We have all had someone in our life who was a best friend or even a close family member that even though they are still here, we no longer communicate with. Whether it be from a split in values, and an action that occurred that broke the trust, or just drifting apart over time, it still leaves a small void inside each of us when it occurs. A one-time meaningful relationship or exchange in our life was broken.
Our entire civilization is based on the idea of exchanges. The exchange of feelings that connected us to the other person. How we receive the goods and services that make up the quality of life modern western civilization enjoys is nothing but a series of exchanges based on a trust model. Frank Waals in his research described trust as a combination of empathy and reciprocity. Empathy being the connection of emotion to relate to others, even in disagreements. Reciprocity being an exchange of the thoughts, goods, and services in our communities.
Our cities are nothing but a network of these exchanges. Cities are continuous implementations of individual people putting ideas into action to facilitate reciprocity or the exchanges between themselves. Losing a close relationship or and exchange is a painful experience, since it occurs in human connections it also will manifest into the places we design. When an exchange is broken in human communities, it can create the same emotional pain each person feels with an individual lost connection.
What does a broken exchange look like in the places we live? One of the most blatant examples is a highway that runs through downtown. In Lansing, Michigan the stories of some of the 800-plus families mainly minorities can be read HERE. The loss of connections and destruction of one of the neighborhood fabrics that supported the downtown. It can be seen when a building in a walkable core doesn’t have any engagement with a city street. After the construction of 496, the 500 Block of S. Washington Ave in Lansing saw a state building with no street interaction and a parking lot for a Bank Headquarters remove any meaningful human-scale interactions between the neighboring residential, the commercial businesses, and public spaces for 2 generations of residents and employees here. Pre-496 saw the height of the vibrancy of downtown. Thousands of residents lived close to the downtown, commercial was still centralized to these neighborhoods before the highway systems were integrated into the design fabric.
In less than 20 years from the moment, this picture was taken the exchanges of downtown Lansing, and many other American cities were broken. The designs moving forward are meant to create separation between the private space (including the interior of the government building pictured above), and the places connections begin the public spaces between the buildings.
A friend and colleague Katherine Teague, director of the City Craft Foundation shared an interesting documentary with me. The Regenerates (link embedded) discusses the idea of connections with the systems we live within and how we create the emotional (empathy) and physical connections with the places people live. I loved a line in it discussing the places humans build to live, and how in its connections with the natural world, should not just provide light from buildings, but light up the eyes with the excitement of the people that live within. As humanity moves into the future growth starting with the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, getting back to creating strong exchanges needs to be at the forefront of how we are designing. We have a brief moment right now to move the needle in what our priorities are for how we live in groups.
If we don’t ask the questions in our neighborhoods of how we want to live, and not just focus on governing of uses on our streets, the US will see the continued degradation and erosion of stability for more and more people. If the years of COVID taught us any universal lessons, for me it is this, we are more dependent on the local places we all live within than we realize in a globally connected world. Designing to make sure these local places have the resiliency built into them to handle the uncertainty the world throws at them and create opportunities that bring fulfillment to everyone that lives within them, will continue to be my purpose in life. It is amazing to see so many in my local community, and communities around the nation all focused on the same work, which is creating the spaces that people want to live in.