I live in a gated community and use my car 99.9 per cent of the time. Perhaps it’s surprising, given that the basic premise of much of my writing is that we need to plan and design our communities around the needs of non-automobile users, and stop segregating ourselves into residential enclaves.
I don’t defiantly walk in the sweltering heat on streets unshaded by trees or buildings, jump on a bicycle to risk getting hit by someone with road rage, or live in the middle of downtown Port of Spain, just to prove a point.
My lifestyle choices are a reflection of the built environment that I live in. I’ll live in the middle of downtown Brooklyn and walk 20 blocks in the unbearable summer humidity and heat without much fuss.
Look back at my university years living in a pedestrian-friendly New Jersey suburb, and you’ll find me trudging to classes in the lows of winter, and adjusting my shopping habits from large hauls to frequent small purchases to manage carrying groceries on foot or a borrowed bicycle more easily.
But here, it’s rare that I would chose to walk more than 200 metres unless actively working out. We aren’t inherently lazy or antisocial, it’s environmental design that’s the problem.
Through writing this column and digging deeper into human behaviour, I observe so much more on a daily basis; and I hope that you do too.
It isn’t the gate that makes me feel safe, but rather the fact that there are so many other apartments with lots of other people all around me – a living arrangement that doesn’t require a gate. What use is a gate when you don’t even know your neighbours, far less know who should and shouldn’t be inside?
A woman who lives mere steps from where I park my car every day didn’t even recognise me as I tried to enter the compound one day without my gate remote. She looked at me in my car, drove out, stopped in the middle of the road to block my entry, waited for the gate to close behind her, and then drove off.
This was a face that I knew. Most faces I don’t recognise, and most drive in and out unconcerned about who else is coming in after them. We would be safer if we were a tighter-knit community, inside and outside the gate, where neighbours actively looked out for one another. We speed through the streets, park in our spots, and quickly dash to our apartments.
Not surprisingly, the neighbours that I talk to most often and know best are the ones whose porches overlook my parking spot. Of course, there’s also the couple who never forgot my name after hearing my cousins frantically screaming “Ryan” in the early hours one Carnival Monday morning when I, with all of their J’Ouvert packages, lay fast asleep after enjoying my Carnival Sunday night a little too much.
One of my readers is part of a bicycle advocacy group called Duck Traffic TT. He reached out to me to encourage me to start back cycling, and even dropped a bicycle for me to use and took me on a short ride around my neighbourhood.
It was around 5.30 pm, so neighbours were returning home from work. I stood right outside of the gate, chatting and getting ready to start the ride. Everyone who had to slow down and wait for the gate to open, smiled, waved, or said “hi.” Some were people I recognised, but most I had never seen before. There was this sense of connection that I had never experienced in years of living here.
As we proceeded to ride down the street, neighbours liming in the road, who lived outside of my enclave, also waved and said “hi” as we rode by, again with a warmth that made me feel like we’d been greeting each other for years.
It reminded me of a University of Surrey study that found that “drivers spend the least amount of time speculating on what’s outside the car, and may unconsciously jump to the worst conclusions.” In other words, “compared to people who walk (and bike) places, car drivers make more negative judgments about (people and) their environment with the least information about them.”
The simple lesson: if we got out of our cars, and passed each other daily on foot or bike as we carried out our daily routines, we could begin to break down the barriers separating us, and rebuild the bonds of community and our society. Technology, gated communities, and bourgeois pretension can’t replace a good neighbour.
* Ryan Darmanie is an urban planning and design consultant with a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Rutgers University, New Jersey, and a keen interest in urban revitalisation. You can connect with him at darmanieplanningdesign.com or e-mail him at email@example.com