Fred Kent, the founder of the Project for Public Spaces, spoke in Indianapolis last week, at the annual Indiana Governor’s Conference for People with Disabilities. PPS is an incredibly valuable and creative organization, now engaged with cities around the world as they re-design public spaces that promote harmony, beauty, sociality and peace. As the conference was focusing on livability this year (in itself a creative twist from the ordinary), Fred was discussing the concept of “complete streets” – all the rage these days in the healthy and sustainable community movement. He suggested that we need to take the complete streets discussion (streets designed for all forms of transportation) a step further (no pun intended). He argued that a street is not really complete until it becomes a destination and not merely a thoroughfare. Think about the greatest streets in the world for a moment, and you’ll realize what he’s talking about.
It got me thinking about what the next logical step would be. I awoke in the middle of the night recently with the revelation – we need to move the discussion from complete streets to complete communities. What would a complete community look like? A partial answer came by way of a meeting a few days later…
I was in a meeting with our local (and terrific) Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan the other day. We got to talking about my mom, who was among a group of older women that Mark considered matriarchs of the local Democratic Party. (My mom died in 2007 at age 89.) He noted that when he was starting out in politics, it was like he had a “bunch of moms” to guide and support him in his career.
His comment was a perfect segue into our agenda topic: the qualities of a “lifetime community.” Yes, in a great community, a complete community, young people have access to mentors. In a community that attracts young people from elsewhere, these mentors become surrogate parents and grandparents. A community that attracted young professionals without grounding them in relationships with elders (who is anybody with local experience) would be falling short. Certainly, yuppies should and do enjoy their peers, especially after work. But a complete community engages young professionals with experience. This doesn’t mean that elders are always right. In fact, much of their wisdom comes from failure, not success. When I think of the benefits of age and of staying put, I would point to the “bridging capital” represented by the network of relationships accumulated by people with experience. Young people hanging out together build a strong base of “bonding capital” – the camaraderie that derives from being part of the gang. But, as important and satisfying that may be, the gang needs bridging capital – it needs connections to other resources and influences outside of the group. Often, these connections can be made through those people who know everybody and whom everybody knows – a community’s elders. That’s what President Obama was talking about when he said “You didn’t make that.”
I sometimes wonder if the tragic disappearance of a young IU student by the name of Lauren Spierer couldn’t have been avoided if she’d had a strong relationship with a surrogate mom or grandma here in Bloomington. She bonded strongly with her peers. She needed a bridge to someone outside of her network. Lauren’s mother, visiting town recently, noted how she wished she could simply pass along her own wisdom born of loss to those women she saw walking alone at night in this college town. As a community, we failed to protect Lauren. Can we design more complete communities that provide the stability derived from intergenerational relationships? Mars may need moms but we need them even more desperately.