The car-centric lifestyle that dominates most towns and cities threatens to turn us into self-centered jerks--or at least lonely, depressed, disconnected human beings stuck on our individual concrete islands. In other words, the suburban development pattern is not only an economic disaster but a social and cultural one, too. We have forced ourselves into isolated, glassed-in, walled-in lives, and it is robbing us of our humanity. It makes us worse people.
A strong neighborhood is the ideal antidote--one that offers plenty of opportunities to make face-to-face connections. People walk and bike a lot--both because road design makes it safe to do so and because economic development policies mean there are plenty of places (restaurants, coffee shops, parks) worth walking and biking to. Plenty of trees and green spaces encourage people to hang out, talk, laugh, and play.
Also, strong neighborhoods are diverse. Because they are not zoned and regulated to death, different types of housing can coexist--meaning people of all different income levels and circumstances are able to live together. Understanding and empathy flourish in such a setting. When we live in isolated bubbles, we become more self-centered, less caring versions of ourselves. When our day-to-day reality allows us to form strong social bonds, we become kinder, more compassionate, more generous neighbors.
The same things that make a place thrive economically also encourage its citizens to become their best selves. It all works together. We cannot--and should not--tear down our neighborhoods and start over. What we can do is take small steps to build stronger neighborhoods where we are.
What follows are a few reasons why strong towns tend to make us better human beings:
* The walkability factor lets us get to know, and thus care about, our neighbors. When we are out and about walking to churches, parks, restaurants, and shops, we are able to have face-to-face interactions with fellow citizens. That cannot happen when we are in a car whizzing by at 60 mph and, when we get to know people, we care about them. We are more likely to help them on a personal level.
Senior citizens, homeless people, or anyone who needs a little extra support are more likely to be seen, recognized, and offered a helping hand in strong and interconnected neighborhoods. When you recognize the elderly lady struggling with her bags at the grocery store, you will be more inclined to offer her a ride home or help her...