Urban planning can facilitate friendship — and the Catholic Church can help
In 2016, The Washington Post published a feature on four 99-year-old women who had been friends since the closing days of World War I. Their city shaped their lives; the city built their friendship: “Growing up in Southwest Washington, [the friends] were part of the landscape, in the same way that her house and her street and her church were.” The tight social bonds forged in that “patchwork of tenements and alleys in the shadow of the Capitol” were so close partly in self-defense.
The city was segregated, and people like Leona Barnes, Gladys Butler, Ruth Hammett and Bernice Underwood relied on one another for more than just another pair of hands on the double-dutch ropes. Two of the friends’ families shared a house at one point. They were family to one another. They met in a neighborhood where many homes did not have indoor toilets—a neighborhood soon to be razed in “slum clearance.” But Leona Barnes recalls:, “It was a fine neighborhood.... If you took sick, the next person would know about it. We were very close, closely knitted. That’s one thing that we miss. The neighbor on either side, they’d make you nice hot soup. It’s not like neighborhoods of today where sometimes you don’t know your next-door neighbor.”
People live in cities for the opportunity to have connections like these. They should be the easiest places to make friends. Unlike the suburbs, which were explicitly designed around the car, the city offers the three conditions that foster friendship, as the sociologist Rebecca G. Adams told The New York Times in 2012: “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.” Cities have row houses and corner stores, sidewalks and skate parks, buses where friends might meet and parks where they might stroll or chat.
But our cities are not living up to their promise.
Classical philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero viewed friendship as fundamental to civic life. Friendship was meant to fill the public square; in a sense, friendship creates public life, as one of the primary ways people move beyond domestic concerns into the broader life of the city. And yet our own cities fail to foster friendship precisely because they are too often planned around the needs of the same kind of person who served as the ideal citizen of much ancient philosophy: male, respected and privileged, unencumbered by poverty or by dependents who need his care. To the extent that our cities are built for autonomous individuals, they are built against friendship.
If we are to renew the city’s possibilities as a haven for friendship, we will need a new image of what it means to be a friend and neighbor. We will need to look more deeply at who we are, and what helps us flourish.
A City’s Strength
Chuck Marohn, founder of Strong Towns—an organization that strives to help citizens build exactly what its name suggests—tells the story of his daughter’s first day of kindergarten. The girl returned to their suburban home full of excitement, exclaiming, “Dad, I’ve met the most wonderful person! I think she’s going to be my best friend!” The new friend, as it turned out, lived “directly across the street”; they had lived within a frisbee throw of one another for years, but only met when the girls started school.
Mr. Marohn and his wife bought a home where they did precisely because they hoped their kids would flourish there: “It’s a safe location, there’s a lot of room there, there’s a lot of places for them to play; we thought this would be a wonderful place for kids to grow up.” But as he began to feel the isolation of a neighborhood built for cars, not random encounters, he drew a different conclusion: “The way we have arranged ourselves on the landscape is so isolating from each other that we can actually exist 500 feet from my daughter’s best friend and not even know she was there…. How many of us have best friends that we’ve never met and never will meet because we just don’t have the opportunity?”
The suburban landscape can feel like a pointillist painting, in which the isolated dots of color cannot cohere into a portrait unless you have a car to draw the line linking A and B. But even amid the contemporary city’s density, it is easy to stay separate. I recently moved to an English basement apartment right across the street from a friend. We both work from home, but the only time I have seen her since moving in was when we made a date to get lunch at the corner pupuseria. This is partly chance, but partly design: My apartment has a small side stoop, but it is hidden from the street behind a tall privacy hedge.
How many of us have best friends that we’ve never met and never will meet because we just don’t have the opportunity?
Privacy is one reason we build in ways that fail to fulfill the city’s promise of connection. Order is another. Many local governments, fearing an appearance of “disorder” if too many people sleep or live in parks and other public spaces, renovated to incorporate “anti-homeless” design. Cities removed benches and other seating from some areas, or replaced normal benches with benches that are divided or even slanted to prevent people from sleeping on them. These public areas are now hostile to the poorest and intentionally uncomfortable for everyone. How long are you going to hang out with your friend in a space where you cannot sit down or have access to a bathroom?
A Place of Rest
On a recent bus ride through a gentrifying stretch of downtown Washington, D.C., I overheard four women lamenting that they could no longer meet at the local park for fear of both disorder and of police surveillance—despite the fact that they had done nothing to warrant such surveillance. It is a common complaint. The public spaces available to poorer people are often both crime-ridden and overpoliced. Poorer people’s friendships attract suspicion and surveillance—and may even get them in trouble with the law, if police see men or boys hanging out and think, gangs! The criminalization of the normal friendships and relationships of men of color through broad “gang injunctions,” like the one enforced in Los Angeles against any “association” between suspected gang members, has fueled backlash. In 2020, the city settled a lawsuit by limiting these injunctions and allowing people to challenge their designation as gang members in court.
Here in Washington, D.C., the trend toward “anti-homeless” public spaces has been countered in some plazas and parks, which kept their flat benches and added public toilets. These places bustle with activity, as people sleep in the sun, friends chat, and children shriek and play. But where these spaces are lacking—or on days when they are icy or blazing hot—people turn elsewhere.
In search of safe, comfortable places where they can spend hours just enjoying one another’s company, many Americans turned first to indoor malls. Malls generated their own culture, becoming a destination in themselves, because they were indoors and full of seating. They were pretty and light-filled and fun. They had security guards, but rarely did they attract heavy police attention. They were also oriented toward buying and selling, and controlled by private owners. Malls have not been replaced, but, as the writer and photographer Chris Arnade notes, many of their social functions, especially for lower-income people, have been adopted by another kind of commercial establishment: McDonald’s. When Arnade began traveling across the United States in 2014, he discovered that the Golden Arches are home to a flourishing ecosystem of retiree gatherings and low-income celebrations. The old folks “name their group with variations of a self-deprecating theme: In suburban El Paso it is the Old Folks’ Home, and in rural New Mexico it is the Morning Brigade.” Younger people came to Mickey D’s to use the wifi, charge their phones and celebrate their weddings; they got coffee there after a night in jail or scoured tables for a discarded newspaper so they could do the crossword.
The popularity of McDonald’s as a low-income social hub suggests a need that is not being filled by parks or public libraries.
The popularity of McDonald’s as a low-income social hub suggests a need that is not being filled by parks or public libraries. It is a place where you can talk and hang out, or just sit quietly, with bathrooms and something to eat and drink, where it is cool in summer and warm in winter, where you can be thrown out if you get wild but probably will not be disturbed if you are just tired or talkative or drunk. A place where somebody’s in charge, somebody’s responsible, but that person does not have a gun or a pair of handcuffs or the ability to take away your housing or your kids.
How We Move Through the World
Residents of cities are affected not just by whether or not they offer places to rest but also by how we are able to move within them. Jamie Kralovec, a professor in Georgetown University’s Urban and Regional Planning program, notes that when Pope Francis was archbishop of his hometown of Buenos Aires, the archbishop made a point of riding the bus with his people. Professor Kralovec notes that the bus offers not only “environmental benefits, but...social friendship benefits that are possible when we share our daily commute.” He acknowledges all the reasons people avoid public transportation when they can. Here in Washington, D.C., half the trains were recently pulled from the system because of mechanical faults, while bus service has been cut back because of driver shortages. But he still suggests, “People who are in a position to consider public transit but don’t should reconsider the invitation.”
It is an “invitation” we may no longer have the choice to refuse. Because the story of friendship in the city is also a story of climate change. Climate change adds urgency to the need for public spaces that are cool in summer and warm in winter. Climate change may make us notice that communal kitchens and other shared facilities, features of “co-housing” arrangements, can reduce energy usage.
Eric Klinenberg, author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, makes the starker argument that climate disasters kill people whose neighborhoods lack social cohesion: “Throughout the city, the variable that best explained the pattern of mortality during the  Chicago heat wave was what people in my discipline call social infrastructure.... Turns out neighborhood conditions that isolate people from each other on a good day can, on a really bad day, become lethal.” After Superstorm Sandy, as well, “residents of neighborhoods with low levels of social cohesion—as measured by how much people said they trusted their neighbors—reported longer recovery times.” Klinenberg gives the bottom line: “People are realizing that when the floods come or the heat wave settles, neighbors are the true first responders.”
Neighbors have, for some, been a kind of first responder during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Neighbors have, for some, been a kind of first responder during the Covid-19 pandemic. When the Urban Design Forum invited proposals for “life after coronavirus,” documentary filmmaker and storyteller Di Cui looked to the mutual aid networks that sprang up in the early days of the pandemic: “Well-resourced college students are talking to empty nest seniors. Block residents are helping their neighbors working on the frontline to take care of their children while they perform their duties. These interactions are precious, because people get to connect with others on a personal and intimate level, especially with those who they might not have the opportunity to do so in a normal world.”
A Church of Encounter
How do we foster a world in which this type of connection is typical, rather than the exception? The Catholic Church may be able to help. As Catholic demographics shift, requiring some churches and other institutions to close or change hands, Catholic leaders might think about what people use and what they long for. What if a convent became a low- or no-cost laundromat, with ample seating, a coffee machine and a chapel? What if it became a pay-what-you-can coffeehouse? What’s the closest thing to a McDonald’s that the institution can afford?
Active parishes, too, can weave themselves more tightly into the fabric of the neighborhood by providing space for friendship with one another as well as with Christ. Jamie Kralovec notes, “From my own experience, when the church is also the site of a farmers’ market on Sunday in addition to being the place where people come for worship, this adaptive use of spaces creates a potential for friendship.” In my neighborhood, you can tell it is Sunday because the carts selling blouses or flowers or paletas (Mexican-style popsicles) are pulled up at the front steps of the church. People mill around, greeting friends, playing with children, enjoying cheap treats. The presence of the priest and the atmosphere of joy and prayer make the church—which sits on the western edge of a mixed and sometimes violent neighborhood—an oasis of peace.
Churches that are more active and involved in the neighborhoods around them might help people form friendships that draw them closer to Christ. But where do they go when the Mass-going crowds disperse? To foster deep friendships, we may need to reimagine homes.
‘Zoned for Single-Family Housing Only’
The biggest way housing can foster friendships is just by having more of it. Almost everyone I spoke to acknowledged the need for more and denser housing—for a shift away from the “zoned for single-family housing only” model. Density fosters the unexpected encounters that build friendships. But the design of the housing can also make a difference.
One change is simple and already happening. In 2020 Spike Carlsen declared in The Wall Street Journal, “The Forgotten Front Porch Is Making a Comeback.” Carlsen quotes “Claude Stephens, founder of a tongue-in-cheek group called Professional Porch Sitters Union Local 1339,” who says “a porch is ‘the only place where you can feel like you are outside and inside at the same time; out with all of the neighbors and alone reading a book.’” Carlsen blames the car, as well as changes in housing design, for the decline of the porch: “Enclosed in a metal cocoon, you could speed past people whom you would have stopped to interact with if you’d been on foot.... [F]ront porches gave way to backyard decks, hidden from the street.”
Aristotle would be pleased (maybe!) to learn that the front stoop could be a public square for the poor.
But the porch provides social space—and the “eyes on the street” that can deter crime. And so, Carlsen notes, “Twenty-five years ago, 42% of new homes in the U.S. were built with front porches; by 2004, the figure had risen to 52%, and today it’s about 65%.” For some, the pandemic led to more porch socializing—after all, where else was there to go? In 2020, in communities across the country, Mardi Gras became “Yardi Gras,” celebrated with “porch parades” in which houses decorated with flowers, beads, masks, and wild papier-mâché creations replaced floats. And Aristotle would be pleased (maybe!) to learn that the front stoop could be a public square for the poor. During the pandemic, the Crown Heights Tenant Union organized what they called “stoop court”: Small groups of masked tenants, gathering on the stoop with signs reading CANCEL RENT, offering support to tenants during online Housing Court hearings.
Courtyard-style housing, which has arisen again and again in contexts as diverse as the compounds in Accra, Ghana, and California’s bungalow courts, uses architecture to draw neighbors closer to one another. In courtyard-style homes, multi-family dwellings or small single-family houses are arranged around an inner courtyard or garden. These community-based designs may be especially important to people seeking greater social support.
Leslie Kern, an associate professor at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada, and the author of Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World, praises cooperative housing “designated for specific groups, for example, for low-income women, women with disabilities, seniors or teen mothers. In the pre-neoliberal days there were more of these innovative projects. Even today, where there are examples of housing that is not purely oriented to the traditional nuclear family, those are the kind of spaces that can facilitate lasting friendships as well.” Professor Kern praises the Canada Cohousing Network, which promotes housing with “individual living units but communal cooking, recreation, garden, and social facilities.” She notes that this kind of cohousing is popular with senior citizens. “But for families as well, the idea is that this permits a certain sharing of care work,” says Professor Kern. “Which is another kind of feminist value for how one might reimagine housing and the city itself.”
This balance of privacy and community care shapes the Community First! Village in Austin, Tex. The village offers people experiencing chronic homelessness “permanent, supportive housing through a combination of unorthodox housing types: micro houses, canvas-sided cottages, and recreational vehicles,” along with health care, job opportunities and communal spaces. The village opened in 2015 but last year had a massive expansion of 1,400 houses. Little homes, connected by stone paths, are surrounded by flowers and decorated by their owners with Christmas lights or cow horns. Many of the residents use communal kitchens and shared bathroom and laundry spaces; there is also a community market, a memorial garden and even a community forge and a labyrinth for meditation.
No style of housing will work in every setting. Everybody who has ever shared a bathroom with a stranger knows that communal living can breed conflict and mistrust. Communal housing, with shared work and (especially) shared child care, has a long history of experiments—and failures.
Communal housing, with shared work and (especially) shared child care, has a long history of experiments—and failures.
But areas in which zoning regulations heavily favor single-family housing are built for one vocation (marriage and parenting) and one life stage (the middle—younger people are priced out and older people are isolated). As urbanists seek to shift regulations in a direction more friendly to multi-family homes, “mother-in-law apartments” and other forms of housing that would bring people physically closer to their neighbors, one Catholic institution is forging friendships across different life stages and vocations. Mount Mary University, a Catholic women’s college in Wisconsin, will soon open a dorm in which senior citizens, including retired women religious, will live alongside students who are single mothers. The retired sisters and the student moms can eat together and take classes together. There will be on-site child care and a medical clinic, as well as a combination hair and nail salon, and a chapel.
Housing can build community, and the tightest community will always be of people you live not just near, but with. Right now, Leslie Kern notes, not only zoning restrictions but bank loan policies make it more difficult to finance a home purchase if you are in a nontraditional kinship arrangement. Banks (understandably) do not view friendships as sufficiently stable, and contemporary society (less understandably) has no mechanism by which friends might signal lifelong commitment.
If we want some friendships to be treated as forms of kinship by the institutions that shape so much of our common life, we will likely need some way of singling out which friendships we will sacrifice for. Christian societies had various ways of distinguishing between what you might call “normal” friendships and devoted, committed friendships in the past. In some medieval and early modern Western Christian societies, heads of household could pledge to become kin to one another. They shared “a common purse and a common table” (uniting their finances and their homes), and often took on religious obligations to one another’s family. Without some ceremony, some framework, some name for the role the closest friendships play in people’s lives, we likely see fewer committed friendships; and those friendships that do have this depth may struggle to find practical arrangements that can support the friends’ caregiving for one another.
Where Friendships Flourish
Friendship goes unrecognized in many official documents. And while this institutional invisibility has major disadvantages for those who long to share their lives with a friend, there is also something poignant in the human tendency to live and love in the margins, in the hidden places. So many of my childhood friendships took place in back alleys, in the unofficial and neglected places where adults were near enough if something went terribly wrong, but far enough away that we felt our freedom—the hush in which friendships flourish. The urbanist writer Addison del Mastro offers a paean to “nooks and crannies”: “When I go to a town and walk around, in the classic towns where you have streets on a grid and not just linear development along the road, there’s a sense of three-dimensionality to the space—back lots, the back of a house backs onto something else. You can go behind stuff. Nobody goes behind a strip mall; it’s like, ‘What are you doing there?’”
Studded throughout Washington, D.C., are vacant lots, where locals sit on the broken walls or use the chain-link fences to rig makeshift canopies. Under the canopies they lounge in repurposed office chairs and deck chairs, chatting and fussing, contemplating the weather, enjoying the public life of friendship in a part of the city that does not do much to welcome their friends.
Friendship goes unrecognized in many official documents.
Mr. Del Mastro has written about the ways immigrant groups repurpose strip malls, turning them into spaces for social life as well as shopping. Here in Washington, the sidewalks in some neighborhoods are lined with sellers of hats, books, perfume, sliced mangos, and whole fruits and vegetables. The more there is to do on the sidewalk, the more people linger and wander. Mismatched chairs and unofficial vendors turn any sidewalk into an anarchic version of the European piazza.
Jamie Kralovec of Georgetown University connects these anarcho-piazzas to Pope Francis’ language of “encounter”: “It’s a good thing when people create spaces. We call this in urban planning ‘placemaking.’ The culture of a place that is facilitated by a mix of uses makes it easy for people to engage each other and encounter each other, either spontaneously or in a planned way. How do we create and introduce some of those charmed encounters, where human diversity is on full display, and make it easy to experience it?”
Maybe we need to start by giving up some of the things we think we need. The features of cities that foster friendships most often involve the absence of many of the goods Americans value most: autonomy, control, safety, order and comfort.
All of these are goods. But they are not goods that come without tradeoffs. Pursuing these goods above the goods of community and solidarity has left us lonely and overwhelmed. Mr. Del Mastro argues that in building car-centered suburbs, “We bought our way out of friction and inconvenience—but that’s not sustainable,” neither financially nor emotionally. “And if it is the case that what we think of as good urbanism is just an accident of having been poor, what does that mean? Because people do yearn for that. Some of the most loved places in America are [the result of an inability to buy more privacy and comfort]. But people say, where am I gonna park?”
The friendships we need most from our cities are not the equal partnerships of strong, respected, autonomous individuals. The normative human experience is not wealth or independence. We are vulnerable and interdependent, and many of us are exposed to suspicion and disrespect. We need order, but not too much. We need safety, but not punitive surveillance. We need comfort, but not at the expense of unplanned, messy, difficult encounters. We long for control, but we cannot make it an idol if we want to live in a world that enables us to love one another more fully.