What aspects of the built environment give rise to greater social trust?

We’re pleased to offer a guest commentary today from Em Friedenberg. Em is a recent graduate of the University of Oregon, who’s studied urban design. Her recent research project provides some compelling illustrations of some of the key building blocks for the kind of urban fabric that both denote and encourage more cohesive communities and socioeconomic mixing. 

By Em Friedenberg

How does sharing a public space affect our trust in one another? How can the shape of that space build or destroy that trust? As a kid growing up in Portland, Oregon, I noticed my community’s distrust but never thought about its link to the built environment; this all changed after I spent a year studying in Copenhagen, Denmark. Copenhagen is famously one of the happiest cities in the world, with rates of bicycling that American cities can’t even conceptualize. There, parents leave their sleeping babies in strollers outside cafes, and women roam the city at night with confidence; at home in Portland, we locked our doors even when we were only in the backyard, and I felt uncomfortable walking the deserted streets after dark. This incredible trust entranced me, and I found myself mourning the US’s miserable levels, and wondering how we could change.

Em Friedenberg’s Poster of design for inclusion (detail).

Back in Oregon, I studied urban design and began to link it with social trust; reading books investigating the two fields cemented even more their connection. I began to find support for my theory, each step in the logic chain proven by another book. Charles Montgomery proved that cities can be built for happiness and well-being, while Robert Putnam investigated the decline in social capital, and William Whyte noted how people’s use of a space depends on its physical attributes. My argument was built around these researchers: the shape of our urban space impacts how much time we spend in it; how much time we spend there impacts how many interactions we have with strangers, acquaintances, and friends; those interactions, of any intensity, build social trust; and social trust is healthy for the mind, body, and community.

Social trust, an essential component of social capital, is necessary for our individual and societal health, but the two have been declining since the 1960s, paralleling the rise of the suburb and the privatization of public space. Time spent in the public sphere is necessary for the daily social interactions upon which trust is dependent. To rebuild social trust in America, we can begin by building cities that give it room to grow.

Along with the theory linking social trust and urban design, I developed a list of twenty urban design changes that can be fit into American cities to encourage this trust. They range from large (mixed-use zoning provides destinations and supports density) to miniscule (a bench in a sunny spot prolongs the time someone might spend in the public space), and easy (cluster attractions so that activity builds upon itself and generates more activity) to difficult (purposefully limit the quantity and accessibility of parking, so people will have further to travel between their cars and destinations). Each is linked back to developing social trust directly or through larger goals like encouraging active transportation, creating lively streets where people are likely to bump into one another, or providing places for people to linger outside.

In order to maximize the audience and engagement of my project, I created a poster illustrating these design changes. The larger graphic visualizes a world of social trust, and call-outs draw attention to the many small changes that make up this world. My goal with this work is to draw people’s attention to the problem at hand, and to the changes that we are entirely capable of making. Communities around the world have seen the same problem and drawn themselves together with a shared backyard, an intersection adapted to provide spaces to meet, a parklet where old and young can spend time together; these existing projects serve as models, and inspiration.

Some highlights from the 20 design features illustrated in my work:

Mixed-use zoning: Intermix residences, workplaces and amenities such as restaurants and stores to bring life to the street and encourage active transportation.

Minimal parking: Reduce the number of parking spaces and convenience of access, increasing distances traveled by foot and likelihood of interaction.

Triangulate attractions: Identify destinations of all scales and cluster them so that their activity becomes a destination in itself.

Seating everywhere: Benches, moveable chairs and other sittable places are necessary for lingering and inclusive uses.

Social trust is a scale, and any change can have an impact. Our cities may be concrete, but we can adapt them to the forms best for their residents, through a bench, an infill project, or a bike lane. Our community is at stake; social trust is the mortar of a city. I hope, with this work, to inspire readers to galvanize their own communities and make change of any scale. Cities need our attention now.

You can learn more about Em’s work at her website (https://www.emfriedenberg.com/designingtrust) or contact her via email.