[I visited The Waters, a fledgling "New Urbanist" community in Alabama, in early February. This is the first in a series of four articles about my visit there. The other three are The Waters: Kids' Lives, The Waters: How Town Planning and Architecture Help Create Community, and The Waters: Self-Selection and the Pioneer Effect.]
I spent only one and a half days at The Waters, but in that time, I had more interactions on the street with neighbors than I’ve had in the seven months since I moved to my current home in Palo Alto, CA.
My host there, Nathan Norris, said “hello” to pretty much everyone he saw, and had at least a short chat with at least a third of them. He probably had at least a half dozen conversations with different people during the hour and a half he walked me around on the one morning I was there. Sure, Nathan is one of the founders of The Waters and is a resident there, so he should be popular, but he wasn’t the only one talking to people there.
In fact, I’d venture to say that very few people were alone in the various outdoor venues I witnessed. This is astounding. Think about where you live. When you walk down your street (do you even walk down your street?), what are the chances that you’ll have a conversation with someone? How about two or three? At The Waters, virtually any time of day, any day of the week, at least one friendly neighborhood chat is almost guaranteed.
Even I, a total outsider, was greeted by many people during my solo strolls through The Waters. Note that some of these weren’t just polite hellos to a stranger. At least two people greeted me by asking me if I was “the guy from Playborhood,” and then proceeded to talk about the Playborhood ideal of kids playing outside and how great a community feeling The Waters has. And a few others struck up a conversation after meeting me just once, when they were introduced to me by Nathan the evening before.
Besides the amount of social interactions I witnessed at The Waters, the other phenomenon I want to convey is the spirit of spontaneity there.
In The Waters’ video about community (click on the image above to see it), resident Amy Neuenschwander says, “There’s no need for planning ahead if we live within walking distance of each other. So, you hang out at the pool on a Saturday, and at about 4 o’clock, everybody starts getting hungry and we decide whose house to go to. All families just come together, and ‘bring what you have.’ It’s very easy to enjoy each other’s company when it’s that low-stress. The kids entertain each other and the parents all get to have parent night, too.”
This isn’t just propaganda – I saw all sorts of spontaneous gatherings in the one day I was there.
Residents tell me that on summer evenings, many people gather outside The Market, the restaurant & cafe in The Waters’ Town Square, and drink and talk past midnight. Even in the winter, when I was there, the interior of The Market is often full. In either case, summer or winter, groups of people at The Market aren’t autonomous islands like they are in most American restaurants. Rather, people in different groups know each other, so groups expand and contract as some people hop from conversation to conversation.
Indeed, The Waters has an incredible sense of community, and in three upcoming articles I’ll be discussing the causes and effects of this in more detail. I’ll be discussing: 1) kids’ lives, 2) how town planning and architecture help create the community spirit there, and 3) how the self-selection of community-minded residents contributes to The Waters’ community spirit.