Happy cities, happy people

I’ve just read a couple of stories so touching that I am impelled to pass them on to you. They are both from a new book called Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, by journalist Charles Montgomery (from whom I have unabashedly stolen the title of this post).

Here’s story #1:

Happy cities1A handsome high-rise complex was built on the waterfront in Vancouver some years ago, and a young man in a good job was able to afford to buy an apartment on an upper floor. He revelled in the magnificent views and the prestige address. After a few months, a series of townhouses were built on street level right beside his building, as part of the complex. No problem, as the construction and the units themselves in no way interfered with his views. The townhouses were completed, people moved in and life went on. From his eyrie he could see the courtyard that backed onto the townhouses, where people mingled and played volleyball. It was a gripping sight, because he noticed he was becoming increasingly lonely in the socially sterile high-rise atmosphere.

Happy cities 2

The 501 complex, downtown Vancouver

So eventually he went down one afternoon when a game was on and asked if he could join in. He was welcomed and came to know some of the people who had moved into the townhouse complex. Because their gardens backed on to the courtyard, casual conversation happened naturally and an atmosphere of conviviality surrounded the neighbourhood. To cut a long story short, he sold his apartment and bought one of the townhouses.

The beguiling part of the story relates to his emotional connection to his environment. In the apartment, he was isolated and lonely. The appeal was cosmetic and it took only a few months of living there to understand the downside. But once he moved into the village, his whole life transformed. He confessed to Montgomery, the book’s author, that he considered at least half of the 22 people in that complex to be good friends, and six of them he loved as much as family. Concludes Montgomery, “Where the tower pushes people apart, the townhouse courtyard draws them closer.”

Hmmmm.

Story #2 is in its way even more poignant. It describes a purpose-built community in the California city of Davis, where over time a neighbourhood tore down its fences and developed common areas where children could play, and residents could eat and socialise together.

I’ll let the author tell this one:

“…After I shared dinner with Kevin and a dozen friends, a neighbor arrived with a small child he introduced as Kevin and Linda’s daughter. The child was about five years old, and full of spark. After Kevin put her to bed, he explained that the kid didn’t actually begin life as his daughter: she had been adopted as a nine-month-old by another community member, a single woman who later died of cancer. The change in the child’s family life was organic. As her mother’s health declined, the child spent time with key neighbors, sleeping over at Kevin and Linda’s house more and more often. The bonds of intimacy and care were so tight that when her mother finally died, the child had already transitioned into a new loving household (and she was formally adopted). The village had become her extended family and wrapped itself around her like a cocoon.”

Imagine that!—imagine the minimal scarring to the little girl as her mother died. Imagine the relative ease with which the mother was able to make her peace with leaving her daughter behind. Imagine how hearts bloomed as people in the community took on this life-altering mission together.

The stories cause me to reflect on how thoroughly our chosen neighbourhoods influence the richness of our lives. It’s a thrilling concept that we can actually stand back, look at what we want by way of social life—and then find (or create) it out there.

There’s another thing I appreciate about the book. The neighbourhoods it describes are all so different—just as we are all so different. And we have different needs at different times in our lives, as children, at university, as young adults, as parents, as career builders and money-makers, as retirees, as oldies. It’s a question of understanding what will fuel us.

For example, I taught high school in rural Alberta for ten years, and at one point moved into the city for a half year to get a second degree, in theatre. I moved into a high-rise that overlooked the river valley. In the whole five months I lived there, in spite of my sociable nature, I didn’t get to know one other person in the building. We avoided each other’s eyes in the elevator and no one ever considered lingering in the halls.

But that was how I wanted it. It was girl-cave time. My socialising was done in the hothouse of the theatre department; home was for focused work. At my table by the windows, I studied, wrote plays, learned to draw in 3-D for stage design—all with great intensity. I don’t recall having a single friend over. I passed my courses with the highest honours and all up had a very satisfying time of it.

In contrast, my life now looks pretty dissimilar. I live in a communal household, where I have access to other people day and night—if I want. I’m not sure I could now develop a stage-lighting plan to save my life, but that’s all right; I don’t need to light stages now. I have other fish to fry. As examples: it was Eve’s birthday yesterday, and I was part of the festivities. I’m participating in an online journaling project with Michael. I’m in the queue this morning for a massage by a guy who brings his table around to the house every now and then. Eve has friends staying over and they are marvellous people who provide zesty conversation. We have four close friends (if you count my husband Rick, which I do) who have Sagittarian birthdays, and this afternoon we are having a big celebration for all of them—at a warm and convivial café nearby.

So my highly social life now gets a tick, as does the short time I spent undisturbed in the high-rise. But reading Montgomery’s book, I can see there are times and places when I might have done things differently, times when I felt isolated or remote or without resources. How much richer some of my choices might have been if I’d had the understanding I do now about the importance of one’s “neighbourhood”.

So this week I am alight with the core purpose of this blog—to explore co-housing and relationships against the backdrop of our Shedders’ experience. There may be no sure cure for loneliness, but the places we choose to live in clearly make a huge difference. As a species, we are so inventive, and what more important to be inventive about than plunking ourselves into a setting that makes us happy?

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2 thoughts on “Happy cities, happy people

  1. Great post, Heather. I think of our own suburban neighbourhood. Hardly a model of close community at the best of times. Still don’t know the names of most of the neighbours after nine years at this address – and attempts to get closer are often ignored. But a dozen years ago, our situation was quite different. We were heavily involved in a parent-run Montessori school, which generated a lot of our community for both parents & children – often together. We had family friends, and often hung out as a group, with kids too. I worked in a small company that felt like family. Now our “kids” are young men working half the day in the City, often socializing there as well. Cheryl’s position may be self-destructing and she feels less connected there. I’m now working from home, so missing community from work as well. It’s only going to go more that way. What was tolerable before has become glaringly insufficient.

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