Responsibility

“In real life, only from the ordinary adults of the city sidewalks do children learn – if they learn it at all – the first fundamental of successful city life: People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.  This is a lesson nobody learns by being told.” ~ Jacobs, Death & Life of Great American Cities, pg. 108

The chapter this quote is taken from is about how planners, in the first half of the 20th Century (and beyond) began to exchange public street life with private park life in both low-income and high-income projects in cities.  They basically suburbanized the city, thinking it would solve crime and economic issues.  The assumption was that the slums were the problem, and the opposite of slums would be the solution.  Instead of fixing the problems of the slums and keeping the parts that worked, they threw the baby out with the bath water and destroyed them wholesale.  In the process, they destroyed unnoticed and undefined bonds existing between strangers that served to self-police those neighborhoods.  Strangers took “a modicum of public responsibility for each other” because the street-focused environment, full of pedestrians, residents, shoppers, and shop-owners, fostered such a shared responsibility.  Everyone had an interest in safe and productive sidewalks and streets.

As I alluded to, before Jacobs pointed out this shared responsibility, few people actually thought about it.  It wasn’t something that was taught at home or in school.  There were no local government programs that urged people to watch out for each other; that sort of thing wasn’t needed, because anyone who spent any time in those environments learned the behavior of responsibility simply by assimilating themselves into them.  I think this behavior is something that we have evolved to do in environments in which we are surrounded by strangers.  If we don’t feel that sense of responsibility for each other, fear and chaos results… which is exactly what occurs in many of the low- and high-income projects which are oriented away from the streets.  The utopian internal courtyards and parks restrict all manor of wholesome play for adolescents, pushing them out onto the streets, which have no life and nothing going on; no built-in structure that polices itself.  This is where gang and drug culture flourishes… in the environments we have engineered to be not cared about.

I think this has a profound parallel to what is going on in American culture as a whole.  In fact, I think it is one and the same; intimately connected.  We have all sorts of problems with fear, violence, greed, etc.  All of these problems have the same root: a perceived lack of responsibility toward each other.  We tend to think that we are only responsible for ourselves and our families, with perhaps the exception of a few of our friends and co-workers.  As a result, we have separated ourselves into tribes with all of the usual psycho-social believes and attitudes that come along with that.  There is Us, and then there is Them.  Insiders vs. Outsiders.  Black vs. White.  Republican vs. Democrat.  Cops vs. Inner City Youth.  Humans have always had a tribal mentality, but it has always been tempered with a duty toward people who are helpless or powerless, and there were always incentives and mutual benefits to taking on a small share of responsibility for the strangers that shared the same space.

I think we have both engineered shared responsibility out of many of our built environments and convinced ourselves that this was good for us.  And that is a very unfortunate, lethal combination.  It started with the suburbanization of our cities, where shared responsibility is best learned.  There are too few of those spaces left for a divided society to learn from.

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