The Serendipity of Density

December 16th, 2023
house, housing, kids
One thing I really appreciate about living in Somerville is how density facilitates serendipity. Higher density means more of the places we might want to go are within walking distance, and then walking (and high density again) means we're more likely to run into friends.

This afternoon we were walking Lily (9y) to a sleepover and we passed one of the nearby playgrounds. Lily and Anna (7y) saw some school friends and ran ahead to say hi. Anna wanted to stay and play, and I asked one of the parents if they'd be up for having Anna while I finished the dropoff. They were happy to (we take each other's kids a decent amount) and Anna got to have a much more fun half hour. Then, after I got back, we hung out at the playground with friends for a while longer before heading home for dinner.

This certainly would have been possible to arrange intentionally, with a bunch of communication, but if we had been driving I expect Anna wouldn't have ended up spending this time with her friends. I would guess that the majority of times we go out we run into someone, though it's much more common that we stop and hang out together than leave one of the kids and split up.

This sort of thing wasn't a common experience at all in the West Medford neighborhood I grew up in. It's an area not far from here, but probably only a third the density: the lots are about twice the size and there are more single-family houses. Distances meant we would usually drive, and even if our family had decided to primarily walk you don't run into friends when out walking unless your friends also tend to be out on foot. Another contribution is also that our kids' school is very close and draws mostly from the immediate neighborhood, which means their friends are almost all within easy walking distance. Whereas my elementary school drew from all over Medford and I only had one school friend whose house I could walk to, and only for two of the six years.

Americans often worry that increasing density would lead to their neighborhoods becoming impersonal. As someone who lives in one of the densest municipalities in the country, I think this is backwards: proximity fosters community.

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