By Paolo von Schirach
July 28, 2013
WASHINGTON – I live in a lovely, green neighborhood in North West Washington DC called Wesley Heights. Plenty of trees, beautiful houses with large and lush gardens. A very short walk away there is an impressive National Park, right in the middle of the city. It is called Glover-Archbold Park. It is not huge; but large enough to give the feeling of pristine wilderness, especially in the Summer, when all the trees are fully green and the vegetation looks very thick. There are birds, deer and lots of squirrels.
I like to walk around my neighborhood. The streets are usually quiet. Hardly any car traffic there. And it is quite pleasant to look at the beautiful houses and their gardens, while enjoying the shade of so many large trees. I find these leisurely walks very relaxing.
And yet, there is something truly puzzling in this beautiful scenery. In general I am the only person taking a walk, regardless of the time of day. Except for an occasional man or woman walking their dog, there is nobody else taking advantage of this lovely scenery. And I really mean nobody.
As I said, the neighborhood is quite beautiful, in many ways stately. The large houses, some of them real mansions, are usually old but very well-kept and in impeccable shape. They convey an aura of comfortable wealth and achievement. I imagine the owners to be part of the Washington professional elites. Law firm partners, surgeons, lobbyists, high-ranking government officials, who knows.
And yet, these people do not enjoy their neighborhood. Nobody walks around. For this elementary reason, nobody has the opportunity to meet other people in a simple casual way, exchange greetings, get to know one another. I find this odd. The area is really beautiful and quite safe. And yet those who live there live in their homes as if they were small fortresses. Beyond their daily commute to their office, rarely, if at all would they venture out for a casual walk.
Man as a Social Animal?
Well, this behavior plainly contradicts the ancient and usually correct assumption that “Man is a Social Animal”, naturally drawn to other human beings. Indeed in the Western world urban landscapes were designed to foster human interaction. Ancient Greek cities had the Agora’, the market square, as a place of commerce but also as a venue for social interactions. The Romans created the thermal baths as a place of relaxation. But going to the baths was also an opportunity to meet friends and exchange ideas. Likewise, as cities were reborn in Europe after the Middle Ages, a key feature was the town square that would also be the venue for markets and fairs. There you would find the main church and quite often the building that would house the city government. And the church bells would also double as public advisories. They would signal ceremonies and celebrations but also imminent danger. In either case, the people would flock to the town square. In other words, the Western World is full of evidence indicating that people used to spend a lot of time in the streets and in other purposely designed public places; places where they would meet friends, mingle and get to know one another.
So many missed opportunities
But this is not the case in my beautiful Wesley Heights neighborhood. Its inhabitants live confined in their own homes. If they venture out it will be by car to go to work or run errands elsewhere. Of course, there is nothing wrong in any of this. Except that this life style deprives those who live here of the opportunity to enrich and be enriched by others.
Imagine how many opportunities for personal or professional connections among smart, well-educated high achievers have been and will be missed. Simple encounters could lead to new friendships, partnerships, business ventures, alliances, even marriages.
But none of this will ever take place, simply because nobody takes a walk. What a pity.