Community ain't what it used to be...

Bowling Alone?

When we spend so much time studying the city-building practices of generations past, it's tempting to nostalgize community building clichés too. Especially in light of worrying levels of loneliness and vulnerability in our cities and suburbs, you might understandably want to call for a barn raising.

We could spend many a lonely moment dreaming of quilting bees, potluck BBQs, town parades, and kids playing in the street while grandma watches from a front stoop. But I'm more interested in why we nostalgize and how we make the most of the contemporary.

What I've been thinking about:

The suburban experiment had regrettable ramifications on the built environment. What's the real damage on our human environment?

Were things even better in the past or is that just a story we tell ourselves? Has there ever really been a shortage of community? My impression is that people need connection like they need oxygen, so they find their tribes, whether online or off. Maybe what we romanticize and *think* we miss about the past is a civic mindedness underlying communities, that which made them partners in building a great place. For example, in my grandma's day, her church served the community. They were out farming, building, BBQing, sewing, and taking care of neighbours as a duty to one another. But when I was in grade school, I'd have to get a drive to the church just to find a community. We were there for ourselves.

Maybe the human environment casualty of auto-oriented development is not connection, but a commitment to collective wellbeing?

In this week's field notes I want to share a couple sources of connectedness, kindness, and friendship that have been big for me this year. They seem like very self-serving communities from the outside, but they end up improving the city without necessarily having that mandate. In large part, I think it's because both of these communities are part of a dense web of connected groups and activities coexisting downtown. We all piggy-back off each other's energy to create sense of motion, and that's what pushes the city forward.

Or maybe I'm wrong... but I like thought experiments where I ask myself, "How would these communities feel and operate were they not in the city centre?" Similar to the archetypical successful building with residential layered on commercial layered on a ground floor retail, I think the simple layering of community groups in the same geography has a similar placemaking effect. If that actually is the case, how can we funnel communities that already exist into places where the whole is greater than sum of its parts? 

Running club.

Every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning across Canada, all year, you can see a flock of runners training together. One of our largest running retail franchises (The Running Room, which has a few US locations) organizes a national running club. It's free. You just show up at any Running Room location (and I've only seen them in city centres) on Wednesday at 6pm or Sunday at 8:30am and join a pack of runners tackling a variety of routes. If you're training for a particular race, there are paid clinics that offer coaching and a targeted group run on other nights of the week as well.

I found myself doing just that this winter. The friendly leaders of our local running club encouraged me to join the clinic for a Hypothermic Half Marathon (which took place this past Sunday in a beard-freezing -30ºC/-22ºF).

And that's how, for 12-weeks, I've experienced some of my best and worst moments with people I would have never met otherwise. Our running club is full of strange and wonderful relationships - a selection by pace, not job, geography, or even personality. My primary running buddy manages the grocery store uptown, and he and I have talked about pretty much everything in a long winter of 90-min runs. We don't hang out beyond running (I don't even know his last name), but we trust and motivate each other in the way of athletic friendships. It's nice having a web of little support systems like this because it takes pressure off the big relationships.

Group runs are field research for me too. I love to ask other runners how they interpret the city around them as we run through trails, old neighbourhoods, suburbs, industrial parks, and highways, trying to clock 18km. We talk Strong Towns from time to time, and every run starts and ends in the most lively block of the city.

The East

Half the time, I work out of a shared studio downtown - The East. It's headquarters for a fashion startup, but while they're still small, they've rented out space to others, including myself and our mutual friend (a professional artist and designer). At least a few of us are there any night of the week, working away on our own stuff or helping each other. But we're also late-night eyes on the street, and frequent patrons of the neighbouring shops. Our presence makes a difference on the block. For example, on Monday night, we constructed and painted a giant banner to send a message to the office across the street.  

And then on Tuesday we managed to hang it from the upstairs windows. Team work.

On Fridays, we open house to friends for Happy Hour after work. It's cool to be a part of the gradual building of a place with gravitational pull.