November 8, 2019

The physical design of our neighbourhood acts against the creation of community

We didn’t have any trick-or-treaters come to our door last week for Halloween, so I’ve taken on the formidable task of eating all these chocolate bars myself.

We expected a few—maybe a dozen or so, like in past years—but the miserable weather seemed to scare everyone away from our neighbourhood this year. It’s a stark change from the days when we used to live in Cabbagetown and we would have hundreds of trick-or-treaters (literally, our best year we had over 400 children show up and we had to shut down early because we ran out of candy) scurrying around the neighbourhood. No matter what the weather, we could count on more visitors than we could count, or could prepare for.

Our little enclave in the southeast of Byron is much less bustling than Cabbagetown, and is surrounded by farms and woods instead of heavily-populated urban neighbourhoods. This offers one explanation of why the numbers of trick-or-treaters are low here, but doesn’t tell the whole story. The real reason we don’t get many people coming to our door on Halloween is a reflection of the failure of urban design.

In a recent post in Strong Towns, Daniel Herriges highlighted a few characteristics that make a neighbourhood good for trick-or-treating: lots of doors, doors you can find, comfortable sidewalks, small setbacks, porches or stoops, well-connected streets. Sadly, our little part of town exemplifies literally the opposite of everything he mentions: we are a mess of winding roads and cul-de-sacs with detached homes on huge lots, set back far from the street with large front lawns. We don’t even have a sidewalk in front of our house, and most streets in our neighbourhood are lucky if they have a sidewalk on one side of the street—never both. We are the antithesis of what Herriges describes as pro-social design.

What does that mean for us? First, it means that we don’t get many (or any, like this year) trick-or-treaters. Second, it means that perhaps we weren’t as discerning as we should have been when we purchased our home; we love it, and love the freedom it gives us to host others and act as a place of gathering for friends and loved ones, but it can be isolating when we don’t make the effort. Lastly, it means that in order to create a sense of neighborliness, we have to work twice as hard to create the conditions for serendipity and community activation—something I haven’t been doing enough of, recently.

This Halloween was a bit of a wake-up call for me. It reminded me that great communities don’t just happen, but that they are created and designed. If the physical design of our neighbourhood actively acts against the creation of community, we all need to work extra hard to connect with the people around us. It’s something I’ll be devoting a lot of time to in the year to come, and something I’ll most likely be sharing a lot about in the next few months.

Two poems

Why do you ask?
Kate Beston Barnes

I can’t make
      any story
            about my life
tonight. The house
      is like an overturned
the radio
      is predicting
            more snow,

I ask my dog
      to tell me
            a story, and she
never hesitates.

      Once upon
            a time,” she says,
a woman lived
      with a simply
            wonderful dog…” and
she stops talking.

      Is that all?”
            I ask her.

Yes,” she says,
      Why do you ask?
            Isn’t it enough?”

The Keeper of Sheep, VII
Fernando Pessoa

From my village I see as much of the universe as can be seen
from the earth,
And so my village is as large as any town,
For I am the size of what I see
And not the size of my height…

In the cities life is smaller
Than here in my house on top of this hill.
The big buildings of cities lock up the view,
They hide the horizon, pulling our gaze far away from the
open sky.
They make us small, for they take away all the vastness our
eyes can see,
And they make us poor, for our only wealth is seeing.

Today, we’re celebrating four years, together.

Photography was not only crucial in fostering a consciousness of conservation of public lands, but it also determined how these exceptional places were framed and consumed.”

In excellent news that needs to be replicated in all provinces across Canada, British Columbia moves to be the first to enact UNs Indigenous rights declaration in legislation.

After going all-in on AirBnB for a few years, in the past couple of years we’ve started using hotels again, which I guess is good in light of these scams and scandals that seem to be happening on the platform.

As someone whose career peaked early in life and has now begun a slow descent to irrelevance (which I am wholeheartedly embracing) I’m fascinated by late bloomers and their effect on the world.

We own a bunch of cookbooks, and strongly believe that cookbooks are so much more than recipes and photographs.

An important question we should be asking ourselves: Should we be testing doctors for empathy?

Something transcendent happens on walking tours. And those spatial-temporal elements in storytelling can have powerful effects in the neighborhoods where those stories are being told.”

In recognition that teaching kindness isn’t enough, I’m building a whole section on digital justice into the curriculum for my class next semester.

It has been nine years since Guru died, so I was surprised to hear that a new (excellent!) Gang Starr album was out.

I’ve been going back through my stack of letters I’ve received over the past year, so the question of whether printed-out emails count as letters has been on my mind.

Did you hear the good news? It’s cool, these days, to enjoy daily life.

I’m struggling with coming to terms that the decade is basically over, and perhaps that’s because the 2010s have broken our sense of time.

The opening of a literary pharmacy to support mental wellbeing sounds like a delightful idea.

At the root of this anxiety over being forgotten is an urgent question of how one ought to form a legacy; with the rise of automation, a widening wealth gap and an unstable political climate, it is easy to feel unimportant.

This Urban Tetris by Mariyan Atanasov is positively delightful:

Urban Tetris by Mariyan Atanasov

Find joy and connection in your communities, however you define them. Thanks for being a part of mine.

Get weekend reading posts in your inbox: subscribe to the fortnightly newsletter.

→ Weekend Reading