American cities are experiencing a crisis of social disconnection, and urban design is part of the problem.
On the one hand, people who live in car-dependent neighborhoods on the ever-expanding suburban edge report being less likely to know and trust their neighbors than people in more connected communities. Their commutes are sucking up all their time. On the other hand, people who live in residential towers often complain of feeling both crowded and lonely at the same time.
But there may be a sweet spot for sociability somewhere in between. In all my travels I have never found a design intervention that strikes a more responsive balance between privacy and conviviality than the one a group of Californian neighbors built for themselves.
It started in 1986, when Kevin Wolf and Linda Cloud, a pair of young environmental activists, bought neighboring homes on N Street on what was then the edge of the university town of Davis. At some point they tore down the fence between those homes, and their roommates started sharing meals in the bigger house. As more community-minded people bought or rented the adjoining properties, more fences came down, and more people dropped in for dinner. The residents of the village that came to be known as N Street Cohousing won designation as a planned development from the Davis City Council, enabling them to add larger second units to their homes. In 2005 Wolf and Cloud financed a bigger common house, which became a miniature community center, with laundry facilities and a dining room that could handle dozens of people.
By the time I arrived on a Friday night in 2010, there were more than fifty people living on the two-acre site. (At more than five times the typical sprawl density, it still didn’t feel crowded). I ducked through a narrow passage between a couple of ranch-style homes to find that the core of the block had been transformed into a lush open green. There were no backyard fences left inside the block. There was an orchard of apple and orange trees, a chicken coop, gardens, and lawns scattered with children’s toys.
I told Wolf the place felt a little bit like a commune.
"But it’s not!" he corrected me. "None of this land is communal. All the lots are still privately owned. We live in our own homes and have our own yards. It’s just that we choose to share those yards and some of our resources."
The setup is remarkably simple. Members of N Street Cohousing pay $25 per month to use the common house, which Wolf and Cloud still own. Some take turns cooking meals for dozens of neighbors in the big kitchen. Some prefer to cook and eat alone at home. Some mix it up. Some have chipped in for a Jacuzzi, which they share with neighbors for a small fee. Others wouldn’t dream of hot-tubbing with the gang. People do what they want with their yards, but they agree to maintain common paths through them.
It’s a uniquely market-responsive kind of sharing, which allows each person to adjust to a level of engagement or retreat that feels right at any particular moment. People drift together when it suits them and apart when it doesn’t. The model pays biophilic dividends: by sharing their block, everyone in effect enjoys a gigantic green backyard. It pays logistical dividends too: parents feel comfortable sending their kids out to play in the super-yard, knowing that dozens of eyes will be watching them from the homes that surround it.
Amid all this voluntary intimacy, remarkable things happen. After I shared dinner with Wolf and a dozen friends, a neighbor arrived with a small child he introduced as Wolf and Cloud’s daughter. The child was about five years old, and full of spark. After Wolf put her to bed, he explained that the kid didn’t actually begin life as his daughter: she had been adopted as a nine-month-old by another community member, a single woman who later died of cancer. The change in the child’s family life was organic. As her mother’s health declined, the child spent time with key neighbors, sleeping over at Kevin and Linda’s house more and more often. The bonds of intimacy and care were so tight that when her mother finally died, the child had already transitioned into a new loving household (and she was formally adopted). The village had become her extended family and wrapped itself around her like a cocoon.
There is no one perfect neighborhood for everyone. We all have our own tolerance for crowding or quietude, our own thirst for novelty or privacy or music or gardening, and our own complex associations with places, scents, and memories. But the systems in which we live undeniably influence our emotional lives. The lesson of the streetcar suburb or N Street is not that cities need to be organized in grids, or that they need streetcars, or that we must all tear down our fences or look a century back for a geometry that works. It is that we can find various geometries to save ourselves and the planet. They do not all involve stacking our lives into the sky, but they are almost all tighter than what the proponents of dispersal have been selling us.
Excerpted from Happy: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery, published in November 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Charles Montgomery. All rights reserved.