Sustainability Through a Social Lens

“Consequential strangers” comprise the relationship piece of sustainability, which Wikipedia defines broadly as, “the potential for long-term maintenance of well being.”

Increasingly and throughout the world, we have begun to coalesce around the notion that we have to make some big changes.  Sustainability is driving us to rethink the way we use our resources, build our communities, and run our businesses. It is making us question our habits of consumption and connection, forcing us, gradually or abruptly, to face three powerful new social realities:

  • I can’t do it alone or just with my loved ones.
  • I can’t act as if I am the only one who counts.
  • I have to extend my social reach beyond what is familiar and comfortable.

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The P in Public is for People

A few months ago, when the New York transit authority announced plans to discontinue certain bus routes to cut down on costs, the bottom-liners who make such decisions probably didn’t think much about the social angle–the casual conversations and the lost connections that would result.  New urbanists frequently make this argument about architecture and city planning: Buildings and plazas are often erected without regard for the people who will inhabit the space.  Where do they hang out, schmooze, and get to know each other?  Such social engagement is, arguably, a key prerequisite for a civil society.

In the face of $1.2 billion debt, though, the transit authority had to do something.  Besides, most of us don’t usually think of buses and computer trains as social space.  They’re conveniences.  Indeed, most of the uproar about the reduced services brought cries of “how will we get to work?” rather than “what about the people I saw every day?”  Which is why I found “The Last Bus,” an “op-art” piece by Miranda Purves, so refreshing.  Purves admits that when she first began to take the B75 in Brooklyn with her three-year-old son,  the trip was little more than a painful necessity–a way to get from here to there:

Initially, I resented this routine: crabby bus drivers; occasionally menacing-seeming passengers; the excessive lurching. But slowly, I became familiar with the other regulars: the old woman with the bad knees en route to her quilting class, the drunk in a wheelchair who still maintains a cheerful independence.

Purves also describes the single mother and her son– “doughnut friends”–who, along with other regulars, became part of her daily routine.  She and her son depended on seeing them, and they made the B75, as her son put it, “our bus.”

Realizing that a hundred other bus route and five subway lines were doomed, Purves decided to spend some time traveling with Jason Logan, a graphic illustrator to sketch out the social scene on other routes throughout the city as well.

Both Jason and I have always been drawn to this phenomenon of people, behaving for the most part civilly, getting from here to there, side by side. And we wanted to find some way to convey the less tangible costs of service cuts and fare hikes.”

Her article and his illustration appeared in the New York Times this past March (2009)–a reminder that public arenas, stationary or on wheels, are “being spaces”–places where strangers become consequential strangers.  The piece bears looking at…again.  (And don’t forget to click on the PDF of Logan’s drawings–even if you have a slow computer, it’s worth the wait.)

Why We Need Being Spaces

An entire chapter of Consequential Strangers is devoted to being space, a term coined by trendwatcher Reinier Evans in 2003 to describe Starbucks and other  commercial environments that did away with harsh fluorescent lighting and plastic chairs, so that customers would be encouraged to hang out.  The sociological underpinnings of the concept are embodied in Ray Oldenburg’s notion of  the “third place.”   Neither home nor office, a third place can be a tavern or coffee shop or public plaza or the lunchroom at a company–any place you can kick back, schmooze, and just be.   And of course the notion of creating these kinds of environments–whether you’re talking about a stores or an entire city–is what propels the new urbanism movement.   Being spaces are safe, civilized, welcoming places where strangers can become consequential strangers.   This video, created by independent filmmaker John Paget, winner of a Congress for the New Urbanism charter award, shows why we need to design and build more being space: