Architectural Housing Design Reflects Increasing Social Isolation
By: Beth McHugh 2009
Most people over the age of 35 have some awareness of the changing atmosphere of suburban life over the last couple of decades. Leaving aside high rise inner city apartment blocks, most people a mere 20 years ago knew the names of most of their neighbors.
Some even had barbeques and football nights together. Everyone kept a subtle eye on each others kids and, more importantly, kids knew their neighbors well enough to be able to call on them in an emergency.
This is seldom the case these days. People can love in a suburban street for years and never even know the first names of the neighbors across the road. Often eyes are downcast even when neighbors meet across the fence line.
This has resulted in an increasing sense of community isolation and fragmentation. It is also psychologically stressful to live immediately next door to someone who does not acknowledge your presence across the fence. When such an incident happens, blood pressure increases as the person feels uncomfortable with the combination of physical proximity but emotion distance.
Designers of domestic housing are helping to solidify this increasingly isolating trend in the way they design housing plans. Where older homes almost invariably had a front porch where the resident could not only enjoy some relaxation and fresh air, s/he could communicate with passers-by and enjoy social interaction.
It is absolutely essential that we all have regular verbal interaction with others, as our mental health depends on a sense of “belonging” to a tribe or community. Humans are pack animals – we are social creatures and not designed emotionally for long periods of isolation. We have known this for eons, as isolation has long been used as a form of punishment even in the most so-called “primitive” tribes.
Yet our architects continue to design homes in which the front façade consists of an imposing double garage with a small entrance lobby. The “family” area is all located at the back of the property so as to promote privacy for the family in their back yard or swimming pool area. If only these architects could interact with psychologists and sociologists when designing these abodes.
Sure, no-one wants their swimming pool in the front yard, but to present nothing but a concrete façade to the world in street after street certainly does not encourage social interaction of any kind. It teaches us to avoid our neighbor, or else be forced to make a greater effort in order to get to know them. Further, it isolates our children from the other adults in the street – adults who could help these children in an emergency.
Streets of my childhood which were filled with passers-by stopping for a quick hello or a really good chin-wag are long gone. The oldies and the young mothers on the porches are gone too. They might be home, or they might not, depending on whether the 6-foot high gates are shut or open to reveal the presence of a vehicle.
Increasing wealth which has permitted the building of these esthetically attractive houses has come at a price. But I’m not sure the price will be worth it at the end of the day.