Better cities can fix our relationship problems

We have a relationship problem in this country.

And not speaking in just a romantic sense, but in the sense of the entire broad way you could define the way we, as humans, connect and interact with each other.

The data and anecdotes have been building for decades: The inability for politicians to form consensus and take meaningful collective action; High divorce rates; Our penchant to stock up weapons for defense against our neighbors; A fear towards other races and religions. The list could go on and on.

Certainly a thousand different factors all contribute to these issues, but I’m here to say we can blame a lot of it on poor city planning principles established around the middle of the 20th century. The good news? Some progressive planners and engineers are finally coming around to the idea that we should design cities for people (not cars) and cities for people to interact and form relationships.

When America decided 60 or so years ago that it would be a car-focused country with massive highways and sprawling suburbs, our country made the decision that the best way to live was separated from each other. With ample land in the suburbs, people didn’t have to see their neighbors if they didn’t want to. And when they did leave the house, it has cocooned in a car.

Americans created massive suburban developments with walls and gates to make sure they never had to see other people. We started to become afraid of each other. And the more afraid we became, the higher we built our walls.

Back in the cities, planners demolished vibrant neighborhoods and street life, replacing it with tall, sterile towers built away from streets. The people relocated to those towers often didn’t know each other and the tower design didn’t allow them to interact organically.

Just in this week’s Cap Times, columnist Margaret Krome explored how crucial social connection is to mental and physical health—emphasizing the need for genuine relationships. “Many say that the worst feelings of isolation occur in a crowd. It’s not lack of company but of genuine and trusted interpersonal connection that is most painful.”

Anecdotally, you only have to look to the work of Jane Jacobs to understand the problem. Jacob’s book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, laid the foundation for understanding that great neighborhoods are messy and organic. And great neighborhoods are about people. Where planners of her time saw blighted slums, Jacobs saw places where neighbors knew each other, developed trust over many years and watched out for each other. These great neighborhoods organically brought people together and those people formed incredibly valuable relationships (even if it was just a knowing glance every day you passed by the man selling fruit).

And that’s the foundation of great cities: People and their relationships, not buildings.

We have a prime example in Madison—The Greenbush Neighborhood, a vibrant neighborhood misunderstood as a violent slum and bulldozed in favor of sterilized housing.

Statistically, a more recent book from Canadian Charles Montgomery explains the scientific research behind how today’s cities and their car-centric culture are destroying our relationships. The Happy City details a number of dramatic symptoms that come from over-built streets and car-centric planning. But his focus on relationships is especially interesting.

Montgomery details the suburban ballet that is the workday commute: Enter your garage, get in your car, drive (perhaps a few hours) on a congested highway to work, park in the garage, leave work, drive on a congested highway, pull into your garage, exit your garage straight into the house. Montgomery talks to people who, despite having lived in their neighborhoods for years, have never met neighbors. And why would they? There’s no room for chance encounters and happenstance conversations when you’re trapped in the car. Neighbors don’t trust each other. They don’t look out for each other.

The book explains further studies that show the strain this lifestyle puts on relationships with your spouse or children. And it’s important to consider the total strangers you lose touch with as well. Naturally, people like being around people. Repeated research has shown that, by and large, even when people report in surveys they prefer to avoid crowds, they almost always later demonstrate actions or preferences for places that include other people. When we design cities that don’t allow for us to interact with other human beings, we lose the benefits of connection. This makes us sad and angry.

So is there any good news? Yes.

As a consequence of so many years of so many bad planning principles, we have a lot of room to improve. We know that density builds a critical mass of people and services so that we can form enough relationships. And we know that designing buildings that extend to the sidewalk creates environments where pedestrians feel safe and can interact with their built environment. We know that a diversity of building use and age helps maintain affordability. We also know public spaces and parks need to be more than just open room— they need to be comfortable and intentionally designed to bring diverse groups of people together for specific reasons.

Just think of your favorite streets in your city. Or in the world. Consider what made those places stand out. More likely than not, they were probably places that were built for people and therefore, where people wanted to go. And whether you realized it or not, it felt like a place you could start making relationships.

Let's start putting people first when we design cities, and let's rebuild neighborhoods scarred by decades of planning that hurt relationships.

We need to return to the basic principles of healthy living environments—places where people can interact and form relationships. I think we’ll find that when we do a better job of designing cities for people, we’ll start getting better at that whole relationship problem.