Welcome to the Municipal Blog relating to the 5 Year Review of the Municpality of Meaford Official Plan. Please note that this blog is not intended to replace formal public consultation under the Planning Act but is instead meant to be a forum for information sharing on topics and ideas relating the review and community planning in general. Feel free to post comments or questions. Also be sure to visit the Municipal Webste (here) for additional information about the Official Plan Review.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Fostering Community. Part 1 - Built Environment & Community

Out in the spring sun:
Me (approx. age 5) with
life-long friend & neighbour, Dean.

In my last post “Reflections on Community” I spoke about the way in which the neighbourhood I grew up in has changed over the years.
Perhaps the warmth associated with my childhood recollections is nostalgia at work. However, given the recent focus that has been placed by  numerous public agencies and organizations on the creation and revival of healthy, livable and sustainable communities, I am inclined to think that my observation may be accurate.
There has been a change.
As a society, it seems that we are beginning to realize that some of the decisions and practices of the past few decades have perhaps led us away from a place of sustainable well-being  and happiness. (For more information about the concept of sustainable happiness click here)

Best Practices in Neighbourhood Design

Over the past years, best practices have begun to surface in relation to neighbourhood design (Example: LEED-ND). In reviewing some of the features of such model neighbourhoods, I find myself reflecting on  the major changes that have occurred over time to the community where I was raised:
  • Local amenities such as the local playground, basketball court & shade trees were removed.
  • The local pharmacy & grocery store were relocated to a large commercial mall several blocks away.
  • A highway was constructed behind our property. On ramps/entrances cut our major east/west arterial road into short sections with limited connectivity.
  • The nearby open space, farmed and forested areas have been replaced by suburban residential development.
  • There are fewer families living in the condominium complex.
My intuition tells me that there is a relationship between these changes and the altered nature of that community. I went looking for some research to substantiate this intuitive knowledge and found a nifty little research paper called ‘Social Capital and the Built Environment: The Importance of Walkable Neighbourhoods’. In this study,  Dr. Kevin Leyden carried out research to examine whether the built environment (i.e., the way we design and build our communities and neighborhoods) affects the degree to which people are involved in their communities and with each other.
The researcher’s premise was that some neighborhood designs enable or encourage social ties or community connections, whereas others do not.

Through his research, Dr. Leyden found that:
‘persons living in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods have higher levels of social capital compared with those living in car-oriented suburbs. Respondents living in walkable neighborhoods were more likely to know their neighbors, participate politically, trust others, and be socially engaged.’

Dr. Leyden noted that :‘Spontaneous “bumping into” neighbors, brief (seemingly trivial) conversations, or just waving hello can help to encourage a sense of trust and a sense of connection between people and the places they live. These casual contacts can occur at neighborhood corner shops, at local parks, or on the sidewalk. To many residents, such contacts breed a sense of familiarity and predictability that most people find comforting.’


Change the Environment: Change the Community 

In light of Dr. Leyden’s findings, it is reasonable to assume that the changes my neighbourhood underwent have had an impact on the nature of the community. We removed the on-site recreational amenities and nearby service uses such as the pharmacy & grocery store meaning that  not only do residents have fewer opportunities for casual contact and chance interactions but now they must get into their vehicles and drive several city blocks in order to meet basic household needs.
Also, there are fewer families within the condominium. This is perhaps due to broader demographic change or perhaps due to the lack of recreational amenity to draw in young families  but in either case - and as fellow parents will recognize - this means that there are fewer children to act as ‘social lubricant’ between the adults.
How interesting to be able to apply the findings of this study to explain a change I've observed in my own life. I am inspired. This study (and it is in good company) indicates there is a link between the structure of our environment and the community that develops within it, because of it, or in spite of it. And in knowing this, I can't help but think of what a powerful opportunity arises for us to embrace best practices in neighbourhood design and in turn, foster the development of communities that feel like home.  

Coming Soon: ‘Fostering Community. Part 2 – Official Plans & Community’  

For Reference:
Leyden, Kevin M. Social Capital and the Built Environment: The Importance of Walkable Neighborhoods . Journal of Public Health. 2003 September; 93(9): 1546–1551. Available online: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1448008/ [Last accessed June 1st, 2012)
Putnam (2000)  Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 2000.


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  2. Love your post. I think there are eseveral components to a healthy community. One of them is neighbourhood design and another is the knowledge of locals. Neighbourhood design and raising awareness go hand in hand.

  3. Just playing devil’s advocate as I love my walkable neighbourhood (downtown Guelph) with its narrow roads, local small shops and gathering spots but smaller stores means more expensive. I was raised in England in an old neighbourhood with a high street. I distinctly remember the bigger, all in one grocery store moving onto the main road. Overnight, the butcher, green grocers, news agent, haberdashery and the sweet shop along my street closed as the locals (my mum included) opted for the bigger store. Why? Because it was cheaper. It wasn’t a trivial decision. My mum enjoyed chatting with the neighbours and store merchants as she shopped but she knew life expanded beyond the neighbourhood and she just had to keep up with the demands. This meant saving her pennies for education and other options that could improve onces situation.