A few weeks ago, I had the chance to see the new Mister Rogers movie, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? As for so many others who watched the film, it brought out strong emotions for me: joy at seeing such a beautiful, caring person who devoted his life to children; sadness at knowing he is gone; and nostalgia for my own childhood, in which I was a viewer of Mister Rogers' Neighboorhood myself.
But Won't You Be My Neighbor? also got me thinking about cities. As Mister Rogers hosts children, puppets and guests in his charming imaginary neighborhood, I saw very real implications for the way we design and build our own neighborhoods. Here are three lessons I took away from the film and from Mister Rogers' example.
1. Build cities for children and they’ll appeal to everyone.
Mister Rogers’ characters, set and scripts were all clearly aimed at children. Yet lessons like “It’s okay to be mad sometimes” and “You are loved” are powerful and necessary for adults to hear, too. In times of national grief, such as the days following the death of Bobby Kennedy or the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, Mister Rogers stepped up as a figure the whole country could turn to for solace and affirmation. That role was revived in the aftermath of September 11 when Mister Rogers gave a national address aimed at adults, speaking to the tragedy.
The idea of a platform geared toward children that’s still appealing and relevant for adults is a lesson all of our cities could learn from. When we build public spaces, transportation systems and neighborhoods that are kid-friendly, they become friendly for everyone. Park benches for tired kids to sit and eat a snack? Equally useful for tired seniors to relax and read a book. Bike paths where children can safely ride with mom and dad? Equally valuable for teens and adults to safely ride to work or an appointment.
Mister Rogers’ neighborhood was a place where children loved to be, and a place where adults felt comfortable, too. Let’s bring that same attitude to the way we build our communities.
2. Cities can adapt as their needs change, while still preserving their core.
One of the most delightful aspects of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was getting to learn about how Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood evolved throughout the life of the show. Characters gained new identities, the set was adjusted, and present-day issues were addressed as the need arose.
At the same time, the core identity and shape of the program remained the same. Its mission was to reach children with a positive, supportive message. Every show started with Mister Rogers coming home, taking off his jacket, putting on a sweater, changing his shoes, and singing his classic song: “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Within this framework, Mister Rogers offered opportunities to explore different ideas and themes.
In the same way, our cities must be able to adapt to changing needs. The shoe repair shop might not be around forever, so let’s make sure that a hair salon or bakery could come and take its place. Residents in our cities may not always have the same demographic profile, so ensure that our cities can accommodate small and large families, young and old neighbors.
By the same token, we also need to take care that our cities secure their foundations. The biggest pitfall of the Suburban Experiment was throwing away every past piece of wisdom in order to develop in a completely new, untested manner—one that abandoned the traditional urban core and the historic building styles that came with it. As we adapt to the needs of new residents and new businesses, we also need to ensure that we don’t throw out what’s already been working for decades.
The consistency that made Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood such a successful show was also what allowed it to explore new ideas and current issues. We need to adopt this tactic in our neighborhoods, too.
3. If you love your city, you’ll help it grow stronger.
Mister Rogers’ message was all about loving children for who they are, but giving them the tools to be stronger, more whole human beings. His lessons focused on learning to control emotions, to accept people who look or think differently, and to get along with family and friends who may be difficult. He loved the people around him and wanted the best for them.
The same should be true of our cities. If we love them, we should want what’s best for them, and we should work to make that happen. We can love our cities deeply, while still recognizing they need to change if they're going to be strong and prosperous in the future.
The little world of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood may seem a bit goofy and childish, but, to me, it's a beautiful model of community that we can all learn from—young and old.