Someone gave me a copy of the article "Backlash in the Burbs," by Sarah Elizabeth Richards, from the September/October 2005 issue of Psychology Today. It's a profile of Ladera Ranch, a new suburban development in Orange County, California, that's an intelligently designed mixed-use suburban community based on the principles of the Congress for New Urbanism. The physical geography of the community is designed to maximize neighborly interaction and civic involvement. Houses are close to each other and have porches in front and garages in the back. Interconnected streets and broad sidewalks are designed to be walkable and facilitate use of parks and green space.
Six salaried event planners organize community functions - holiday parties and decorating contests, movies in the park, block parties and barbecues. A community services organization provides "event in a box" resources to help residents plan activities. Lareda has over 75 resident-organized clubs and activities, from book clubs and scrapbooking to groups for computer junkies or divorced moms. Residents describe their experience like living on a stationary cruise ship, or college dorm life - "Leisure World for thirtysomethings," says one resident. Neighbors go on walks together and invite each other over to dinner, even if they just met at the park. There's always something going on.
Sounds great! What's the catch? Well, a four-bedroom colonial house in Lareda starts at nearly $1 million. It only goes up from there. Essentially, if you can pay, you can play. Suburbia is a commercial environment, and all the more so when you are paying for the amenities of a cruise-ship-like community. Southern California is different from much of the country in terms of housing costs, but even so, the financial investment needed to live in this kind of community is prohibitive for many.
Of course, there are plenty of people who spend that much money for suburban housing but live their lives in privacy and seclusion from their neighbors. Despite the price tag, Ladera's vision of a socially connective suburban community is commendable in that it encourages people to look beyond themselves and their own nuclear families. I suspect the next step, then, would be to extend that vision beyond their subdivision's boundaries. I would hope that residents would not only make their community a happy enclave for those who can afford to live there, but turn their focus outward as well. Not just community for themselves, but community service and development for others.
Richards's article also points out that by no means is fun civic housing a cure-all for personal issues. One researcher says that people are drawn to new developments because they are marketed as a way to start fresh. "They move to solve their problems but that doesn't happen." Richards writes, "Marriages don't automatically get better, and isolated people may still feel lonely. Disillusionment sets in when residents slowly realize that 'a development is in fact just a collection of houses and not a magic salve.'" In other words, a friendly civic environment can facilitate community interaction and social neighborliness, but it won't necessarily fix you. Christians living in affluent communities like Ladera have the opportunity to minister to neighbors with deep spiritual needs unfulfilled by activities and events.
While only a small percentage of the population can afford to live in New Urbanist communities like Ladera, all of us can work toward community involvement and social interaction wherever we live. Certainly it's not just communities that can afford event planners that can have interactive community spirit. The larger challenge, I think, is for Christians in ordinary suburban communities to find ways to foster community and social interaction in their neighborhoods. It could be that my neighborhood's geography or infrastructure hinders me from getting to know my neighbors. Or I might just need to get off my duff and attend our neighborhood association meetings.