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The Importance of Complete Neighborhoods in Times of Crisis

Being together is what's going to get us through being apart.

Photo Credit: Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership

As I write this column, I’m hunkered down in my apartment. I’ve been working from home for the better part of two weeks, with a handful of exceptions where I’ve had to make my way to the office, and the mere act of going outside of a walk is a privilege to be treated with respect and caution. 

Critical services that are frequently taken for granted, such as public transportation, grocery stores, urgent care clinics, public parks, and delivery services, are suddenly brought into limelight. Unfortunately, many of these services are overwhelmed in some fashion. Transit systems are seeking Federal assistance to support operations amid a crash in fare revenues, grocery store supply chains can hardly keep up, public parks are crowded to the point of cities being forced to close them for health and safety reasons, and delivery services have days-long wait times. 

Amidst a period of social distancing, the complete neighborhood plays a role in keeping ourselves both apart and together. The concept of the “complete neighborhood” is a relatively simple one; it’s a place where the residents of a neighborhood can access a myriad of goods and services within walking distance – typically about 15-minutes. Such neighborhoods provide levels of accessibility unavailable in most North American metro areas. Public transportation is a short walk away, which can provide critical connections to other parts of a metropolitan area to economic opportunities and connections that one’s own neighborhood may not provide. Small public parks and low-speed streets enable safe places to walk and play. Grocery stores, medical clinics, and storefronts where locally-owned small businesses can thrive abound. Perhaps most importantly, the potential for social connections is strong in places where community resources and low-speed streets are prominent. Sustained social connections – where friends and neighbors are closely knit together and watch for one another – are important for interpersonal support and survival in times of crisis.

Here is a personal example: I’m fortunate enough to live a block away from a small neighborhood market. My walking time to get there is less than five minutes and my exposure time is minimal; an important attribute in a time of pandemic. A few days ago, I was feeling unwell and nearby friends were kind enough to get a few groceries for me and leave them at the door of my apartment. Nobody interacted with me directly while I was feeling unwell, but my social connection and proximity to a resource enabled me to get what I needed. 

Aside my anecdotal experience, there are more substantive studies to support the hypothesis of complete neighborhoods and social connections. In the summer of 1995, a brutal heat wave struck the City of Chicago. Many households in Chicago do not have air conditioning and 739 people died of heat-related conditions. However, these deaths were not uniform. The neighborhoods that suffered the most deaths were those which had lost their social and commercial institutions. Disinvestments in housing, infrastructure, and public space had eroded the social base of the neighborhood of Englewood and they suffered the most deaths per capita in the city.

Auburn-Gresham, however, suffered one of the lowest per capita rates of death in the entire city of Chicago, faring better than other neighborhoods that were substantially wealthier, despite having demographic and income profiles similar to that of Englewood. The primary difference was that Auburn-Gresham had not lost their community organizations, retained their grocery stores and neighborhood commercial fixtures, and public spaces were kept in a state of fair condition. Neighbors knew who to check on frequently and knew where those who did not have air conditioning could go for shelter.

More cities and metropolitan areas, from as large as Paris to as small as Ottawa, are continuing to recognize the importance of complete neighborhoods; not just as a method of disaster resilience but also as a method of fighting climate change. Complete neighborhoods reduce the distance needed to reach goods, services, public spaces, public transportation and one another, enabling easier transportation by foot or bicycle and give the most vulnerable in our cities a chance at independence. 

Proximity in the good times keeps us resilient in the bad times. From climate change to pandemics and social distancing, our historical social togetherness is what holds us up in times when we are forced to be apart. Planning and designing for our cities for a future of uncertainty means investment in safe places that promote accessibility, companionship, and friendship.

Be safe, stay home, and don’t forget to check on your neighbors. 

Photo Credit: VisitIndy

Austin Gibble is a Project Development Planner for the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation and CNU-Midwest Board Member. Austin specializes in tackling urban mobility challenges through strategic planning and project management.

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