Neighborhood 911: The importance of not being disconnected

The sense of community fostered by new urbanist design really pays off in an emergency.

  • Bradburn neighbors socializing

    Bradburn neighbors socializing

    in one of the neighborhood's many parks — public areas that encourage neighbors to interact frequently. Courtesy of Petra Spiess

Petra Spiess, New Urban Network

Bleeding heavily and alone, I was forced to make a panicked social calculation: Who could I call to drive me to the emergency room?

I had lived in a large-lot suburban subdivision in the city of Fort Collins, Colorado, for four years when I had a medical emergency. Going down the list of those who might help me, all I found were subtractions: My husband worked an hour away. I had no family within 200 mile. Friends at work were 25 minutes away.

My mind went to what I considered the last possible choice, even though that category made by far the most sense — a neighbor? I realized then that I knew only one of my neighbors by her first name, and none of the others, even though I lived on a cul-de-sac.

In that neighborhood, I recognized which car belonged to which house, but I knew nothing about the people inside either the cars or the houses. People drove — they didn’t walk — to get in and out of the neighborhood; and if they were outside, they were in their own, private backyards, not out front. I stood in my bright, McMansion kitchen, scared and desolate, holding my phone in a shaking hand with no number to dial. I drove myself to the emergency room.

Four years later I was living in a new urbanist neighborhood in Westminster, Colorado, when I had another, though less serious, medical problem. Except this time, there was no panicked calculation and no deep, awful sense of loneliness when that calculation’s sum was zero — because it wasn’t. I simply picked up my phone and as I scrolled through a long list of the neighbors who had become good friends in just the year I had been living there, I felt a deep sense of comfort and gratitude. Five minutes later, the first neighbor I dialed was at the door to help me.

The reason I had so many people close that I could call in an emergency? My new neighborhood’s design.

In the new neighborhood, Bradburn Village, people were outside their homes all the time — on their porches, in our many pocket parks, walking to our neighborhood businesses, picking up their mail at our community mailbox. People outside their own private homes all the time means that in Bradburn, you meet your neighbors and run into them frequently, and as a consequence, you form and reinforce friendships on a daily or near-daily basis. 

Someone asked me recently about Bradburn’s sense of community. To illustrate that rather nebulous concept, I showed them my iPhone contact list: 54 of my entries are neighbors, every one of which I would feel comfortable calling in an emergency. This sense of community is invaluable in a country where people move, on average, every five years — often far from relatives and other sources of support. This resource, directly promoted by New Urbanism, is in my experience especially important when emergencies and parenthood collide.

One of my neighbors faced a scenario all parents dread: an out-of-town spouse, no family members living nearby, and two of her three young kids needing to go to the hospital due to an illness that results in rather unspeakable things ending up on furniture — rotavirus. Although she didn’t have any family to call — and with this intestinal bug, you really have to be close to someone to ask for help — she could call upon her network of neighbors in Bradburn.

While she spent the next 24 hours in the hospital with her two youngest children, two neighbor families took turns watching her oldest child. When her cell phone battery died at the hospital and she needed the charger, one neighbor called me, so I dropped off my young child with yet another set of neighbors so I could drive the charger to her at the hospital and stay with her until her parents arrived from out of state. All in all, the Bradburn barf-fest incident involved the help of four different neighbor families. I joked with my neighbor that she should send a thank-you card after this incident to Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company — Bradburn’s designers.

One of the most critical aspects of New Urbanism — making friends who are willing to help when your children are projectile-vomiting — is the ease of social interaction that the design engenders. Socializing in my new urbanist neighborhood is practically effortless. American lives today are busy, busy, busy — working long hours, commuting, and for parents, the seemingly never-ending array of kids’ activities that really eats up leisure time. The last thing most people want to do is try to coordinate their schedules with their equally busy friends’ to arrange some social time. In Bradburn there is almost always someone out and about to socialize with, and you don’t have to drive to find them. This works especially well for kids; there are few arranged “playdates.” Kids just see their friends out playing and go out and join them (same for the adults, actually).

In fact, the design of my new urbanist neighborhood has made knowing my neighbors so convenient that should I have another emergency, I wouldn’t even have to pick up my cell phone. I could just open my door — and yell.

 Petra Spiess is a freelance writer who has lived in the new urbanist neighborhood of Bradburn Village in Westminster, Colorado, since 2004.