Amenities for well-being
A fascinating piece in the Atlantic. At first it reminded me of something I wrote earlier this year about the need to have public libraries near affordable housing, but there’s rather a lot more to it than that.
The Atlantic piece is of course about the United States, but I would bet you several donuts the numbers — and certainly the conclusions — would apply to Canada with remarkable accuracy.
Researchers divided American residential neighbourhoods into three categories, depending on how far people have to travel to reach different kinds of public or commercial amenities: grocery stores; restaurants, bars, or coffee shops; gyms or fitness centers; movie theaters, bowling alleys, or other entertainment venues; parks or recreation centers; and community centers or libraries.
Nearly half of Americans (44%) live in medium-amenity neighbourhoods. Less than a quarter (23%) live in high-amenity areas whereas a third (33%) live in low-amenity neighbourhoods. What this means in practice:
Americans in high-amenity communities live on average within walking distance of four of the six types of neighborhood amenities. Americans in moderate-amenity communities are on average no more than a short car trip (five to 15 minutes) away, while low-amenity residents live on average a 15-to-30-minute drive from all six types of amenities.
Unsurprisingly, researchers found more positive social behaviours and a whole bunch of other good stuff in high-amenity neighbourhoods, but of course any social scientist worth her salt will know that other factors can also explain the differences. Socio-economic status, urban vs rural, predominantly white vs diverse neighbourhoods, etc. The researchers built models to control for these other factors and found that:
The results show that even after taking account of educational background, race and ethnicity, ideology, income, age, and urbanity, people who live closer to neighborhood amenities are more trusting, are less socially isolated, and express greater satisfaction with their community.
The study is not revolutionary. Anyone who’s read three articles of happy urbanism will know that living close to pleasant amenities brings with it a whole host of positive outcomes, some of which are difficult to measure, such as trust in one’s neighbours or social isolation.
As I like repeating, we unfortunately can’t raze car-centric suburbs and start over with a better design. But to the extent that we can — for instance by tweaking zoning bylaws to allow for small food stores or cafes, or better yet, cafes that sell food and used books, to be built in residential neighbourhoods — we should try to add as many amenities as possible so that one day, more than a quarter of us live within walking distance of where we need to go to interact with our fellows and build all these little links between human beings that, together, make a community stronger.