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Situational Community

by Aaron Houck

May 6,2007

Charlotteans talk a lot about community. We agonize over studies showing low rates of trust among citizens, join initiatives dedicated to discussions of community, and urge ourselves to be more community-minded. But is all this talk effective for real community building? Consider the following famous psychology experiment.

In the early 1970's, psychologists recruited students at Princeton Theological Seminary to give a speech. Half were instructed to discuss the parable of the Good Samaritan. The others were given an unrelated topic. After some preparation time, the students were sent off to give their speeches. Some students were told they were late; others were told they had just enough time to get to their destination; and the rest were told that they would be early. While en route, each student encountered a moaning person slumped against a doorway. The real intent of the experiment was to see how the students reacted to this person in need.

What did the psychologists find? Not surprisingly, how hurried a student was mattered significantly: 63% of students in no rush stopped to help, 45% of students with some time pressure stopped, and only 10% of those who were late stopped. But, interestingly enough, whether the student’s speech topic was the Good Samaritan or the other topic had no effect on whether the student stopped to give aid.

These findings show that, as much as we like to think we're in control of our own destiny, it’s our situation – as opposed to our disposition – that really drives our actions. Talking about community won't cause us to act in a community-friendly manner any more than thinking about the Good Samaritan caused those seminarians to offer assistance to someone in need. Our task instead is to identify situational factors to improve our communities’ connections.

The physical space we occupy is the “situation" with perhaps the most significant impact for social interactions. Sitting alone in a car on the interstate offers fewer and less intimate exchanges than walking on a busy sidewalk. Similarly, it is easier to chat with neighbors and passers-by if you have a front porch and a small yard.

Sprawling development – with large-lot subdivisions feeding into arterial roads that divide homes from shops and businesses – does not promote community. Better design can be found in some of Charlotte's older “streetcar” suburbs like Dilworth and Elizabeth, along the main streets of towns like Matthews and Davidson, and in new traditional neighborhood developments such as Baxter in Fort Mill and Vermillion in Huntersville. These places have better connectivity, wider sidewalks, people-scaled streetscapes, and mixed uses – physical characteristics that bring people together. Using these sorts of design features, we can put ourselves in the situation to be a better community.

This call for different patterns of land use will prompt criticism. For instance, some will charge that it’s impossible without “social engineering.” The implicit assumption behind this critique is that spread-out development is a natural, free-market outcome. Yet throughout the twentieth century (and still today), policies such as Euclidean zoning (requiring separation of uses), interstate highway development, and federal mortgage insurance engineered our physical environment to require car-dominated, socially isolating spaces.

Another argument against better design is that traditional “streetcar” and neo-traditional neighborhoods are unaffordable. Obviously there’s much to praise about a neighborhood like Dilworth – it’s one of the region’s most expensive places to live! But these high prices suggest there’s unmet demand for such spaces. The policies favoring conventional suburban development remain in effect, and – along with permitting issues facing infill development in older neighborhoods – frustrate attempts by developers to design and build projects more sensitive to community. The problem of high prices is really an issue of homebuyers’ having too little choice.

Misguided land-use policies have produced “situations” that hinder the creation of strong communities. Fortunately, significant progress is being made as the city develops the 2030 plan (with its centers, corridors, and wedges), neighborhoods’ Small Area Plans, and the Transportation Action Plan. For those truly interested in building community, changing the situation of our physical environment must be a high priority. Otherwise, we run the risk of being like the Princeton students – so preoccupied with thoughts about community building that we miss a chance to stop and chat with a neighbor.

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