Why we need neighborhood squares. Part 5: Sociability and Health

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

It has long been recognized that the quality and quantity of social interaction and sense of belonging strongly influence physical and mental health. By facilitating face-to-face interaction and membership in a community, the neighborhood square improves physical and mental health for people of all ages.

Circles of friends and familiars form a “social immune system” to buffer stress, improve coping, and protect health. Social support prevents isolation, improves psychological well-being through being valued, receiving signs of love, and knowledge that help is there if needed. Integration in a social network fosters self-esteem, self-assurance, sense of security and well-being.

Social networks develop through frequent informal face-to-face interaction. Frequent meetings and greetings in the public realm allow people to become familiar with one another, to “learn one another’s stories”, which builds trust and caring. Higher levels of trust in a community are associated with lower rates of most major causes of death, including heart disease, cancers, infant mortality, and violent deaths, including homicide.

In both poor and wealthy neighborhoods, social capital, as measured by reciprocity, trust, and civic participation, is associated with lower neighborhood mortality rates.

The majority of our interactions during the day are confined within a single role relationship, such as teacher-pupil, store clerk-customer, or nurse-patient. This can be oppressive: we know ourselves to have an identity much broader than that defined by our job.

On a successful neighborhood square, people encounter each other in multiple roles. A doctor may be observed at different times in his role as a husband when he is accompanied by his wife; as a father when he meets the high school teacher on the square; or as a volunteer at a community festival. A patient may meet him in any of these situations, or in the presence of mutual friends. Similarly, the bank clerk may be seen on the square as a musician in a community festival, as friend of a market vendor, or as a community activist manning an information booth on emergency preparedness. In this way, each person’s identity becomes most developed: people can be recognized and validated in multiple relationships – as complete human beings.

Sociability is interaction for its own sake, to give pleasure to each other, not to enhance one’s status or position, but to increase each other’s sense of well-being. Sociability is an art that requires frequent practice.

Sociability may involve gossiping, bantering, storytelling, intermixed with seriousness, concern for the other and expressions of support, even love.

Sociability is the basis of many of the activities and events that make social life on the square joyful and meaningful. In these sociable interactions, Georg Simmel emphasized, people do not encounter each other in specific roles, as for instance employer-employee, or cashier-customer, but as complete human beings. The status of each, their social or economic positions, knowledge or fame, are not as important as personal qualities, graciousness, cordiality and charm.  In this sense, sociability makes for more democratic relations. Moreover, the pleasure each experiences in sociable interchange is contingent upon the pleasure all feel; no one may find pleasure in another’s discomfort.

The Greeks called the humanity that is achieved in friendly discourse “philanthropy” – love of mankind – since it manifests itself in the readiness to share the world with others. Its opposite, misanthropy, means simply that the misanthrope finds no one with whom he cares to share the world. Sociability, or love of mankind, is enhanced in squares whose aesthetic and artistic qualities form a hospitable background to social life. A beautiful setting makes others appear more attractive, and enhances individuals' sense of their own value. An ugly public space, on the other hand, stimulates misanthropy and causes people to shun others.

For the Italian philosopher De Crescenzo, love is the motivation for all social interaction. “Love … is the feeling that impels us to seek the companionship of our fellows, and the actions of love are all the things we do in the attempt to share our joys and griefs with others”. As Bernard Rudofsky observed, the desire to visit the coffee house is not primarily to drink coffee, but rather to seek out the companionship of others.

A welcoming neighborhood square with opportunities for lingering, getting a coffee, having a meal, shopping and hanging out foster sociability and good health.

Turn to Part 6: Fostering inclusion