A commonly touted benefit of the suburbs is privacy.
Privacy is a bit of a vague term, so let’s ask Merriam Webster so we’re all talking about the same thing:
b: freedom from unauthorized intrusion <one’s right to privacy>
The commonly understood visualization of privacy is the ubiquitous fence that blocks our backyards from the prying eyes of the rest of humanity. But we can hardly lìve behind fences: we’re social creatures, humans. So, besides protecting from unwanted attention while sun-bathing in one’s yard, what do the suburbs have to offer in the way of privacy?
Very little, it turns out.
The main issue in all this is that suburbs, in the way we seem to just through them together nowadays (I think I’m too young to be allowed to use that word, but bear with me), are very isolating. You go from your house to your car to your cubicle. You’d think that this is a great guarantee of privacy, but, like fences, you can’t live in total isolation and most people eventually wish to see other human beings.
So what happens when you actually want to socialize in such a disparate and isolated area? You make friends. It’s harder than it sounds because everyone is always in their own private bubbles: you don’t run in to people on the street at 70km/h in separate vehicles. So you meet people doing roughly the same things as you (activities, classes, work…) which leads people to befriend people who are very similar to them (same tax bracket, stage of life, interests…). This is completely normal.
The problem comes when these are, as it is in poorly-built suburbs, the ònly people you know. This is because people are then forced to make up for the lack of ‘acquaintances’ (I’ll get to that later) by forming ‘cliques’ of friends: clubs of like-minded individuals. Like most clubs, they get to decide who’s in and who isn’t eligible (people not like them). So anyone who doesn’t fit into the cookie-cutter personality of these cliques finds themselves isolated and alienated without any help or hope of a social life. These people are of different cultures, income levels, ideologies and lifestyles. Often, they’ll move to where they dò fit in, which leads to polarized concentrations of wealth, poverty and ethnic enclaves which are incapable of integrating or mixing.
Another problem is that suburbs separate people into two camps: best friends and strangers. As it is with best friends, you share everything with them: you invite them into your house, to your parties, your life. Very little is to be kept from them. This the exact opposite of what privacy promises: the ability to chose what is shared with others. You might say ‘well then, just don’t have any best friends!’ but then everyone is a stranger, which leads to isolation, alienation and all sorts of unpleasantness.
So, to sum it up, in suburbs, you hàve to share your private life with others or suffer total isolation: the fences might be tall, but the secrets are nil.
Let’s take a look at the urban city then. Close quarters, no fences, little private space – it must be a privacy nightmare! Again, this is if you think of privacy as just the ability to have a lot of space in which to do things with no one looking, and not as the ability to hide intimate or private details of your life from others. Granted, people also have ‘best friends’ in the city, but much fewer because, unlike in the suburbs, they don’t hàve to. This is because in the city, there are three categories of people: friends, acquaintances and strangers.
This new category, acquaintances, is the old lady you talk to every day while waiting for the bus, the grocery store owner who knows you prefer paper bags, the post man who you greet from your porch or your stoop, your neighbours you say hi to on your way somewhere and other people who know, but who you don’t knòw. My neighbours fall into this category: we give them our keys in case we’re ever locked out, the lady across the street gives us tips on how to not kill our vegetable garden and we water her flowers whenever she’s off somewhere.
We trust and like her, but I don’t even know her last name, her telephone number, her likes or dislikes and neither does she know ours.
We can chose what we share and what we keep private because these types of relationships are public: they don’t happen behind fences, they happen in the street between our two houses or at the bus stop or on Principale. We don’t need to invite them into our private lives, but we can rely on them for help, support or to bring the wine to the Boxing Day Party.
Unlike friendships which need maintenance and energy, these acquainanceships are effortlessly formed by virtue of just being in the same public space (which, as we explored in the beginning of this article, is very limited or little-used in poorly-built suburbs), so you can have a great deal more of them.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of acquaintanceship is that, since very little private life is shared, they form between the most unlikely and different individuals: people of different incomes, young and old, left and right and people of different cultures and ethnicities become acquaintances when being ‘best-friendships’ would have been very unlikely. This creates social cohesion as opposed to the polarized, ghettoized islands of homogeneity that plague an increasing percentage of our suburbs.
To create an environment where this third category of relations can form, the city needs to foster useful public space and have a smaller buffer between the private and the public:
What I mean by useful public space is a space where people have multiple reasons to go to instead of one express purpose. It’s a space across which people walk to get to work, to shop, to go to school, to play on structures or to hang out instead of a space which is jùst used for any one of these uses: it’s a space where people mix. Here, people of all types can meet and run into each other naturally instead of having to go out of their way to do so.
The smaller public-private buffer is something that mostly applies to homes: you want to be able to see the faces of people on the street (public space) and have a semi-private area, like a porch or a stoop, from which you can observe the going-ons of the public street and occasionally and casually interact with it.
So whereas the suburbs might provide fences at the cost of personal privacy and social cohesion, urbanized areas provide personal privacy and social peace at the price…
… of the fences.