On the Neighbourhood

In Winston Saunders' quartet of plays, The Nehemiah Chronicles, the main character, an old man who has remained in his neighbourhood throughout a number of decades, talks to an invisible reporter about the rise in crime around him and how he feels unsafe in the home where he once was secure. In the past he's always known his neighbours. He disciplined their children, and helped to raise a society of youngsters who respected authority and one another, and who made sensible contributions to their country and countrymen.He blames the current state of the nation on the growth of the sudivision, where fences and walls and back gardens have replaced front porches and shared yards, where the entire population leaves their houses standing empty during the day, and where at night no one knows the people who live next door.In the suburbs, he says, crime flourishes because nobody knows or cares enough about one another to prevent or stop it. People can be burgled or attacked or murdered in the home next door or across the street without the knowledge of those nearby. In the inner city -- in the ghetto, Over the Hill, or in what was once the neighbourhood, people can be burgled or attacked or murdered in the home next door without the interference of those nearby, because all the connections that once existed have been broken.And he has a point.The neighbourhood -- that locale which is a citizen's larger home, where you can go next door or across the street to borrow a cup of rice or sugar, where you can share child care and walk to the shop and remind yourself of the humanity of strangers -- is dying in Nassau. It is not coincidental, I believe, that violence against other people is prevalent. We don't know one another, and our upbringing in subdivisions behind walls and windows, has taught us to suspect other people, not respect them. We no longer know how to talk to strangers, much less how to behave.There are lots of thoughts about why this is. But I'm going to suggest that one of the root issues is a question of town planning. We appear to believe that urban development must follow a certain path, that when a neighbourhood ages and people begin to die off, what must follow is the conversion of that space into commercial properties.Our town planning appears to follow this model, and implements without question the idea of commercial rezoning in older urban neighbourhoods. All too often the wishes of the residents of those areas are overlooked or ignored; perhaps the assumption is that in the long run it is good for them, as they can sell their properties at commercial prices and everyone ultimately benefits.There's something to be said for this approach. It has its short-term advantages. Most of these accrue to individual businessmen and real estate agencies, many of whom come from outside the area. As properties change hands, speculators and businessmen snap them up at residential prices, and resell them or develop them as commercial properties, sometimes exploiting the changing nature of the neighbourhood to get the most value from their dollar -- using residential offsets for commercial properties, for instance. The profits they make are enviable.But they are individual profits, and the long-term result is not so glorious. Those of us who live in changing neighbourhoods all too often find the safety and integrity and character of our areas being threatened by impersonal businesses, whose entire existence is to maximize the profits of their owners, and not to contribute to the life of the community. As this commercial development spreads, residents who have been able to live good lives at reasonable prices are forced to move out.This again is good for developers, who can create more and more subdivisions further and further away from our business centres where prices are high, facades are sophisticated, behind walls and fences and, nowadays, gates, where buyers pay a high price for privacy. It's not so good for those us who have become the victims of commerce. And in the long run, it's not so good for the economy of us all.Because we haven't considered the downsides. In the first place, many of the newer subdivisions are bereft of commercial activity, which means that for even the simplest need one must get into one's car and drive to the nearest shop or series of shops. This costs money and creates traffic and makes the entire population unhealthier, more stressed-out, more car-bound. In the second, the privacy for which we have paid so much is often overwhelming, and provides very little real security at all. In the neighbourhood we have neighbours to watch out for us and our property; in the subdivisions we must rely on burglar bars and alarm systems and our faith in God, and in the gated communities we pay money to a private security company to do what our neighbours did for free.In the USA and Canada, where this trend happened forty years ago, they have learned the lesson we are about to ignore right now. The "redevelopment" of neighbourhoods into commercial "centres" doesn't work. By moving the residents out of the neighbourhood, the cost of living goes up for everyone concerned -- the businesses included. Residents are also customers, and they will gravitate to those businesses that are the closest to their homes. Business follows people, not the other way round; and so the cost of doing business is similarly affected. Security, transportation, advertising -- all these costs escalate, the result of moving people away from neighbourhoods when zoning is exclusive.In North America, the new trend is towards mixed zoning. In short, they're recreating neighbourhoods. In The Bahamas, where we have the opportunity to rescue the ones that still exist, residents must be given equal footing with developers. Town Planning must make it a policy to consider the needs and wishes of the neighbourhood before approving any new development that will affect the character and the quality of life in the area. We should get to choose which businesses we want to allow next door. That way, we will strengthen the sustainability of business, increase our quality of life, and help control the cost of basic living.

Some useful links:New Urbanism (WikiPedia article)Defining Elements of New UrbanismNew Urbanism webpageThe cost of urban sprawl