Backdoor Neighbors Have to Drive 7 Miles to Shake Hands

Readers – I just had a great time in Vancouver, where I gave a speech inaugurating the International Children’s Festival’s new “PEP Talk Series.” While there I met a lot of Free-Rangers who were very inspiring, including journalist/”urban experimentalist” Charles Montgomery, whose Happy City book will be coming out this fall. Among other things, it examines something we talk about here: How people are happier when they connect with their neighbors and neighborhoods. That’s true for adults and for kids. Think of your own childhood — wasn’t at least part of it spent in a swarm?

One impediment to spontaneous, outdoor meeting/greeting/playing is simply a lack of city planning. Or at least, a lack of planning that prioritizes helping people connect.  it’s hard for a group of kids to meet up at the park, if it’s across a major access road with few stop lights and a sea of cars.

How bad can it get? Charles shared this amazing story — really, just two maps — from the blog PriceTags. The first map shows two ADJACENT HOUSES. The second  shows the route the inhabitants would have to drive, if they wanted to shake hands. Left me shaking my head. – L.

Who knew this could take a quarter tank of gas?

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20 Responses to Backdoor Neighbors Have to Drive 7 Miles to Shake Hands

  1. Kimberly March 10, 2013 at 8:15 pm #

    Just after we moved into the house I spent most of my childhood, the people who lived behind us purchased their property and started building their house. I was five, sis was two. Their oldest was 4 and youngest was a baby. At the time there was a chicken wire fence between our two yards. Dad was planning on building a proper fence – to keep our dog in the yard.

    For us to play with kids on their street we would have had to walk/ride bikes 1 block on a very busy through street that just had an “armadillo” bike path (very very narrow bike path with a painted line and silver “armadillos” separating it from the traffic lane). Our Dad’s decided to put a gate between our yards. All the kids on our street, their street to our elementary school used that to get back and forth for years. The only rule was you HAD to close the gates properly and not let our dog or visiting dogs out. I think there were two occasions when our Dad and their Dad locked the gates because kids had let our dog/our aunt’s dog out. He had a neighborhood meeting with the kids’ parents and got them to make sure the kids were obeying the rules.

    In the mean time I had an accident on the narrow bike path when kids throwing things from the school bus forced me into the ditch. (Thank you Mr. Murphy for stopping the bus and pulling me out of the ditch and taking me and my broken bike home).

    After that Mom and Dad joined a group that was organizing to put in drainage system then using the “new land” to build a very nice hike and bike trail that followed the roads and in some locations gave you a choice of following the roads or taking a short cut by the bayou. It is still in use 35 years later.

  2. ifsogirl March 10, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

    I live in a suburb of Vancouver and would have loved to come see you speak, I even got the chance with a free ticket, alas I had to work that night.

    We are lucky enough to have a playground about a 5 minute walk away. I never see kids playing there, unless you count bored teenagers. I have walked my kids there, left them and come back an hour later to pick them up, they are almost 6 and 9.

    Unfortunatally as we have no sidewalks and my kids grew up being driven everywhere until recently they are not very good with the street smarts. I am teaching them and I trust them to walk home if I haven’t made it back by the time they are bored.

    The playground is also only really accesable to the 3 square blocks that don’t connect to busy streets, one with no sidewalks and very few crosswalks. So I agree, at least our neighbourhood isn’t set up well for walking, though we still are going to explore it by foot.

  3. Jenna K. March 10, 2013 at 8:37 pm #

    I actually believe that in today’s world, this is purposefully done. Communities are built with the selling point of privacy, which in result makes for these neighborhoods with no access between houses.

  4. hineata March 10, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

    Fascinating, but wouldn’t you just call over the back fence to them, or do what Kimberly’s dad did and put a gate in? That said, I would have thought a grid pattern, though maybe more boring, would have made access to everywhere easier for cars, cyclists and walkers – always assuming you put footpaths in.

    Doesn’t always work that well, of course. Evidently Dunedin in the South Island was worked out on a grid-like pattern sight unseen, (thank you Catspaw, my personal encyclopedia, LOL!) before the Scots arrived to settle the place, and there are now some fascinating street arrangements, including the world’s steepest street, an absolutely ridiculous gradient that students and visitors love.

    Whereas in Wellington they actually took a look at the hilly terrain first, and made many streets zigzag – still works fine, because you just run pedestrian paths uphill to connect the corners where you can.

  5. vjhreeves March 10, 2013 at 10:34 pm #

    You can’t get there from here.

  6. LisaS March 10, 2013 at 10:53 pm #

    the selling point isn’t privacy but exclusion. “Your kids will never play with anyone financially inappropriate.” – sorry, I live in a city. But I have the same problem, since all the kids in walking distance are either overprogrammed or helicoptered ….

  7. Earth.W March 10, 2013 at 10:58 pm #

    Distance between neighbours geographically isn’t really a problem. We have in Australia, farms that are so large that to visit each other requires an hour drive. Some longer.

    The more we’re squished into together, the less community there seems to be. Probably because they get little privacy and grip onto as much as they can to the point of becoming anti-social.

  8. Gina March 10, 2013 at 11:22 pm #

    That’s my old neighborhood!!! And, it’s totally true. The neighborhoods are really that hard to get in and out of.

  9. Warren March 11, 2013 at 12:13 am #

    Old friends of mine lived to the east of the town line, and it was a long distance phone call to their neighbour 10 yards to the west.

    Wasn’t there an old saying that high fences make for good neighbours? I guess poor developement planning does the trick these days.

  10. SKL March 11, 2013 at 2:35 am #

    Or they could put a door in the fence.

    Though my neighborhood has a similar issue. Our backyard ends in a ravine. There is a park not far from the other side of the ravine. I used to walk through there with my daughters, but one day a neighbor lady prevented us, insisting that it was too dangerous. So now the kids have to walk a mile to get to a park that is less than half a mile away. Of course this isn’t as bad as the story here.

    In other news about neighborhoods. On a forum I frequent, a member posted a complaint: “Neighbor kid comes over every day!” Seems roughly half of the respondents thought there is something wrong with the parents of a 5yo who plays outdoors and attempts to be social with neighbors on a frequent basis. And also, apparently we should assume everyone wants private family time 24/7 unless otherwise informed.

  11. Stacey March 11, 2013 at 3:46 am #

    Here is what I noticed in the city in which I live…and in the southeast US. Poor planning and the belief that we’d never need to walk again…

    http://southgeek.blogspot.com/2012/07/virtualactuality-attheir-core-i-believe.html

  12. BL March 11, 2013 at 5:26 am #

    @lskenazy
    “One impediment to spontaneous, outdoor meeting/greeting/playing is simply a lack of city planning.”

    You’ve got it backwards. Only “planning” can create such a ridiculous situation.

  13. Dave March 11, 2013 at 6:57 am #

    Terrible city planning. Neighbors cannot meet. It was designed for privacy not community. A grid is the best street layout. It encourages walking and encourages exploration. New York City works and encourages walking because of its street layout.

  14. Amanda Matthews March 11, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    If you rent, often you’re not allowed to put in a door/gate. And in a neighborhood designed like this, unless you’ve got good friends directly behind/next to you, more back yards than not would need to have multiple gates, and be okay with you cutting through their back yard for the gates to actually be useful.

    Of course, you could talk though the fences – assuming your friends are right up against you, or your neighbors are okay with you shouting over their yards – but the point was SHAKING HANDS.

    I agree it is ridiculous, but it’s done because people want it. If they didn’t want it, they’d live in a different neighborhood or (for the people that own) not put up the fences, or take down the fences. It’s not the city planner’s fault.

    My neighborhood is great – bike trails, sidewalks, locally owned stores you can walk to (where I know the owners – because they’re my neighbors – and know they aren’t going to call the cops if my kids walk there alone). There are fences, but there are gates that lead to alleys. And while the alleys were put there by whomever built the city, the rest of it is planned out by the residents, because it’s what we want.

    I have lived in places where there are no fences but the neighbors still put up emotional fences. I have lived in a condo where I could reach out the door, without actually going outside, and if my neighbor did the same we could shake hands; yet the only interaction I had with any of my neighbors was them saying I was breaking an HOA rule, to which I had to explain that I wasn’t (that, for example, my car was not broken down, it was just in my parking spot all day every day because I worked at night).

    Gates will do nothing if the residents have solid emotional fences, if the residents don’t WANT to be able to go outside and shake the hand of the neighbors behind them.

  15. catspaw73 March 11, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

    @hineata, Dunedin is not a grid system, the original settlement is Edinburgh’s street map :-) And this does not look like your literature review :-D

  16. hineata March 11, 2013 at 5:14 pm #

    @Catspaw – oops! And the literature review is soooo boring, LOL!

  17. Julie March 13, 2013 at 12:10 am #

    I agree it was planned that way on purpose. And how’s this for lack of community–I met a friend at park about a half-an-hour away in a far more upscale neighborhood than mine. It was a lovely park with really nice play areas, and our kids were having plenty of fun.

    But then…there were no bathrooms! Friend said it was done on purpose to keep the homeless away! It had two playgrounds designed for young children who don’t always notice they need to go until it’s an emergency, but place for them to tend to their needs. The lack of bathrooms will really stifle community building because either moms will choose a different park (which I would have done if I’d known since I figure any park so concerned about the wrong kind of people might not appreciate a three-year-old peeing on a tree, either) OR you don’t stay for very long. Sad.

  18. Julie March 13, 2013 at 12:11 am #

    *no place to tend to their needs.

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