Designing Community: Planning and Citizenship in St. John’s

How does where we live affect how we live? A lot of people are trying to answer that question right now.

How does where we live affect how we live? A lot of people are trying to answer that question right now. We’re getting a better and better sense of how urban design choices can support our physical health.

What about our social health, though? Can we design neighbourhoods for a sense of community, or for civic participation? There’s not as much research out there on this – but we do have some data from right here in St. John’s.

A couple of years ago, conversations around a Happy City table turned into a Masters’ thesis from one of our volunteers that took a crack at this question. Here’s how it worked: people all around the city were stopped on the street for a survey that measured their “social capital” – the strength of their community connections and relationships.

They also provided their home postal codes, which were dropped into Google Street View one-by-one to see what the “built environment” there looked like. Were there sidewalks? What about stores, or trees?

The result was a nifty little dataset that could match people’s social capital against the physical shape of the neighbourhood they lived in. It showed the same pattern that shows up in studies from other cities (See this one, for example: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1448008/) : the more walkable your neighbourhood is here in St. John’s, the more social capital you’re likely to have.

There’s lots of work to do to figure out exactly how this relationship works – but there’s a pretty compelling case that it is, at least in part, about how walking around more gives us a chance to bump into people and lay the foundations for all kinds of relationships.

The other interesting nugget we pulled out from this little bit of St. John’s data was about what kind of walkability seemed to matter. When you think about it, there are many ways to think about what makes an area “walkable”. Is it having lots of amenities close by? Is it aesthetics? Is it making walking more pleasant?

Interestingly, the St. John’s data seems to lean on the third version. The measure of walkability that tied mostly closely to social capital is one based on design, not destinations. What mattered:

  1. Narrower roads: they feel safer to walk alongside, with traffic going more slowly
  2. More intersections: this means more options of how to get to/from a destination
  3. Having buildings closer to the street: this gives you more interesting things to look at as you go about your journey

The neighbourhoods that had all these things, not the neighbourhoods with the most amenities, were the ones where (controlling for education, income, and the like), social capital was likely to be stronger.

This is just one survey’s worth of data, so the first thing that needs to happen is more work! That said, if these results hold, it means something pretty encouraging: that day-to-day urban design decisions made at City Hall can have a pretty profound impact on how we connect with each other.

Are you a Masters’ student looking to work on urban issues in St. John’s? Reach out to us at info@happycity.ca to chat about some of the (many!) things we’d love to have someone research. If you’re interested in reading the thesis this article summarizes, it’s online at http://research.library.mun.ca/11758/

Article by Joshua Smee

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