The challenge with meeting our neighbors

Blame bad design

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I wish I knew my neighbors. I believe that if I did, I would be happier and more content living in my apartment building. As I write this, I look out my window to the street below, while sitting in an apartment unit that’s boxed in by neighbors I don’t know or have never met. And I’m not alone in my lack to network with those who live around me. Many of us don’t know our neighbors. We go through our days commuting to and from work, returning to our homes in the evening only to close ourselves off from our neighbors. For most of us, this isn’t intention, it’s just bad design. 

Many of us who live in cities take up residences in apartment buildings that easily allow us to close ourselves off from those near us. Our buildings are designed with nearly endless hallways lined with doors marked with nothing more than unit numbers. There are few places to congregate and even fewer opportunities to have conversations. In elevators, we often ignore those getting on or off, or simply say nothing more than “Hello” or “How are you?” This is a shame because by getting to know our neighbors, we become more content and happy with where we live. 

“We have to know the people in our neighborhoods,” Charles Marohn, founder of Strong Towns told use during an episode of the Parksify Podcast. “We have to know them in not just a passing way…but actually know who they are, what they do, what their hopes and dreams for the future are.” 

By doing this, Marohn believes that our communities become strong. I agree, as does Melody Warnick, who authored the book This is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are. Warnick, who also joined us for an episode of the podcast, had similar views in our need to know our neighbors. By doing so, she mentioned, we become more comfortable and happy with the community we live in. This is due to the fact that by getting to know our neighbors, we feel more grounded and less alone. 

I believe both Marohn’s and Warnick’s views are correct, so why haven’t I met my neighbors? Much of it has to do with the fact that I only see my neighbors in passing; rarely do I have the opportunity to get to know them. There’s also an element of the unknown. It’s uncommon for neighbors to knock on someone’s door to make an introduction. It feels intrusive. And so we opt not to do that, myself included. 

Living in an apartment building, I don’t have the chance to introduce myself to my neighbors while in the front yard or on the sidewalk. Large-scale buildings don’t offer social spaces for interaction and therefore leave us feeling disconnected from our neighbors, even though they are often fewer than 50 feet away. 

When we began mass migration to cities, the design of residential buildings didn’t bring with it the social mechanisms that allow us to get to know our neighbors. But I’m hopeful we can begin designing our urban homes with social connections in mind. We’re seeing businesses design with the intention to foster collaboration and social relationships and we need to feed the concept into our residences. The future strength of our communities depend on it. For now, the community aspect of urban residences has been displaced by hallways, stark elevators and padlocks. But at least I have a view. 

Ash Blankenship