Social life as tree roots

For a few decades, we have been observing and describing the shift in our lifestyles where our social circles are getting smaller and smaller. The following metaphor describes this social phenomenon in a very vivid way.

“A healthy social network looks like the root mass of a tree. From the most important relationships at the heart of the network, thinner roots stretch out to contacts of different strength and intensity. Most people’s root networks are contracting, closing in on themselves, circling more and more tightly around spouses, partners, parents, and kids. There are our most important relationships, but every arborist knows that a tree with a small root-ball is more likely to fall over when the wind blows.” Happy City – Charles Montgomery

Marc J. Dunkelman – author of “The Vanishing Neighbor” – calls those missing connections the “middle ring” relationships. They are not our close family, but we interact with them on a regular basis, so they are not mere acquaintances either. Robert Putnam also analyses the decline of social capital in his book “Bowling Alone”. He adopts a more politicized approach exploring different civic movements and organizations, but the main issue remains the same: the reduction in all the forms of in-person social intercourse.

It is ironic that the tool which freed us to travel faster and much longer distances is the same tool who significantly raised the costs of friendly encounters and restricted our interactions to people with very similar worldviews.

Cars have a decisive impact on the dwindling social ties. A study made in Boston and Atlanta could predict the extent of your friendships based on the number of cars in a given neighbourhood. Another well-referenced study by Donald Appleyard mapped what people considered their home, the number of social interactions, and friendships on streets with different traffic patterns.

We’ve been accumulating a lot of research on this topic and today we know that communities with a cohesive social network benefits in the individual and societal level.

At the individual level, the exposure to regular encounters with people beyond our nuclear family not only makes us more resilient to life challenges and gives us a stronger sense of belonging thus improving our mental health but it also makes us fitter physically. We are less likely to experience colds, heart attacks, cancer and many other health conditions.

At a societal level, a tight geographical community exposes people to different opinions since it allows people from different religions, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds to coexist and spend time together. In other words, a sound network fosters diversity, innovation, trust and acceptance.

This is not to say we should simply erase our last forty years and go back to the way we lived before. It is important to maintain a critical historical perspective instead of seeing our past with plain nostalgia. For one, they had their own problems to address and we don’t want to simply reinstate them. Secondly, in an ever-changing world, emulating the past is just not possible. However, we can learn from our good and bad practices and intentionally build what we were given freely a few decades ago. Spontaneous regular encounters with our neighbours and people with different worldviews than ours.

This is what we call Social Literacy and it needs to be part of a concerted effort from longterm urban planning to individual actions. Social literacy is one of the three main components of Urban Literacy, the capacity to read, interpret and influence our urban environments in a mindful and positive way. A must-have skill for anyone who wants a better world for future generations.

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