I should also warn that there are whales in this post.
People will often wring their hands and bemoan the rise of the individualistic society and the disappearance of the sense of community that once bound us together. However, not many people really question what individualism is concretely. If anyone took 10 seconds out of their day to search it up on Wikipedia, they’d find that its definition is to “promote the exercise of one’s goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance while opposing external interference upon one’s own interests by society or institutions such as the government.” But if this is the case, we are going in the opposite direction of individualism: globalisation is a blanding force which makes it possible to buy the same meal anywhere in the world, as long as its demand is high enough to warrant it. For it to have a high enough demand, enough people have to want it, so you can “exercise one’s goals and desires” as long as they fit within a popular category. Worse still, individualism is only really thought of in terms of what you buy instead of how you live. People want to show their ‘different-ness’ through clothes, food, music, technology (or lack thereof), but never by doing things differently or living in a manner that truly fits their needs because people have a good number of things that they can buy, but not a whole lot of options as to how they live.
Now, I really hate the term ‘individualism’ because of the consumerist connotation that it has, but bear with me and keep its true definition in mind throughout this post.
Now, this is a blog about how we build our human habitat, so there’s a link with this: the way we build cities discourages people from living in ways that fit their many and complex needs through lack of density and lack of options. And let me tell you why.
Places to live
Look around your neighbourhood and tell me who lives there. Old folks? New families? Students? Not many will state all of the above. This is because the people who live where you do often do because that is one of the few places they can live and this creates a majority of a certain socio-economic group in any given area instead of a myriad of minorities. Now, no one really feels that bad about having to look for housing in one area and not in another because it’s just accepted: No low-income family is going to go visiting houses in Westmount or Rockcliffe because it’s just ridiculous. But this restricts the choices of people. Now, it’s not just a matter of income: I’ve chosen not to drive and therefore my choices for places to live are restricted by their access to transit and walkability/cyclability and minorities are restricted by their ability to access their food staples and cultural institutions.
This may seem like a fine idea since it makes it easy for businesses and government to target a certain area with services that are geared towards the majority socio-economic group that resides or works there, but it isn’t: the lack of diversity or accessibility for others leads to a ghettoisation of groups and a lack of upward mobility since people of any given group can only exist in that group, culture or income bracket if they live in a specific area and vice-versa. So if you lose your job in New Edinburgh, you have to move to Vanier due to a lack of affordable housing, if you have affordable housing in South-Keys and you get a promotion, you have to leave since you no longer qualify and if you can no longer afford/use a car in Kanata, you have to move to Centretown. In every case, it forces people to uproot their social connections every time they make a change in their lives and in places where residents are often just transient (like social housing projects or student neighbourhoods), it leads to a lack of caring about the people and the place and so no possibility of community.
On a societal level, it breeds mistrust and misconceptions since people of one group never have any real contact with others and so they rely on what they hear and read (which is rarely flattering). So the poor mistrust the rich, the rich mistrust the poor and ethnic groups mistrust each other. A light example of this is the comparison between the Anglophone-Francophone relationship of Gatineau and Montreal: whereas there is a high level of mixing in Gatineau, there are almost designated French and English neighbourhoods in Montreal. The mixing in Gatineau leads to cohesion and the segregation in Montreal leads to a lot of bitching and quarrels. If you live with others in all their complex human nature, it becomes hard to reduce them to a stereotype, a point well conveyed in the common justification “All the people from (group x) are (stereotype x), except all the ones I know”.
Lack of ways to live
I mentioned that I don’t drive in the last paragraph. I don’t drive because I’m not willing to spend the money required to do so (the Canadian average cost for car ownership and utilisation is $10 000/year according to the CAA). It’s a choice I’ve made to fit my needs and surely, in a supposedly individualistic society, it should be just as easy as owning an automobile. But then again, it isn’t. I’m lucky enough to live in a dense suburb (by suburban standards) which is pretty walkable and transit-accessible, but in your average Laval or Orleans, the density just can’t justify services that aren’t geared towards the majority needs because they’re not economically viable. Suburbs usually have the same density as a small farming town and, just as you won’t find niche stores (anything not sold at Loblaws) in Luskville because there aren’t enough people around to support them, you won’t find many in Kanata because, while there may be 200 ethnic Koreans in the whole subdivision, they wouldn’t provide enough regular service to justify having a Koamart there. Same thing for bike paths, transit, social services… So unless you live like the majority of your suburb, it’s very difficult to live there. In short, you can live as you like as long as everyone else lives the same way.
Density and Diversity
Now come the solutions.
First of all, to ensure that people can have the services and infrastructure they need to live the way that they want, you need enough people to warrant them. This can be achieved either by ghettoisation or densification. Since the former isn’t very desirable for the sake of social cohesion, I suggest we try density. Now, the North American imagination of density is everyone living in a Hong-Kong-styled 70-storey apartment building, but that’s ridiculous (and it undermines the principle of giving people choices in their way of life since it forces everyone into a similar setting). Often, we live in density without even realising it: the rowhouses of le Plateau Mont-Royal, the townhouses of Centretown, the uni-familials of the Glebe and, most notably, all of Paris which is worth seeing… These are all dense neighbourhoods where it’s still quite possible to have your own backyard. They are dense enough to warrant all sorts of shops, services and infrastructure that would turn any suburbanite green, but the buildings are still on a human scale (I’ll talk about the human scale in another post).
The more people you have in an area, the more viable it becomes for a niche business to open up shop or to build new infrastructure since more of their users are close by.
Since there is the possibility of more services geared towards a minority need, it allows for these minorities to move in, creating diversity in age, income, background, culture and needs. These different needs will warrant speciality shops, activities and different types of infrastructure: in a healthy city district you can have a baby clothes store beside a retirement home.
Property taxes and affordable housing, however, seem determined to undermine diversity by taxing out the poor and legislating out the rich from various neighbourhoods. Much has to be done on this front so that they could encourage people of different income brackets and stages of life through taxation, or at least do no harm.
So once people have diversity, they can also enjoy individualism by having the option to use any of the multitude of services that are offered to them and mix-and-match to better fit their needs: If you live in a $200 000/year household beside a $50 000/year one (granted property taxes have been fixed) and you go through a tough spot, you can go to the thrift store or the discount grocery, just as the $50 000 household, if they get a raise, can use services that, had they been in a homogeneous neighbourhood, would not have been there. If empty-nesters have kids, they don’t have to uproot themselves and move out – they can just start using different services available in the area than they were using before, just as the emptying-nesters will be able to do. This lets people grow up and develop in an area and form bonds with the people in it (see my previous post about privacy) as well as the place itself (a care for the future and health of the city) to form a strong and long-lasting sense community.
To bring this full circle, let me end with this: the way our cities are built and taxed are devoid of healthy density and undermine diversity and in so doing, they force people to live a certain way and force everyone else into ghettos. Living according to one’s ever-changing needs and desires while living in the same area is essential to the formation of community. This is individualism – not the ability to chose what you buy, but to chose and change how you live. It might be ironic, but in an urban context, individualism through diversity creates the strongest, most resilient communities and societies. Try doing that with 7 different colours of iPods!
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P.S.: On a completely unrelated note, I promised a friend that I would include whales in one of my blog posts, so here is a poem about the majestic creatures of the deeps.
Dolphins, dolphins in a pod,
Their squeaking language sounds so odd.
To us, that is, but maybe we
sound odd to dolphins in the sea.
by Helen H. Moore