The ultimate purpose of urban planning and technological improvements should be to improve our quality of life. In that vein, it’s important to consider the relationship between how we travel, how our neighborhoods are designed and how that translates into meaningful relationships.
Los Angeles’ landscape can lead to a feeling of urban isolation. Its layout leaves little time and opportunity for serendipitous encounters or a sense of place.
In this light, it is important to think about how external systems can help improve the meaningfulness of our lives. Street design, public space and accessibility of transport are key enablers of social connections, friendship and community.
A New York Times article several years ago identifies three important conditions to close friendships.
First, proximity. How close do we live to our friends or potential friends?
Second, repeated, unplanned interactions. How often do we run into friends at events, religious functions, or just on the street in our neighborhood?
Third, settings that encourage people to let their guard down and confide in each other. Where are the safe spaces where people can really get to know each other?
Our physical environment and how we travel through it greatly influence the first and second conditions and may also be at play in factor three.
The New York Times article also identifies several hurdles to developing and maintaining friendships as we progress in life.
School and college provide an easy, integrated environment for forming friendships. You see your friends in class, then at college events, and your social universe generally exists within or next to the physically defined space of the school or college.
The challenge is that the combination of work and the built environment are not conducive to easily maintaining friendships or a sense of belonging. People have limited time or may live far away, creating the necessity of scheduling a meeting in order to meet your friends rather than simply running into people in familiar spaces. Additionally, there are several elements of the physical environment that make forming friendships more difficult.
In the United States, there are few public squares or gathering points where people know they can meet others; the urban environment fosters the need for single occupancy cars where you don’t interact with your neighbors on the way to or from work; and areas that are spread out discourage walking or other forms of transit where you may bump into someone.
Streets are designed for cars and highways fragment neighborhoods. Additionally, long commutes deprive people of time to socialize with existing friends or meet new ones. These features deprive people of opportunities for spontaneous socialization that are important to spawning all sorts of interactions, including friendships, new business ideas and innovations.
A few suggestions for how we can create better urban environments at a human scale about are outlined below:
- Walkable neighborhoods: human-oriented urban planning makes it easier to create social proximity and increase unplanned interactions that result in friendships. I myself now work and live in a walkable neighborhood. My sense of connection to others and the community has increased by the repeated, spontaneous interactions I have with people on the street. I enjoy the chance to say hello to a neighbor or to run into a colleague. The more I run into them, the more I generally trust them, and the more likely it is that we have some meaningful interaction.
- These random encounters can also be the inspiration for new friendships, business deals and other accomplishments that do not occur when we sit isolated by ourselves or have one-off encounters with someone we are unlikely to see again.
- Public space: Squares, car-free and community gathering places where people know they can meet each other in safe spaces and run into their friends without having to do a lot of planning. One thing I lament about the structure of our current society is the lack of public spaces for people to meet.
- Shared mobility options: Encouraging interactions between passengers seeing the same riders repeatedly. People taking the same routes to work and school will at least sometimes engage in meaningful interactions over time, and gain a sense of belonging. Similarly, other shared transportation options result in repeated, unplanned interactions between passengers.
In short, we need to think about how our current environment is built and how we want it to be to meet our societal goals. Certainly, I think one of those goals should be to foster friendships, business relationships and other dealings that improve people’s sense of wellbeing and the economy.
Walkable neighborhoods combined with shared transportation options that encourage people to interact in repeated unplanned ways are a key ingredient to this. By doing so, we can create a more fulfilling, friendlier and thriving environment.