Many cities devote over half of their downtown real estate to cars.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and this comes as no surprise. While driving through downtown LA to dinner, I pass by a wider breadth of parking lots than restaurants, yet finding a spot is still difficult and expensive. Front doors open up to noisy streets lined with parking meters and green-colored loading zones. Even going for a run around the block requires weaving between cars.
But cities' dedication to auto-centric infrastructure does more than inconvenience us – it takes away space that would otherwise be used for cultivating human connections, and it's making us lonely. 74% of Americans interact with their neighbors once a week or less, and 33% have never met their next-door neighbors.
This is taking a toll on our overall wellness. I spoke with leading cognitive science expert Professor Laurie Santos (pictured above), who studies hard-to-define concepts of happiness and fulfillment. She confirmed that "walkable neighborhoods make people happier because they boost our social connection." We all know that having friends makes us happier, but Santos notes that "even momentary social connections can be a big booster for well-being." And these momentary connections play a crucial role in building meaningful relationships: from a game theoretic perspective, even knowing we'll interact with someone frequently makes us trust them more and behave reliably from the get-go.
The link between walkability and social connections is simple: first, when we're walking or biking rather than beelining in a car from our garage to our destination, we inevitably have more chances to run in to people.
I experienced this stark shift myself when I replaced my car commutes with bike rides last fall during the pandemic. As I hopped on my bike each morning, I found myself looking forward to my frequent, almost daily encounters with friends new and old: the neighboring tenant and her three-year-old son on their evening strolls, fellow students who I reconnected with over our chilly morning rides, and the collection of strangers who locked their bikes next to mine at a nearby grocery store. Without my car, I felt my definition of community broadening.
Additionally, when we design cities for community and not cars, there is more public space for social interactions.
I spoke with Dan Parolek, founding Principal of Opticos Design, who is one of the visionaries behind the design of Culdesac Tempe. He talked about how he's envisioned the public space of the neighborhood. Parolek wanted to fundamentally rethink the role of a neighborhood in facilitating social connections and combating loneliness. Culdesac Tempe has a hierarchy of public spaces, each of which plays a unique role in facilitating daily interactions with neighbors.
Residents stepping out the front door will arrive on a private patio. A step from the patio leads to a semi-private courtyard where neighbors may be barbecuing, lounging on an outdoor couch, or reading under a tree. On the way to grab coffee, residents will make their way through paseos, where they may encounter both old friends and new faces from the broader Tempe community. Finally, they will arrive at the main retail plaza, where they can come together for community events, like a food truck park or concert. As Santos emphasized, some interactions may be brief and unplanned while others are more intimate and intentional, but all are fundamental in contributing to our overall sense of wellness.
Santos and Parolek both show that the way we move and the spaces through which we move can greatly impact our happiness. When I'm at a community garden or park, amidst people who are playing impromptu guitar tunes or rollerskating with their dogs, I can't help but imagine if more public space was repurposed for people. With so much space dedicated to cars, and so much to gain from human connection, it's worth building a community that is profoundly different.