The vlog for this week cover's one of the neighborhoods we are researching, Pettit-Rudisill, while the blog for this week covers my experiences walking in the neighborhoods.
The Value in A Smile
"You shouldn't smile so much. People will think you're crazy."
On one of my neighborhood walks, a neighbor told me this, and in doing so, told me volumes about the neighborhood atmosphere. Smiling and greeting others is not a norm there.
But it should be.
Smiling and greeting others both recognizes their dignity and also serves an important social function: it makes everyone feel safer and it encourages confidence in the community (https://www.technology.org/2014/07/28/greeting-street-helps-cope-social-disorders-researchers-claim/).
With less people walking outside and making an effort to smile and greet their neighbors, social cohesion breaks down (I mentioned this in depth in my podcast with NeighborLink Executive Director Andrew Hoffman, https://www.neighboringpodcast.com/podcast-episodes). It is this social cohesion that makes the difference when people are explaining how safe or happy they feel in their neighborhood. There is something comforting about knowing those around you, and them knowing you.
A beautiful sidewalk, ready for interaction!
This sense of connection starts with "the ballet of the sidewalk," where all different types of people intermix, explained Jane Jacobs, a famous activist for city planning and urbanism. In Jacobs' most famous book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," she devotes the first 3 chapters to "the uses of sidewalks", namely safety, contact, and raising children (Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House).
For all the important social functions that sidewalks provide, they are easily overlooked when it comes to maintenance and infrastructure redevelopment. Until residents speak up and make their needs known, sidewalks continue to crumble(or are missing entirely), which discourages people from using them. Since, "a well-used city street is apt to be a safe street," anything that discourages people from being outdoors is a bad idea, actively discouraging people from knowing their neighbors (Jacobs, 1961). This is one of the reasons people benefit from being involved in a neighborhood association: the neighborhood can organize and petition for the city to repave sidewalks and streets.
On my neighborhood walks, there are times when I have to pay close attention to the ground, because the sidewalks are so uneven or covered with debris, and anything that is an annoyance for those walking, is a true impediment for those on wheels, whether strollers, bikes, skates or wheelchairs (as I am biking more, I can confirm this). These issues seem like minor inconveniences when looked at individually, but the larger implication is that people spend less time outdoors, and therefore less time together.
Just like a sidewalk does not crumble in one night, a neighborhood does not become disconnected in one night. It becomes disconnected as the result of small choices. Both from my research and from my time out in the neighborhood, I can see the various social forces, historic trends and personal choices, which can lead once healthy neighborhoods to social disorder and disintegration.
One by product of wide streets is that it is hard to greet neighbors on the other side. Wider streets came as a by-product of increased car ownership, which was also driven by the movement to create residential areas free of amenities like grocery stores or restaurants.
Little choices matter and add up. Simply spending time outside your home and greeting neighbors can make your neighborhood feel more safe and vibrant. When choosing to participate in the neighborhood association and local events, you are creating a healthier community. The type of community we all want to live in.
So. Choose to smile, even if it feels unnatural. Choose to greet your neighbor the next time you see them, even if you've lived as strangers for many years. Choose to walk your streets and invest your time and presence in your neighborhood. It's worth it.