In an online conversation, Matthew Stadler responded to feature editor Ray Gastil’s statements on “the good life.”
Matthew Stadler: I’m sympathetic to the call for the good life, for living well. I’m even convinced that the handful of ways in which my life has become less wasteful (I have no car; I’m predisposed to buy locally grown food and locally manufactured goods; I lend and borrow things from neighbors) are attractive, enviable improvements in my life and not sacrifices in any way. I tout them while straining not to crow about them. And my touting is heard and received with sympathy, if not envy, by scads of like-minded people, from Brooklyn to Los Feliz to Berkeley. But in Beaverton and North Portland, where I live, where I’ve had these very same conversations in many settings over the last four years, I’m sometimes received with suspicion. The info is the same; my attitude and invitation are the same; but something predisposes the encounter toward a kind of polarization and alienation. What is it?
Ray Gastil: Maybe it is similar to the anti-carpooling trend. Carpooling, despite increasing gas prices, has been steadily declining, and studies indicate that it is not just because of new journey-to-work patterns or family responsibilities, but preference. Sharing seems to be on an exponential increase in terms of one’s personal life – the social media era – but there’s no parallel increase in sharing resources. I think the core of why you see polarization and suspicion may be that outside of Brooklyn-Los Feliz- Berkeley, there’s a strong sense that sharing is about taking something away. Whether this sense is manufactured by opinion-makers or experience, it means that if you talk about car sharing, it leads to the suspicion that you want to take away people’s cars. And when sharing is presented as part of a cohesive vision of, say, reciprocity, that only makes it worse—part of a whole scheme of “takings,” from land use to gun control.
MS: Notably, the Brooklyn-Los Feliz-Berkeley axis can also get pretty pissy about sharing when it comes to sharing metro resources with “wasteful” suburban communities. Point being—no one has the monopoly on virtue here. I believe the real shift came with the Reagan era and post-Reagan fear-mongering about strangers. That brought carpooling down and stopped most of us from hitchhiking, that and the fact that people regard their cars as domestic space, a part of the home that moves. Other sharing is on the increase, as you point out, but it’s mostly digital info sharing.
So what physical, material things and spaces do we all share easily and without suspicion? I guess the public library is the best example. The library is common and embraced in all demographics, isn’t it? I mean towns, suburbs, cities; there is no demographic that uniquely or strongly rejects the library, is there? Where I live there’s also a tool library, a couple community centers (gyms, swimming pools, games, classes), and of course, there’s mass transit. My eleven-year old uses them all, too, with never a hesitation on either of our parts.
But I do make extra efforts to predispose him to like strangers. The anti-sharing habits we’ve both been speaking of seem to me always rooted in a demonizing of strangers—”outsiders.” So long as our sharing is conducted in self-curated spaces (such as interest groups, say, Friends of the Trees, Neighborhood Block Watch or online spaces like Facebook), we can continue to believe there are the good people we know and the many bad people we call “strangers”—those who are outside of our group, unseen. The question I want to pose to you is: can planners create the circumstances in which strangers come to trust or look on other strangers as resources and friends? The library does it, for me, anyway. Ditto the bus. Maybe urban planning and design could oblige us to encourage positive encounters with strangers more often. I wonder what that would look like. Over time such encounters would go a long way toward shifting the patterns of resource sharing. How about we legalize downtown camping and provide sufficient fresh water and clean toilets? Or we somehow get all ages and classes, from poor to rich, onto mass transit?
RG: Trust is a two-way street, one that requires “circumstances” that can survive and grow over time, changing neighbors and changing economies. You’ve hit on a fundamental question for the next phase of cities and one that must have a basis that isn’t about whether or not you believe in climate change, but rather, in whether you are willing to trust anyone who isn’t just like you. Plenty of road work ahead on that score.