More than bricks: how neighbourhood connection strengthens cities

The role of public places in social infrastructure.

Published on May 16, 2024 by Ben Bartosik, Manager, Marketing and Creative Services, Evergreen


With extreme weather events becoming more common, many cities across Canada are putting together mitigation and resilience strategies to be prepared. Yet in times of crisis, the strength of connection between community members may be the real test of resilience.


Do you trust your neighbours?

In 2019, an experiment was conducted in which over 17,000 wallets were dropped across 355 cities around the world. The wallets randomly contained either no money, a small amount of money (approximately $15) or a larger amount of money (approximately $100). Can you guess what the researchers found? People were more likely to return the wallets with money in them. The wallets with the largest amount of money had a 72% return rate.


Despite this surprising altruism, trust between neighbours is in decline. A 2022 study revealed that only about half of Canadians trust the people in their neighbourhoods, with that number going up in larger cities. Other key factors that increase trust are age (older generations are more likely to trust) and one’s involvement in the community. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who feel a sense of trust and connection to their neighbours also reported better overall life satisfaction.


What these two studies highlight is an interesting tension playing out in our cities right now: even though people are generally decent and helpful, many of us still do not trust the communities we live in to help us when we need it. Our opinion of other people seems to be that when disaster strikes, it will be everyone for themselves. We find ourselves increasingly cut off from those who live the closest to us, reduced to neighbourhoods of strangers.


Rethinking resilience  

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake hit San Francisco that caused city-wide devastation. The city’s water mains were destroyed, preventing firefighters from putting out the fire sweeping through the city due to the earthquake. Over 3,000 people died, 28,000 buildings were destroyed and about 250,000 (over half) of San Francisco’s population were made homeless. It was a city in ruin.  


Reflecting on this experience as a child, the social activist and founder of the Catholic Worker’s Movement, Dorothy Day, wrote in her memoirs that she remembers the city coming out in great support of one another in the aftermath of the disaster. She recalls “the joy of doing good, of sharing whatever we had with others after the earthquake.” Indeed, a wave of makeshift tent communities and street kitchens began popping up across the city as newly displaced residents began taking care of one another. People who were previously strangers were now talking, laughing, and even singing together. In fact, according to reports from the marriage licensing office at the time, more people were getting married in the aftermath of the disaster than any other year during those same months.  


We often talk about the resilience of cities in terms of buildings, power grids, water mains, supply chains and all the other critical infrastructure stuff we imagine keeps a city running. But there’s another type of infrastructure that perhaps matters even more for the health and survival of cities — its social infrastructure.  


In his book, Palaces for the People, Eric Klinenberg reflects on the role social infrastructure played during a record-breaking heatwave in Chicago in 1995. Where social connection was low, and people were left to fend for themselves, the rates of death were highest; however, where “contact, mutual support and collaboration” were strongest, vulnerable people were more likely to survive. While critical infrastructure is important to invest in, the real resilience of a city is found in how well strangers can come together and become a community that cares.  



“Many of the great urbanists of the last century have all, in some way or another, concluded that a mark of a good city is how well it enables strangers to share space with one another.”



Planning for connection 

We’re sitting at a moment in history where compounding crises are hitting at once. Extreme weather events are becoming more common, mass migrations of people displaced by these events will need to be welcomed and settled somewhere and people are lonelier and less connected to others than ever before. Our cities sit at the crossroads of these problems.  


Many of us have heard that over two-thirds of the world’s population is estimated to be living in cities by 2050, as per the UN World Urbanization Prospect. However, what is often not as commonly shared is that our cities are not anywhere close to being able accommodate that shift. Around 40% of the required city building necessary to facilitate the seven billion people that will live in urban areas in 2050 has yet to be done. This provides us with a great opportunity to learn from our mistakes in planning around cars, sprawl and the ideals of self-reliance. What might it rather look like for us to plan and build our future cities around social infrastructure, and not as an afterthought but as a core feature?  


Public places play a crucial role in this opportunity. They can create, as author Setha Low points out, “a more vibrant and democratic public culture that recognizes differences and enhances people’s sense of place, belonging, and inclusion.” Many of the great urbanists of the last century have all, in some way or another, concluded that a mark of a good city is how well it enables strangers to share space with one another. Great public places act as hubs for connection and cooperation, bringing people together who otherwise may never interact despite living in the same area.   


Learn more 


Public places like farmers markets, parks and school grounds are the building blocks of a healthy public life. Yet they remain under prioritized and underfunded. Find ways to take action in support of the public places we all rely on and love.  


Five ways public places enhance social infrastructure


1. Public places provide regular in-person touchpoints with other people. At a time when people are feeling isolated and much of our social interaction is taking place online, the need for in-person connection has never been higher. When we visit the farmers market every weekend or walk our dog through the same ravine trail, we forge relationships with the people we bump into day after day, week after week. A kind smile, a nod or a simple hello becomes familiar and expected. Slowly, the strangers in our neighbourhoods become a part of our lives.


2. Public places instill a shared sense of responsibility. The defining characteristic of public places is that they belong to all of us. When we look around a park and see litter on the ground or broken play equipment, there should be an impulse to make it better. This is why every spring we see community wide clean-ups in our public spaces. They give us the chance to work together to take care of the places we all love.


3. Public places promote a fair distribution of resources. The school yard is like a training ground for democracy. Kids need to share, play fairly and take turns using play equipment. When they can figure this out, they are learning how a healthy society works. Public places call us back to those fundamental lessons we learned when we were young, inviting us to cooperate, rather than compete for the shared resources they provide.


4. Public places inspire civic engagement. Have you ever seen library workers go on strike? They rally a level of community support unlike a lot of other work stoppages. Those who visit the library regularly, who bring their kids to the weekly programs, get involved. This is because beloved public places make you want to support them, even fight for them when they are threatened.


5. Public places offer equitable access. The power of public places is exactly that, they are public. Their resources, services and benefits are meant to be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of their socio-economic status or belief. A well-functioning public place can also hold and give life to multiple groups and experiences. They are where we should be able to learn to coexist with one another across our differences.