Wildfires and Ice Storms and Pandemics…Oh My!

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Pandemics, wildfires, ice storms. My point isn’t that we had it bad the last two years. My point is that we had it better because we had each other. When we grieved, we grieved together. When we were anxious, we were anxious together. When there was a problem to be solved, or a decision to be made, we did it together. And when there was reason to celebrate—as there often was (Emily and Elijah had their first child in November 2020)—we celebrated together. Sometimes we just made up reasons to celebrate, doing theme days (Nerd Day, Costume Day, Crazy Hair Day) for no one but ourselves.

Physical Infrastructure Is Social Infrastructure

Here at Strong Towns, we regularly talk about how a city’s physical and social infrastructure contribute to, or help mitigate the effects of, natural disasters. 

For example, the way we build our cities both makes wildfires more likely and puts more homes in direct line of the fire. And if your city or state is spending so much money on new stuff that it can’t afford to maintain the stuff it already has, then you run the risk of bridges collapsing and dams breaking. Let’s call that physical infrastructure. 

We also talk about the social infrastructure—social capital, civic engagement, local economies that work for all, neighborliness, etc.—that makes a community more resilient when disasters do strike. I’m reminded of the title of Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell, about the extraordinary ways in which people come together in crisis. If the last two years have taught us anything it is that crisis alone isn’t enough to make communities come together. The seeds of paradise have to be planted before hell comes; for good and ill, we reap in the heat of harvest what we sowed in the cool of spring.

But of course physical infrastructure and social infrastructure are inextricably linked. A town or city built in such a way that encourages walking, biking, and vibrant street life, is a city that leaves open the possibility of serendipitous encounters. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam has also shown that every 10 minutes of commuting results in 10% fewer social connections. It’s all connected.

Consider, finally, the four-step process we urge cities to use when considering how to spend public dollars:

  1. Humbly observe where the people around you are struggling.

  2. Determine the next smallest thing you can do to help address that struggle.

  3. Do that thing. Do it right now.

  4. Repeat the process. Again and again.

So even decisions about the built environment are rooted in the real-life struggles of real people in real neighborhoods. They aren’t abstractions. This is how a Strong Towns approach to “physical infrastructure” never strays far from the “social infrastructure.”

Strong Towns and Co-living

I bring all that up because every city makes decisions that help bring people together or keep them apart. 

For a time, while our friends were building their cohousing community across the property line, we had three families living under one roof. It wasn’t clear to us whether this arrangement was allowed under city law—frankly, we didn’t want to know—and so we tried not to draw too much attention to ourselves. And while it was easy for the Pattisons and Neveses to buy a house together 50–50, other places have complicated rules about home-buying with friends. In a recent article for Insider, Holly Harper talks about needing to become “tenants in common” in order to buy a home with two other single mothers in Washington, DC. (It was worth the effort.

Co-living, as it is sometimes called, isn’t for everyone. But I think it’s for more people than we might imagine. A Strong Town is one that makes room for a variety of housing types and living arrangements. In our case, co-living has allowed two families to become homeowners. It’s also given us the financial flexibility, the mutual support, and the extra energy we need to better serve each other, our neighborhood, and our town. 

There’s a famous scene in The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man must push deeper into the dark forest. But they’re nervous. Locking arms, they give voice to their fears: “Lions and tigers and bears…oh my! Lions and tigers and bears…oh my!” Sometimes co-living is like that. We don’t know where the path ahead will lead us. But, locking arms, we resolve to move ahead, not merely “housemates,” but companions on the journey.

(All images for this piece were provided by the author.)

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