Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mindful Community Building

What we let fear do to us. The list is endless, isn't it? Petteri has an excellent post on the topic, of which I'd like to take up the following:

I read a bit of news reporting a few months ago where they had interviewed three people, one born in the 1950's, one in the 1970's, and one in the 1990's, in a certain part of Helsinki. They'd asked them to map out the physical territory they roamed as children below the age of 12. The 1950's kid was all over the place, shooting rats at the harbor with a BB gun, climbing the rocky vacant lots in Kallio, getting into scraps with the kids from the neighboring neighborhood, taking long walks to Seurasaari, and so on. The 1970's kid's map covered the general quarter of the town pretty well, but had none of the 1950's kid's expeditions. The 1990's kid went to school, some friends houses nearby, and was driven by his parents to do sports and other hobbies. His map had a few disconnected spots on it.

It's really similar here in the States. And there are many reasons behind this shift. A heavy emphasis on the privatized, nuclear family model as the "best" way to raise children. A huge increase in reporting about child abductions and like situations, to the point where people think there's a bad guy lurking behind every tree, waiting to take their kids. Another factor is the increased reliance on cars and other motor vehicles, to the point where our towns and cities are constructed to compliment motor vehicles, and often at the expense of safe places to play, bike, and recreate.

Petteri goes on to say that while Helsinki is a safer city now than it was in the 1950's, people live as if the opposite were true. Which is something I've seen here as well.

And like Petteri, I also feel that there are various fears underlying these attitudes, some maybe legitimate, but also some completely concocted and reinforced socially.

However, I can't help but think about, for example, the ways in which how we choose to structure communities impacts our heart/minds. Or how we choose to group ourselves, such as our family structures, and how that also impacts our heart/minds.

Actually, when I read Petteri's post, the first thing that came to mind is something I have thought about off and on for years.

How do we mindfully build communities? How can we shift both physical and social structures in order to live together in a more awakened way?

Because having more and more people living in securitized, suburban-styled places where the only safe way to move in and out is by car is a recipe for disaster. And while there are signs of different models of community development gaining traction, it's amazing how much fuss putting a single bike lane on a city street causes, or how much resistance there is to efforts to create a park out of a stretch of a shoddy freeway access road (both things I've seen here in St. Paul, Minnesota). Because so many people have structured their lives around driving quickly between various points, that still seems to trump nearly everything else, even in this age of higher gas prices and assumptions that the oil age is slowly (or even quickly) on it's way out.

Over the years, I have watched the planning processes unfold for a series of inner city bike trails, for a light-rail train network, and for creating more "green space" within our two cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul). And while some great strides have been made, I have noticed that even the planners are at odds with themselves. On the one hand, sharing the visions they have for what probably would be a healthier, more integrated community, and on the other hand, saying and doing anything and everything to appeased the pissed off people that show up complaining about reduced speed limits, reduced car parking, and any general loss of ease in getting around quickly.

And yet, as someone who has never been a car driver, I look at wonder when people claim to "know their community." How can you truly know your community when you spend the majority of your time whizzing through it in a plastic and metal bubble? When you don't even know your neighbor's name?

Again, I know this doesn't describe everyone. I can even think of counter-examples in my own community here, like the highly connected block where my mother lives. I also think of all the community gardens that have sprung up in the past decade, sometimes bringing together large parts of entire neighborhoods. However, these examples haven't really translated for the most part into how we collectively handle the larger communities we live in. Big business, the whims of building contractors, and car-centric design still rule most of the day, even in fairly progressive places. It's like there are these little enclaves tucked away here and there within a sea of people living in the same space, but sharing little if anything else.

Which just leads me back to the question: how do we mindfully build communities?


Was Once said...

Sadly, having a disaster is about the only way to meet your neighbors. I push hard to meet my neighbors, and some only will say Hi, and never allow me to introduce myself or talk.

Petteri Sulonen said...

@Was Once: In my experience, this is hyper-local. Like building local. I've gotten to know many of my neighbors in the house I live in now. I got to know about two in the previous one, and none at all in a few others I've lived in. All in the same town.

As to the effect of cities built for cars rather than people, that's corrosive in so many ways it's not even funny. I was struck by how sociable the Danes were when I visited briefly last summer. I wonder if it's a coincidence that nobody's built cities for cycling as thoroughly as them? It was really impressive to see the variety of people cycling there, from middle-aged men in suits, with their briefcases in a basket in front of the bike, to old ladies, to young people, to children. Bikes everywhere!

Nathan said...

Was Once. The street my mother lives on is really different from that. The neighbors frequently spend time together, help each other out, and are welcoming to newcomers. When I look at the situation, a few things stand out. A fair number of families with kids of a similar age. The fact that many of the houses are old enough to have open front porches on them. The relative safety of the surrounding neighborhood. And also, having a few people on the block who actively organize block parties and other social functions.

Without at least some of that, or other supporting factors, it's hard to break down those walls. Where I live, it's much less social, in part because more of the places are rentals (including my apartment building), the street layout (the houses on one side of the street physically up higher), and the fact that no one is actively organizing social functions.

I guess you might say that I've spent a lot of time wondering about why it's so difficult to break down some of these barriers, and why it is that places like my mother's street have been able to.

And I'd probably love hanging with the Danes. All those bikes can only help add to the social atmosphere!

Adam said...

I don't know if you're familiar with his work or not, but James Kunstler touches on this quite a bit. Communities need to be *literally* built with these types of intentions in mind - and it can be done. Communities where civic space and pedestrian activity is encouraged will lead to a more "mindful" community. Those idsolated because they've been built with the primary purpose of moving traffic will not.

There is a human element that needs addressing as well, but the physical barriers are difficult to overcome and need to be dealt with first. How to do this in communities that have been around for a few decades? No idea.