Dwelling design and politics

What if the great rift that separates the left and the right were not in fact a product of political belief, but an artifact (at least in part) of design?

This is at heart the premise I’ve come up with while reading over a wonderful book called The Death And Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. I should start by saying this is not Ms. Jacobs premise at all. Her book is about urban planing and how the way a city is designed will effect the way people live within it. The book is wonderfully clear, straight forward, and has taken my mind into places of design I had never contemplated before. More importantly, it made me question the way we socialize and how that socialization might change our character.

At the beginning of her book, Ms. Jacobs talks about the use of sidewalks. Not as a conveyance (although that is covered too) but as a social structure. Its about how the many small things, corner grocery stores, bars, front porches, stoops, stairways, and any old place that people will use to congregate, will give those living on a street a sense of shared ownership. Such places allow the people living and working there to establish social relationships that are numerous, shallow, and yet important, and at the same time they make a sharp divide between public social lives, and private ones.

While her book mostly talks about these relationships in the context of a city, I could not help but translate this into the small-town world I grew up in where everyone on the block knew your name, and if you did something stupid they would be happy to tell your parents. I got my first job though small town connections, and my first sense of the world though them as well.

Mind you, these small town connections were not always appreciated. I remember vividly one Friday afternoon when a Clovis cop gave me a tongue lashing for throwing my bundled up dirty gym clothes against a street sign. At the time I thought he was being a power-hungry jerk, but I never tossed anything at a street sign after that. Moreover, what I now understand as an adult but could not see then as a sullen teen was that his anger was not directed at any potential damage to the street sign, his anger came from a sense of ownership. He owned that sign, at least in part, because it was part of his world, and he felt a sense of responsibility for it. In the same way he felt responsible enough to me and my actions to say something.

That is both the gift, and the cost of group ownership. The joy and the responsibility, both at the same time. And I believe that this is a crucial element to small town America, and more importantly large city America.

Except it is no longer an element in either.

How many of you know your neighbors? How many of you trust them? No I don’t mean trust like share your innermost secrets with, that kind of trust belongs within the private relationships of your family and close friends. By trust I mean trust enough to leave a key to your house with them, and conversely owning a key to their house in your home.

I ask this because Ms. Jacobs mentions that on her block the local deli has keys to half the homes around it. This is an informal thing. The deli owner is not paid for this, and does not offer it as a service. That he holds their keys makes it easy for relatives or outsiders to visit, even if the owner of the house is not home. You can tell your friend, “Go down to the deli and ask Joe for the key.” Its safer than keeping a key under the doormat, and it means that anyone coming to visit is noted on the block and looked after.

So why does Joe the deli owner do this? He doesn’t get paid, and it doesn’t necessarily lead to any more service. Why do the home owners do this? There are no contracts, no signatures, nothing legal at all, and such a situation is ripe for abuse. Yet one block over it’s the candy store that holds the keys for that block, and the next block it’s the cleaners, and the block after that…

At the heart of these relationships is a thing called public trust. Its not a close relationship, its not like a close friendship, its more informal, and much more shallow. Its trading a little bit of your private space for a little bit of theirs. Its exchanging small bits of information over coffee. Its the bits of gossip that are helpful and not necessarily hurtful. Helping the new mother with the complex ins and outs of the school district, telling a lost neighbor the quickest way to the bus stop, offing a cup of flour to a neighbor who is out, feeding the neighbor’s cat when they go out of town, or driving a neighbor to the airport.

These things are not all that important. There’s is no specific reason why one “needs” to do these things for or with their neighbors, yet by doing these things one gains a sense of belonging, a feeling that they are part of a larger community. Everyone starts to own a part of a public space that is independent of them, yet beneficial to them.

And beneficial it is. As Ms. Jacobs points out, city blocks that have a shared sense of ownership experience much less crime. The kids are much less delinquent, there are less robberies, and much less strife. Why? Because everyone is watching out for everyone else. If your kid acts up, your neighbors will tell you about it. If a suspicious looking guy starts following women, he’ll be accosted. If a drunk gets too angry, he’ll be held in check. Someone is always willing to call the police for you, because they know you’ll do the same for them. And why do they do that? Because they know you. They see you everyday walking your kid to school, or buying a cup of coffee at the newsstand, or picking up a head of lettuce for your wife and the corner grocery. They don’t know you well, but they know you well enough to have a sense of belonging to you. By living in their area and interacting with them you have become one of “them”. Part of their team. Close enough to call the cops if a burglar starts to pry open your window, but not close enough that they need to know everything about you.

And its this sense of community, this belongingness, that I think sits right at the heart of our political divide.

Let me first start out by saying that I don’t think one political group has more of a sense of belonging than another. I think they’re both pretty equal right down the line, because I think the desire to form and maintain social contacts is equally distributed amongst the entire population. Sure some people want little public contact, and some people want more, but on average, either group of people has pretty much the same desire.

So since it is not lacking of desire, then what lies at the difference between the two political sides. Well I think it is the way in which we form and maintain or social contacts.

Rural Americans live far apart from each other. I know people who would have to walk a half mile to knock on a neighbor’s door. This is a massive distance when compared to a suburb like ours (about 60 feet, to either side), or an apartment in the city (as little as across the hall, or as long as 30 feet down the hall). This distance makes for some interesting things. For instance our more rural cousins enjoy a lot more privacy than those living in the city. They don’t have to put curtains on their windows so the neighbors can’t see in, there’s not a house close enough to worry about. On the reverse side, our city dwelling cousins enjoy much more social contact. All I have to do is step outside the front door and I’m almost guaranteed to talk to someone. Teri jokes about this all the time. If we lived in an apartment it would be even easier. I’d just have to open the door. Now compare that to our friends living out in the country. Short of picking up the phone (or the internet) the only way they can have a conversation with someone not in their house is to get in a car and drive.

Now neither of these are good situations or bad ones. As far as I know there is no empirical difference between living in the sticks or living in the smog, with the exception of personal preference. One might prefer one over the other, and most people do, but the homes themselves are similar enough for all practical purposes, except for one obvious point. People who live in the city will have the opportunity for a larger and more complex social circle. In short, they will belong to a larger social group than those living in the country.

Now if you’re with me so far, then the rest should be easy. This is where we get to the heart of the political aspects. You see, one of the key differences between liberals and conservatives is how they see those around them. Both groups believe in helping their fellow man, both groups I believe genuinely care about other people, but both groups show their care is significantly different ways.

Conservatives like to keep their giving private. They like to donate to their church, or their school. If they see a poor man on the street, they like to hand their $20 over to that person themselves. And based on the amounts that they give, conservatives they care very much about their fellow man. Much more, in terms of dollars, then liberals.

But in all these things the giving is happening to someone who is socially close to them, or to an organization that is socially close. Why? Well look at the relationships a person maintains while living in the country. Family they see everyday, sometimes too much of them. Neighbors they see occasionally. The same is true of shop owners, and other merchants. The only other places they can make and maintain public relationships is either in school or at church.

Seeing this, a pattern starts to arise. Rural Americans will likely not have many social relationships, but the ones they do have will be tight and deep. And what do we see when we look at how conservatives give? We see them spending their money in the places that are close to them.

Now lets visit our liberal cousins living in a city. City people have much more opportunity for public trust, and use this to their advantage. While their rural neighbors might use 20 acres to gain a sense of safety, a city person uses their neighbors (and curtains) to the same effect. When we look at how city people like to give, we see they want to spend their money not on churches or on schools, but on their neighbors and their neighborhoods. Because they live in a tight web of social interactions they know that handing a poor person $20 might or might not help them. But they also know that handing that same $20 to the right person, within that poor person’s neighborhood, will definitely help them.

When a city person says that giving money to the poor is beneficial, what they mean is inserting money into the right place in a poor person’s social network, will greatly benefit them. But consider this same problem from the point of view of their cousin in the country. The country cousin doesn’t have a large social network. Such things are completely invisible to him. If you told him you keep a key to your house at the local deli he might go into shock. The idea is foreign to him. So saying you want to spend money on a thing he doesn’t see strikes him as foolish. “Why don’t you spend that money in church instead,” he’ll say, because this is exactly how he would solve the same problem in his social network.

“But that doesn’t work over here,” his city cousin would reply, because in his world this is true.

And thus we find ourselves at odds. Not over the desire to give, but the method in which it is accomplished. And these alternative methods of giving hold their roots in the ways that we live amongst each other. In short, the design of our communities constricts the way in which we view a problem, and how we come up with a solution.

Is it any wonder that liberals generally come from big cities and conservatives from more rural areas? Perhaps one of the reasons Americans become liberal or conservative might have something to do with the design of their surroundings.

Pixelectomy. YellowJacket design by Antbag.