March 22, 2024

Some were worried, others were concerned. We got lots of advice. 

Amber and I were cautioned numerous times to be very, very careful. Friends and family, out of an abundance of care (which is greatly appreciated) were concerned with our well-being on our recent road trip around the Yucatan Peninsula. 

I can’t speak to the statistics of other parts of Mexico, but the Yucatán Peninsula is as safe as anywhere in North America. On our trip we had the chance to visit five different cities and towns- some big, some tiny, one touristy and another just a speck on the map- we never felt threatened. We never felt unsafe, we never worried, we didn’t ever perceive anything to feel worried about, in fact, it was quite the opposite- we both felt an overwhelming sense of trust in the country in which we were traveling. 

I have been thinking a lot about trust lately and the important role it plays on our society. Particularly, of course, about how trust is built into the design of our communities and how we can foster it to make our places better. I can’t quite put my finger on what made the towns we visited feel so trusting but it was definitely something both Amber and I recognized. 

It was a reminder that our places are always shaping our behavior, guiding our decisions, the neighborhood informing us how to behave and locals showing us the way things work. 

More often than not, shops were left unattended. We could walk into a nice store and find that no one was around and, after browsing for a couple minutes, someone would eventually show up to offer some assistance, but there was clearly not a concern about inventory loss. Many of the shops were wide open to the street where items were available to someone passing by with ill intent. This clearly sent the message the store owners were not concerned with theft and that it must not be much of an issue. 

I noticed that in general, people did not seem to keep to close of an eye on their personal belongings. Purses left on chair backs, bags left on the ground, people left their phones on the table when they got up to go to the bathroom. We would typically be more vigilant at home about where we leave our stuff when out in public. 

But the feeling wasn’t just about merchandise or personal belongings, it was an untold sense that there was really never any threat to our well-being. We walked down empty alleys and quiet streets in the night, in neighborhoods and small towns where we we extremely out of place… and we felt safe and assured. I am a firm believer that humans have a pretty good sense of when a threat is present and our spidey-sense never once tingled. 

Everyone was kind, but generally more consumed with their own lives to pay us much attention. Most people we ran into were with their families, countless old couples holding hands, parents playing with their kids and no shortage of young couples quite occupied with their own interests. I don’t once recall coming across a pack of bros looking for trouble, no aggressive drivers in huge trucks threatening to run over us, I didn’t even get cat-called! 

I feel like we are constantly being warned at home not to trust one another, to be on our guard and protective of ones belongings. Whether it’s the media or concerned family and friends, someone is always quick to suggest we be suspicious of others. I know their intentions are good, but the overall message is problematic. 

Coincidentally, while I am obsessing about trust, Australian placemaking guru David Engwhicht, just shared his new book with me titled Revitalise Your Town Centre in 7 Weeks. David cites a number of examples where community leaders were reluctant to heed his advice for adding placemaking elements because of their concern for theft or vandalism. After considerable cajoling, leaders reluctantly agreed to leave tables or chairs in the public realm and in each instance, the minuscule loses hardly mattered compared to the beneficial impact. 

David rightly points out that when you lock everything up, you are automatically sending a message to the public about trust. When we treat people like criminals, they tend to feel like criminals. Trust has to be offered up first, in order to be returned. No one can make themselves comfortable in a place that feels more like a prison than it does a home. Would people enjoy visiting your house if you had all the cabinets padlocked and furniture bolted down? 

What the experience of traveling to Merida and Valladolid taught me, along with reading David’s book, is that like all things, our environment is constantly sending us messages and telling us how to behave. We are always picking up subconscious suggestions on what is appropriate by our surroundings. If everything is locked up and bolted down, then the message is that this is a town of criminals. Not quite the self-esteem boost a city might want to foster of its residents. 

On the other hand, when we trust people by believing they will behave in a positive manner, we send the message that this is a trusting community and full of good people. This begins a process of rebuilding something so fundamental to our sense of community, which is the feeling that the people we live amongst are decent and honest folks. 

All of these small decisions end up having a tremendous impact and play a part in helping to shape our opinions of one another, but also our opinion of ourselves. Don’t we all strive to be trusted and trust one another? Don’t we all want to live in places that are filled with honest and kind people? When we continue to construct the public realm with the idea that people can’t be trusted to take care of it, we only foster the notion further and deny anyone the chance to do better. We take away something so fundamental from our neighborhoods and our lives that I can’t fathom it really is worth the risk. 

Let’s try trusting one another and see what happens? Maybe it’s okay to leave some tables outside at night, maybe we can let people have an adult beverage in a public place, what if we didn’t build our communities around the worst possible scenario but instead what we wanted to experience. We build a stage for the play we want to see acted out, we should design it with what we want to experience, not what we want to avoid. 

I loved everything about our experience in Mexico and all the delightful people we had a chance to meet. We could not have felt more welcomed or charmed by the country and its inhabitants. It can be disappointing sometimes when expectations aren’t met, it can also be an incredible gift. 

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