One of the topics discussed in a recent Deep Dive Book Study was how nature provides a blueprint for healthy infrastructure. Specifically we focused on the design of Aspen groves. From above ground, Aspen trees look like individual sentries. Below ground tells quite a different story. Below ground Aspen trees are interwoven and interconnected: a single grove shares a common root system that can stretch for miles.
Sharing a root system means that trees near water can transport the much needed water to trees on the far side of the grove. This type of infrastructure allows for long-distance communication and is essential to the Aspen’s survival. One species in particular, the Quaking Aspen, has adapted to and primarily grows in areas which are prone to avalanches, mudslides and fires, and consequently, can quickly repopulate land impacted by such a devastating event.
Human infrastructure is no different: the type of structure in place impacts community resiliency. In Eric Klinenberg’s book, Palaces for the People, he describes how community infrastructure made a significant difference in the way folks were impacted by the 1995 Chicago heat wave: a heat wave that led to 739 deaths in 5 days.
What Klinenberg discovered from his research is that Chicago neighborhoods designed for physical interaction cultivated mutual support. There was no difference in resilience based on socio-economic status. Regardless of the median income, neighborhoods where folks had opportunities for casual interactions, e.g. barbershop, playground, cafe, had fewer heat related deaths than neighborhoods where there were impediments to interaction e.g. empty store fronts, deserted homes and no green spaces. (Palaces for the People, p. 4-7)
Recognizing that infrastructure was the defining difference in heat related deaths is integral to meeting suffering with empathy and compassion. Too often we are quick to judge another person or community based on what we perceive as their morals and values. In fact then Chicago mayor Richard Daley “criticized people for not looking after their neighbors, and the human service commissioner, Daniel Alvarez, complained to the press about ‘people that die because they neglect themselves.’” (p.6)
Clearly neither Daley nor Alvarez understood, at least at that time, the reasons why some neighborhoods were successful in keeping the majority of their residents safe. Which begs the questions…
What if we asked folks what they would like to see happen – what kind of community infrastructure do they want to create? What if we stopped to notice the structures in place and how they impacted connection, compassion and growth?
I remember reading in one of my college sociology text books (I’d quote it but that book is long gone) that climate control systems, i.e., air conditioning, made a big difference in home design and community cohesion. Because folks had a way to cool their home, they no longer, or rarely, sat outside on their front porches during hot weather. Because the need for front porches declined, fewer homes were built with porches. (A little lesson in supply and demand)
The result? Folks spoke less often to their neighbors, and as you can probably attest to, few people can identify who their neighbors are, let alone, cultivate a relationship with them.
The truth is we all lead full lives and could benefit from living and working in infrastructures that make it easier for us to connect with others. Yes, we still need to exert some effort and to screw up our courage and say hi. And why not make it easier on ourselves by creating structures that will facilitate connection?
P.S. You are invited to gather, this Sunday, in a sacred online new moon circle for women. Click here to learn more.