How do you get to know the city you’re in? In recent posts I’ve been exploring a number of areas every church should examine in order to understand their neighbors better. I’ve referred to it as listening to your city in the same way as a doctor uses a stethoscope to listen to a patient.
So far we’ve looked at what the structures of your city tell you about its inhabitants (here), and how to read the signs in your community (here). In this post, I want to encourage you to examine space and social interaction. City planners give huge amount of time and energy trying to figure out what kinds of public spaces their city needs and how they shape healthy social interaction. You need to do the same.
The spatial layout of any environment can foster relational interaction or snuff it out. Consider airport gate lounges, with their fixed lines of seating all facing the same direction, the lack of tables, or group spaces, and the dominance of screens. Their spatial layout makes them unconducive to interaction. They’re designed in a way that assumes you’re not here to stay, you’re just passing through.
Likewise, for most neighborhoods there has been some degree of planning that has gone into creating the environment in which people live, work and play. Some places have more resources and infrastructure than others, of course. Some were built with a specific vision in mind and others were pieced together after decades of hardship and economic shifts.
Spaces matter because they have the ability to draw people together or reinforce independence. Space can celebrate nature or degrade it.
Space can encourage social and economic diversity or push people away from each other.
In studying your space, you need to be aware of any well-worn paths that are used in your neighborhood. Paths are the channels along which people customarily, occasionally or potentially move (streets, walkways, public transport lines, rivers, railways etc). The paths we take shape and distort our perspective on the city.
Look out for nodes as well. Nodes are places where multiple paths intersect. Nodes are points, the strategic spots in a city into which an observer can enter. They may be primary junctions, and include marketplaces, plazas, bus stations, metro stops, intersections etc.
Ask these questions when studying space:
- Does the space communicate density, hospitality, privacy or self-protection?
- Are there wide open spaces and if so, what do they say about the values of this particular neighborhood?
- Are there spaces for recreation, spaces that honor nature?
- Is it easily walkable or bike friendly?
- What does public transportation look like in this place and is it a primary space taker or on the periphery of society?
- Are streets wide or narrow, and are there alleys, yards and empty lots?
- As a resident of the neighborhood, in what ways is your own sense of relational connectedness dependent on the spatial dynamics of your place?
Public spaces shape certain social interactions. So, what kind of social interactions occur in your neighborhood? Obviously, the built environment is key in fostering or hindering social interaction, as indeed is the natural environment. Some social interaction is instinctual, given certain dynamics and realities of an environment. Other interactions happen simply by cultural norms and expectations of what it means to be a neighbor in any given context.
Studying social interaction tells us what degree of interdependence this community values and how these interactions affect everyday life together.
It takes a while to pick up on this, though. It will require you to spend a lot of time hanging out in nodes, watching interactions, observing who talks to whom, and when, and how, and why. Often these questions can be pondered by walking and observing the pace of your place, whether or not people recreate or hang out in visible spaces. You should check to see whether windows and curtains are open or closed. Do people seem to welcome interruptions or is privacy a high value? For some places, these questions will have different answers for different households or even different streets. Some folks may not have cars or may live outdoors or simply come through the neighborhood regularly to recycle from trash bins. There can be many different expressions and experiences held in one neighborhood. It’s important not to over generalize any of our conclusions and commit to being on-going learners in our place.
Recently, one of my students led her church through an intensive examination of the social interactions in her parish. Called the “Love Your Neighbor” project, members of the church walked the streets of their region to get a better understanding of: (a) the character of the different neighbourhoods in their parish, (b) the movement of local people at different times of the day and days of the week, and (c) potential connection points where people gather and find community. They mapped their parish, took photographs, interviewed community leaders, listened to locals. You can see the report they produced here.
The kinds of questions you’d ask when undertaking such a study of social interactions are:
- Are there pedestrians? If it’s a walking culture, are they walking for leisure, walking pets or heading to somewhere like a neighbor’s house or the park or the store or a community center? Or is walking a form of transportation out of the neighborhood? When walkers pass each other do they greet one another or pass with an ignoring silence?
- Do people just drive through to get to another destination?
- Are the people on the streets locals or visitors? If they’re visiting, what usually brings them to the neighborhood?
- Where do people hang out?
- Are there outdoor spaces, indoor spaces, spaces that foster interaction and spaces that allow for independent activities?
- What kinds of people make up your neighborhood? Elderly, children, teenagers, young adults, middle-aged folks? Is there an obvious socioeconomic and ethnic diversity? Is there a diversity of self-expression or do most people look similar?
- Is it a hostile or friendly environment? Are there signs of social conflict or neighborhood identity and unity? Do people seem to know their neighbors and do they want to know them?