OUR NEW EXTENDED FAMILIES: How the Built Environment and Public Services Shape Social Relationships and Democratic Government

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.”   “I should have called it

Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

Death of the Hired Man, Robert Frost

The two most important things about relatives, my mother used to say, are that you don’t get to choose them and that they take care of each other.  Back in the day, when most families were extended, you had no choice about going to grandma’s for Sunday dinner and you simply accepted that Uncle Al was loud, that Aunt Sarah was obnoxious, that Cousin Bob told bad jokes, and that each of the other people in the room were just who they were.  There was no option – family was your world:  for some of us, a significant part of our social life was the regular meeting of our “cousins’ club.”  At family gatherings, you learned not only that everyone was different but that it was possible to tolerate those differences and still share a meal – one of the fundamental understandings that underpin both families and democracy.

Today, despite some trends to the contrary and some lucky anomalies, most of our families are smaller and more scattered.  Many of us have compensated by creating alternative families of close friends, often forming when everyone in the group is first having children.  And those children, as they grow up, are now using email and social networks to maintain those connections, staying close to childhood and college friends.  But these extended friendship circles are composed of people we’ve chosen to be with.  Wonderful as they are, they do not force us to accept the validity of random differences.

So where do we learn to accept the uncomfortable other – which is what people from different social networks or groups often feel like – as a legitimate part of our daily lives?  Where and how do we learn that we’re all in this together?

Schools, mass culture, and the workplace provide some social mixing.  But the space were we interact with the widest variety of others, the place most essential to fostering democratic respect in those interactions, is the public built environment  — the places where we walk, drive, shop, play, and hang out.  But space is not merely a physical phenomenon.  Government programs and policies are also a kind of space within which we function and interact with others.  In fact, the public sector is the most important space we have because it shapes both the built environment and the social context that shapes our lives.

There is a complete circle aspect of all this – acceptance of others is one of the bedrock cultural requirements for democracy; democracy is one of the drivers of good government; good government programs shape the spaces that influence our daily life and the cultural attitudes that emerge from it, including the acceptance of others.


Schools, Culture, Workplaces

Schools can play a role, especially sports which tends (at least for boys) to be a mixing ground; although our habit of moving into neighborhoods with people like ourselves combined with the growing inequalities in our society is leading to increasingly homogeneous educational settings (and more polarized politics).  The growth of private or home-school options just adds to the self-segregation. And school is just for kids – it doesn’t encourage adults, fewer of whom have young children anymore, to engage in regular, informal mixing across social categories.

More powerful than school is pop culture – entertainment, music, movies – where the commercial imperative to stay noticeable and titillating leads to the absorption of fringe trends and a normalization of the presence (and humanity) of outsiders.  The multi-racial, multi-gendered, and multi-national nature of youth culture is one of the reasons so many young people were open to Barak Obama during the last election.  (However, the rest of the digital world is too virtual, self-centered, and self-controlled to foster social integration.  We can “unfriend” anyone who gives us a hard time, automatically send emails from people we don’t like straight to Trash, only read articles and blogs we agree with, only listen to music we already like.  For all its information, from a values and human inter-action perspective, most of the Internet is more of an echo chamber than a call for maturity.)

The workplace is our society’s most important adult-education center.  And it is probably one of the more integrated parts of our society – although that tendency only reaches significant levels in the military, government agencies, parts of the service industry, and some urban companies (especially low-end manufacturing, to the extent it still exists in this country).

The Built Environment As A Social Force

But there’s another place that we need to take seriously as a meeting place, a common ground, where we learn to get along:  the public built environment.   Sidewalks, roads, busses and subways and trains – as well as the retail shopping areas, parks, and recreational areas we get to via these transportation systems.  Boston’s Main Streets areas, Cambridge’s Central Square, Somerville’s Union (and even Davis) Squares – in some ways, these are a contemporary replacement of our grandmother’s living room.

Shared public spaces are, these days, where we most regularly see – and to varying degrees interact with – the rest of the world.  People with salaries we’ll never earn; people without homes.  People much older and much younger than us; better looking and more homely; nicer and nastier.  People whose faces and families are nothing like our own.  We see them.  They see us.  If we’ve been lucky enough to live or work in the same place for long enough, we may even say hello and ask how they are.  (My wife had what she described as a “relationship” with the person who asked for spare change every day on one of the corners she passed coming home from work.)

You may dismiss all this as superficial, more about reducing the friction of busy streets than making meaningful connections.  However, even this level of public equality is a relatively new historical phenomenon. Think of the street scenes depicted in any of Dickens’ books, or the “whites only” signs that some of us experienced first-hand very few years ago.  In contrast, today there is a general acceptance that everyone has the same right to be on the sidewalk, the same legitimacy to be at the front of the line no matter what their race or wealth or physical ability.  Today, retail stores train employees to greet all customers with smiles, to say “have a good day,” to offer to help us find things or even to carry our packages to our car.  And even here in the colder northeast it feels like people are more likely than in years past to say hello as they pass.  No one is expected to deferentially step out of the way of their “betters.”

Our culture has changed.  But an equally powerful influence on our behavior is our physical surroundings – the way our buildings and the spaces between them are designed makes it more (or less) likely that we will go into public areas, more (or less) likely that we will meet others, and more (or less) likely that we will feel comfortable enough to hang around and talk.

This is not a new insight.  Years ago, Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”  He was right:  progressive architects and city planners have long understood that their job was not simply to create beautiful and efficient spaces, but to also amplify the normal human desire to be together with others – to make it easy to socialize.  This is not “feel-good” blather by those professions. The hard cash of increased sales has made retail businesses confirmed believers in the power of special design to change behaviors.  And the business press is full of stories surging smart businesses to change their office layouts to encourage informal cross-departmental interactions in order to spur innovation and problem-solving.

Unfortunately, the other major profession with significant influence over the design of our built spaces, transportation planners, has been much less sensitive to this larger significance of roads.  Traffic engineers still mainly focus on the level of service provided to cars, with much less attention given to the impact of their work on the quality of life.  It is one of the deeper tasks of Advocates to address this gap.  (See SUCCESSFUL ADVOCACY: Lessons of the BU Bridge Campaign)

Government And Public Programs As Public Spaces

 “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own—nobody….You built a factory out there? Good for you. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory…because of the work the rest of usdid….God bless—keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is that you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”  Elizabeth Warren, campaign interview

There is another place where we come together, where we experience the reality that our individual well-being is intimately tied to our common wealth:  the public sector.  James Carroll has written that our quadrennial presidential election ritual is a major renewer of our feeling of “commonality.”  But, as Carroll admits, elections are only episodic and mostly about hope, which runs into “the inevitable compromises of the officer holder….and therefore always disappoints.”

In contrast, on a day-to-day basis we live within the public programs and services that define the baseline of so many Americans’ reality – from road construction to Social Security, from garbage collection to the police, from public health to education.  The public sector is not just a safety net to protect us from smashing our faces when we suffer the inevitable stumble, merely a form of insurance through which we reduce the risk of personal disaster by aggregating small amounts of our collective resources.  It is also the foundation from which we build our lives and families, the resources and tools from which we create our society and our wealth.

Even more radically, public programs are both created by and the creator of our feelings of shared citizenship.  They are a public space that shapes our perceptions and attitudes about each other as concretely as the built environment.  If we believe that everyone is contributing and getting back a fair share, if we know that our security and wellbeing depends on our continued collective willingness to treat each other’s basic needs as legitimate as our own, if we understand that we rise or fall together – then we are laying the foundation for mutual acceptance and respect across all the otherwise difficult social barriers.  We are also maintaining the conditions that allow democratic government to exist.

It is not just the existence of government programs, but their nature.  Respect for others is undermined when government programs are designed to stigmatize or punish those who use them, when Government programs reinforce “the force of the blows levied on poorer people by our culture of insult….from religious doctrines that treat good fortune as a sign of heavenly favor and poverty as the reverse, to the insult implicit in the inability of people living on the edge to share in the obsessive shopping and consumption that constitute so much of our daily life.”  (“A Proud, Angry Poor” by Frances Fox Piven, The Nation magazine, 1/2/2012, p.33)

Or public programs can be inclusive and welcoming, connecting people with each other and empowering them to work together to meet collective needs, thereby reinforcing our societal bonds – our willingness to emphasize our similarities rather than our differences.

This is a very different way of understanding public programs from the Conservative position that they are primarily about dependency versus independence.  Portraying government as “the problem” leaves us without any non-violent defense against the forces, groups, and people who would (intentionally or incidentally) harm or exploit us – the criminal, the ruthless, the powerful, the robber barons.  And it leaves us without any method for democratically solving the problems that inevitably arise from the complexities of human interaction and our need to wrest resources from the natural world.  Without methods of communal decision-making – without government – we are dropped into a jungle of all against all, a descent into the brutality of the stateless regions of the world whose massacres and disasters repeatedly show up in our headlines, a world in which violence rules.  There is no anarchistic paradise of either the Ann Rand egoist or the Romantic “natural order” varieties waiting to emerge from that chaos – just insecurity and fear that cries out for authoritarian rescue.

And the start of that race to the bottom is the belief that we don’t owe anyone else anything we choose not to donate.  The Tea Party is at least honest about where they are coming from with their slogan that “you are not entitled to what I earn” and the statement made at one meeting that sick people without their own health insurance should be allowed to die.  Mitt Romney’s juxtaposition of the need to choose between an “Entitlement Society or an Opportunity Society” is a slicker, but no less slippery, path in the same direction.  It is just one step from Ebenezer Scrooge’s reply to a request for Christmas charity:  he asks if the prisons and workhouses are in operation and, when told that they are so brutal that many people would rather die than go, he says:  “I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.  If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides, excuse me, I don’t know that.  It’s not my business. It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.”

Why are our trains and transit options so meager and poorly funded?  Why is health promotion and disease prevention given such a small part of our health care budget?   Why is our government so unable to effectively address the crises that we face?  How do we nurture the continuing cohesion of our wonderfully diverse society?  How can we foster the combined feelings of shared destiny and mutual respect that is the foundation of successful democracy?  Perhaps, as current attacks on immigrants seem to suggest, we’ve forgotten that all of our families were once strangers in this strange land.  Perhaps we need to remember the Passover prayer to “let all who are hungry come to our table” – if only metaphorically.    Perhaps we need to find ways to reinforce the spaces and politics that contribute to our sense of ourselves, collectively, as “we, the people.”

Happy New Year….may the coming months bring health and happiness to all, “every one!”


Other relevant posts include:

ReDEFINING TRANSPORTATION: from Moving Vehicles to Place-Making

AVOIDING “NIMBY” – Navigating Between Fear and Greed

THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT AND ADVOCACY: Movement Building, Institutional Reform, and Organizational Development (Part I) and (Part II)

MOVING URBAN INNOVATION BACK TO THE FUTURE: Reclaiming the Village and the Street

DEMOCRACY, DEMAGOGUERY, AND BICYCLING: Stop The Boston Herald’s Vigilante Campaign

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