Back in February I wrote a post discussing how difficult it is to have a social life in Little Falls, MN. The city seems to have been designed to keep people apart, with the best gathering places being Walmart and Coborn’s. (Seriously.) We’ve followed strict zoning regulations to keep businesses out of neighborhoods. Due to the hours and types of businesses downtown, residents find little need to be downtown in the evenings. (Great River Arts and the movie theater, along with bars, are the few evening draws.)
This lack of easy places to socialize has been bothering me. After reading Chapter 7 in the book “Imagine: How Creativity Works” by Jonah Lehrer, now I know why. The chapter is called Urban Friction and it discusses how big cities that have the right kinds of neighborhoods give residents plenty of opportunities to randomly bump into each other. This increases creativity, which in turn increases productivity and innovation.
From page 187: “According to the equations of [Geoffrey] West and [Luis] Bettencourt, every socioeconomic variable that can be measured in cities — from the production of patents to per capita income — scales to an exponent of approximately 1.15. What’s interesting here is the size of the exponent, which is greater than 1. This means that a person living in a metropolis of one million should generate, on average, about 15 percent more patents and make 15 percent more money than a person living in a city of five hundred thousand.” (Lehrer, Jonah, “Imagine”)
The chapter continues by pointing out that there are certainly differences between big cities in their levels of creativity, with some being much more creative than others. What West and Bettencourt, both physicists by training who came to the field of urban statistics, discovered was that the faster people walked in a city, the more creative the city was. The more people had a chance to bump into each other through urban design, the greater their ability to turn those impromptu meetings into activities that generated creative and economic growth.
Cities that “focused on mitigating unwanted interactions, trading away crowded public spaces and knowledge spillovers for single-family homes” experience “poor performance on a variety of urban metrics.” (pg. 190-191)
In other words, if your city is designed to keep people away from each other, as Little Falls is, it’s going to be much harder to advance as a thriving community.
How do we get more people in Little Falls interacting with one another? Is it time to rethink how Little Falls is zoned, perhaps create areas of mixed use in order to encourage more interaction?
Note: As there has been some question about the veracity of portions of Jonah Lehrer’s work (see this article for details: http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/writing/188506/why-jonah-lehrers-imagine-is-worth-reading-despite-the-problems/), here is a direct link to the paper “Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities” by Luis Bettencourt et. al., which provides the background on the quotes above: http://www.pnas.org/content/104/17/7301.full.pdf.