Does the architecture around us shape how we neighbor?
Possibly one of the most interesting, fact-filled perspectives yet, Zachary Benedict from MKM Architecture takes us on a fascinating, informative dive into how architectural shifts over the last several decades has impacted how we as a society neighbor. Zach and I were introduced not long after I started working at NeighborLink in 2008. Zach has been blowing my mind with the ideas in his interview and dozens more ever since. Every time we get together, his passion for well designed places that create human connectivity, that can actually improve personal well-being, and that begin to reshape the spaces that actually pull us away resonates with the fractures in connectivity that we see every day at NeighborLink.
I'm constantly lamenting for desperate, vulnerable neighbors that live in perfectly good neighborhoods with neighbors all around easily meeting their own, like-minded needs. Or, celebrating when NeighborLink is successfully meeting the quality of life metrics that community leaders tell us are part of the fabric of healthy communities when neighbors are connected in inter-dependent relationships. My conversations with Zach always end with him educating me on what our experiences are. Zach leads up MKM's research efforts and is extremely well versed on how the decisions we make about where and how we live relate to our quality of life long-term.
MKM specifically focuses on community/neighborhood health and well-being and how architecture and design affect those. It’s intriguing to see how architecture is something every single person is forced to interact with throughout their lifetime yet pay little attention to how it impacts their life or could impact how we neighbor. Ever wonder how much energy and thought is put into the lobby of a hospital? MKM and Zach put just as much attention on what happens in the lobby or the consultation rooms off to the side as they do to how pretty they can make it. They think about the life circumstances and try to build effective spaces around that.
Zach talks about the core of what has shaped our neighborhoods when he talks about the American Dream. America is so fixated on independence and autonomy, and what Zach labels the “glorification of privacy.” There has become an assumed correlation between how independent you are and how well off you are. The more independent/private things you build your life around, the more successful or well off you are. Such as attached garages, no porch, privacy fence, private office, private gym, private school, or the private theatre. Even the switch from police patrolling on horseback to squad cars impacted how connected or safe neighborhoods were along with the public perception of police officers. These are all things that begin to limit the interactions, whether intentional or accidental, that we have with those around us. It creates physical barriers to those around us, giving us justified and comfortable excuses to not build relationships with others.
I recently spoke to an individual that lives in a more modern suburban neighborhood that is prioritizing their time and energy to be out in their neighborhood more with the goal of meeting their neighbors and is struggling to make any personal connection. Despite their best efforts, they just don't see people in their front yards, out walking, or attempting to connect with one another. While this isn't a statement about all suburban neighborhoods, it is an illustration of the idea that how we design our physical places dictates our connectivity and our society's desire to be connected. It's hard for those that want to connect and easy for those that don't, but maybe that's the take away? Do we really desired to be connected to those that live around us or just those we choose to be in relationship with? Does it matter?
I believe the architectural influence on neighboring has pulled us from a collective “we” mentality to a “me” mentality. Neighborhoods have slowly been drained of human contact and become awkward encounters most of us try to avoid. The people next door to us become strangers and for the most part, it's just easier that way. Until we need something and we're not sure who to call in an emergency or we lament that we live so far away or it's a chore to hang with those we love the most.
Recently, my twin boys were playing in our front yard and one decide to throw a toy car at the other and it hit the other in the mouth, puncturing his lip. I got a frantic call from my wife while out on a bike ride and the solution was obviously to drop the kids across the street with the neighbors until I could ride home while she took our son to the ER for stitches. Life is hard and widely unpredictable, which reminds us why we're so grateful for people we know and trust near us.
What is so interesting, is that despite these architectural hinderances that have morphed over the years and created a culture of disengagement, it still comes down to our mentalities about others and the importance or need for community or relationship with our neighbors. Our willingness to hide behind the way things are or push past those barriers to connect dictates the neighboring culture we create around us. We get to help change the narrative of our own neighborhoods and be catalysts for cultivating an environment of connectivity and relationship.
I'm so grateful for Zach's friendship and willingness to come on this podcast. We could easily do a 12 part series just on these topics. If we continue this podcast, expect him to be a regular guest. If you ever have a chance to go and listen to Zach, please do.