Why Neighborhoods Need More Shuffling and Less Sorting

Posted by Mike Lydon

We all seek places to live that provide the characteristics—social and physical—that we prefer. While this sounds logical, Bill Bishop writes in The Big Sort that self-selecting into neighborhoods of likeminded people with similar socio-economic standing is accelerating and harming our collective social fabric. In an increasingly urbanized nation, we’ve apparently never lived so close but been so far apart. 

Much of my work as an urban planner involves documenting and sharing the role neighborhood design plays in supporting or limiting social and physical interactions. This is why I find Neighborday to be so compelling. Can one day of deliberate neighborly action—no matter how small—effectively lead to a long-term strengthening of social ties? Can it play a role in overcoming the barriers to social interaction we’ve constructed in our towns and cities? I think that that it can. To this last point we also can’t forget that there is no Neighborday without neighbors, and of course, no neighbors without neighborhoods—the places we understand conceptually but rarely define with clarity. 

Urban geographers with a penchant for history tell us that neighborhoods—the most fundamental of human settlement patterns—can be mapped and measured consistently through time and across cultures. Despite the incredible variety of horizontal and vertical dimensions, 150 acres is believed to be the average size. Urbanists assert that this scale emerged as a type of “foot logic” inherent to places built before we organized our daily lives around the automobile. After decades of decline, neighborhoods featuring a range of places to live, work, shop, and play within close proximity are once again in vogue and thought to be an effective antidote to the clear economic, environmental, and social ills associated with suburban sprawl. 

As noted last week, our day-to-day need for neighboring is as nebulous as ever. We can passively blame this on any combination of technology, suburban sprawl, and/or fractured family values, yet it’s within our power to take the first, simple step towards strengthening our social bonds and our neighborhoods. And no matter where you live, almost everyone can describe at least one person they consider a neighbor: the country dweller may note the people living a mile down the road; a suburbanite might identify those clustered around the same cul-de-sac; and urbanites likely consider those living on the same floor, if not the same building, as neighbors. So cross that hallway, street, or field and join me in celebrating Neighborday on April 27th. You’ll be glad you did. 

Hang out with your neighbors on the last Saturday of April (a day we're calling "Neighborday"). Click here to say you'll Do It, and we'll send you GOOD's Neighborday Survival Guide and a bunch of other fun stuff. 

Mike Lydon is the founding Principal of The Street Plans Collaborative and the author of The Open Streets Guide and Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action, Long-term ChangeHe encourages you to trade four wheels for two.