectives on Psychological Science 2015), loneliness is associated with a 32% greater chance of having a stroke (Valtorta et. Al Heart, 2016) and a 2016 study by the American Association of Retired Persons found that loneliness and social isolation cost to Medicare was $6.7 billion. (Fortune, June 2010)

Because of the nature of how we build today, people are being pulled further and further apart. In our grandparent’s day, residents lived closer together. People walked to school, to work, and to the market. The social fabric was much tighter because face-to-face interaction was the norm. People knew one another and therefore they cared about one another. There was always someone nearby to rely on. Someone to connect with you if needed help. Their lives were rich with both deep personal connections in the neighborhood as well as the casual acquaintance connections we crave.

A well-designed city creates the strong social connections humans require. While social media is touted as the great connecter, it has only proved to exacerbate the problem. People spend more time on their phones which leaves less time for the irreplaceable act of being together in person. It has created more social anxiety by giving people a platform to only share the best parts of their life and has created unrealistic images to be upheld.

Social isolation is a public health crisis that can’t be treated one individual at a time. That goes against the very nature of the problem. It must be treated at the community level. We can’t keep approaching all of our problems on an individual level and have to start looking at community-wide solutions to apply to the problem.

In his book Palaces for the People, Erik Klinenberg discusses the importance of social infrastructure and how isolation is having devastating impacts on people’s overall health. The book starts with a fascinating story of the Chicago heat wave that occurred in 1995. As a graduate student, Klinenberg was doing research on why some neighborhoods were hit harder by the heat wave than others. Typical demographic patterns came into play, age, income, etc, but something unexpected took shape. Klinenberg found two identical neighborhoods, demographically speaking, yet for one, the heat wave was far, far deadlier than for the other.

How could the same weather phenomenon impact two neighborhoods, demographically identical and separated by just one street have such a different experience?

Turns out, social infrastructure was the difference. The neighborhood with the significantly lower death rate had libraries, sidewalks, community organizations, coffee shops, and parks. There were places for people to get together, socialize, and experience a sense of community. In this particular neighborhood, people knew one another and cared about one another. This made a tremendous difference when the devastating heat arrived. Residents knew whom to look in on, who might be in danger, and how to find them. The simple act of knowing more people in the community ended up saving multiple lives.

I have come to understand this concept as the fabric of community or social fabric. This is a useful metaphor for considering the social health of a town. In some places, the fabric is very weak, like in towns that have invested in sprawl. In these places retail has all moved out of the center of the city to auto-centric places. More people use larger stores and see less familiar faces. Schools moved further away from the walkable part of town so parents grow unfamiliar with one another and drop their kids off in cars. Streets grow wider so people walk less, vacancies scare people away, and so on. Almost every city has heavily invested in sprawl and the cost has been the severe deterioration of the fabric of community. In these towns, the weave of the fabric is much less dense. Ties between people are weak. No one knows one another, so they don’t care about one another. It is much easier for people to fall through the gaps as they did in the neighborhood in Chicago.

A strong fabric comes from a tighter weave. More face-to-face connections, more personal interactions. This is the feeling of being part of something bigger, the sense of belonging. In a community with a strong social fabric, people will feel connected, whole, and safer. This type of fabric is harder to pull apart and allows less opportunity for anyone to fall through the gaps.

Social health is extremely important to individuals and has an outsized impact on mental and physical health, but it can’t be overstated how much it matters to the health of a city. In places where no one feels a social connection to their community, no one gives a damn. People may like the architecture or find the landscape beautiful, but what makes people truly care about their community is other people.

There is no greater opportunity for a city to grow healthier than in helping its residents put down roots. Residents only grow attached to a place when they grow attached to the people and attachment is what a city needs. A place that fosters no attachment has no value. Too many cities make decisions thinking that people only care about cost, but they are far more concerned with value. People value places where they have friends and feel a sense of inclusion and belonging. Social ties aren’t just an added nicety for residents, they are the whole ball of wax.

Having lived in the East, West, South, and Midwest, one thing remains the same about my experience in each. The thing that sticks with me about every place is the people. I might fondly recall some ethnic restaurant or a beautiful street, but the people are what I miss most. These are the ties that bind. People want nothing so much as a connection to other people.

When living in Lancaster, Ohio I wanted to do my part to build a little community on my block. I drank beer with my neighbor Kurt plenty but wanted to get to know the rest of the street. I dropped by city hall one day to talk with the street department. I asked how I get my street closed to throw a block party. They responded that I don’t. It was not policy to close streets for a block party, because of course…. cars. The public space between our homes was not a place people were allowed to use unless they occupied a 2,000-box of metal.

Like the Karen that I am, I left the street department and dropped in the mayor’s office. I asked Mayor Dave the block party question. He agreed that it would be nice for residents, but it just wasn’t city policy. 

This annoyed me at the time, but now it astounds me. Imagine putting the speed of cars over the social health of residents. The neighborhood we live in now holds the block party in high esteem. Go to the city’s website, complete a short form and submit $25. Wait a day or two and your block party is approved. Almost every street is allowed to host their own and every day is available but Halloween.

We have hosted one nearly every year since we moved here, as it is the best way to get to know neighbors. On summer weekends we can walk outside in the evening and listen for music,  if we hear some nearby, we follow it to a block party. Each one brings us closer to the people we share a town with. Every time we attend a block party, we grow more rooted in our neighborhood, and we grow more attached to our town. Our house grows more valuable and we become less likely to sell and move somewhere else. The power of social ties cannot be overstated, but it sure isn’t valued by enough cities.

A city that boasts a strong social fabric will have residents that feel passionate about their place. Maybe the old buildings won’t stir residents’ blood or even the new park, but having strong, meaningful relationships will. The average person is not very civic and doesn’t care about what happens at city council meetings, but they care about what happens to their friends. They are going to fight for a place that their loved ones call home.

When we help people connect with other people, we not only improve their lives immensely, but we make them more rooted in their city. By improving the social health of a place, we are also improving the social health of everyone in it. We are treating thousands of people at a time with the most powerful medicine available, relationships.

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