This I Believe

Petra - westminster, Colorado
Entered on July 10, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: community

Neighborliness by Design

Previously, I lived in what appeared to be the American dream: a nice two story home on a cul-de-sac in suburbia. I lived there for four years, yet never got to know my neighbors. I knew my neighbors by their cars, because the only time I saw them, that is where they were: behind the wheel. When people were outside, they were in their own backyards. I felt isolated, but didn’t realize how isolated I was until I had an emergency with no one I could call for help.

I was at home, alone, when I began to hemorrhage, my husband was an hour commute away. I called my doctor, who told me to get to the hospital immediately, then I realized: I have to drive myself. I didn’t have anyone to call, it certainly never entered my mind to call one of my neighbors. I drove 15 minutes to the hospital, hunched over the steering wheel, where I miscarried my first pregnancy, alone. Fortunately, I was able to carry the next pregnancy to term, and had my daughter. I became a stay-at-home parent in my traditional subdivision, which is when I really began to feel stranded; stranded alone in a sea of beige, identical houses, a ghost burb complete with blowing tumbleweeds. I’d never been so unhappy, but it never really occurred to me why. My husband and I decided to move to a new urbanist community, and it completely changed my life.

In contrast to traditional suburban development which is usually about isolation: getting as far away from your neighbors as you can afford–new urbanist developments are about connecting with your neighbors and the community. These communities encourage neighborhood interaction and pedestrian life through design: they have wide sidewalks, numerous public spaces such as pocket parks, front porches, and are higher density (normally a suburban swear word).

Because the design of my neighborhood encourages people to be in public, I’ve met nearly all my neighbors and have close friendships with many of them. This is what sociologists refer to as “social capital”—lots of people you can count on for help and support, or just the friendly adult chitchat that is the antidote for toddler speak brain mush. When I had an emergency situation recently in my new neighborhood, I had mental list of 15 neighbors I could call for help, the one I called first was at my door in 5 minutes. It was this difference between my new neighborhood and my old that convinced me: I believe good design isn’t just for show, it can change people’s lives for the better.