As a child, I watched a fair amount of Sesame Street. (Why wasn’t I out playing?) Now, as a parent, I’m watching it again: my wife and I bought some Sesame Street DVDs for our children, and they have been thoroughly watched. It took me back to my childhood to hear Bob McGrath and his muppet co-stars singing:
Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood?
They’re the people that you meet
When you’re walking down the street.
They’re the people that you meet each day.
Let’s assume that Bob and the Muppets are correct. (And I cannot remember Sesame Street ever being wrong.) While this song defines “the people in your neighborhood,” I believe that it can be used to define the neighborhood itself. This simple song is absolutely pregnant with implications for neighborhood design; I’d like to explore these.
First, the word ‘neighborhood’: It does not merely mean the geographic area in which your house is situated. Its root is the word ‘neighbor’, whose Old English roots mean “near dweller”, and which means somebody whose dwelling is adjacent to or very near that of another. Thus, a house in isolation is not in a neighborhood. Certainly no official definition exists to decide how many houses of people must comprise a neighborhood, though I’m sure it has to be more than two. Nor is there a standard of exactly how close two people must live to be neighbors. So there seems to be a fuzzy line around the idea of “neighborhoodishness” — some things are clearly in and some are clearly out, but between the two is also a continuum where places may be more or less like a neighborhood.
I suppose there may be an upper limit to the number of households, too. There could be so many people that it becomes impossible to know from day to day whether you’ve ever seen any of them before, and instead of having the feeling of meeting them “each day,” you end up adrift in a sea of anonymity.
“They’re the people that you meet.” If it’s a given that we have a “neighborhood,” then who are these neighbors? They cannot live in complete isolation; you must be able to meet them. A neighborhood is social. Of course, ‘meet’ is ambiguous: it can mean either “encounter, run in to,” “socialize with,” or “become acquainted with.” I will let this ambiguity slide, on the assumption that a neighborhood that allows for one kind of “meeting” will also allow the others. (Perhaps incorrect. Worth examining another time.)
“When you’re walking down the street.” Neighborhoods are a place where people walk.
Chances are superb that you have never met a person while moving thirty miles an hour in a steel isolation chamber. Chances are also good that you haven’t met too many people while bicycling. (While it is much easier and faster to stop a bicycle to talk with someone than to stop a car, most of us are unlikely to take the time to do so for a passing stranger.)
One of the best things about walking is its speed: specifically, walking is a slow enough activity to allow us unplanned personal encounters. One day, you exchange a glance with your neighbor; the next day, a nod; the day after that, casual chit-chat about the weather. From there, who knows? Maybe the neighbor remains a casual acquaintance, or maybe you come to know each other and become fast friends or collaborators, united by a common interest. Either way, the neighborhood is a network of countless personal connections, both weak and strong, forming a web of trust and encouraging feelings of place and of belonging. And that web of connection can only be spun at human speeds.
Of course, if others aren’t also walking down the street, you can’t meet them. The sole walker in a “neighborhood” may as well live in the auto-suburbs or on an island.
For people to walk along a street, they must feel reasonably safe and comfortable with the spaces afforded pedestrians. Can you imagine walking in a neighborhood where you faced constant threats to your safety?
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Next time, I’ll look at what it means to meet people “each day” and start to draw some conclusions about the design of neighborhoods according to the “Sesame Street model.”