Reinventing Real-World Communities Using Customer Experience Principles

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Oftentimes, we talk about Customer Experience in the context of buying things and services. In reality, customer experience can be expanded to community experience. This is likely the most important kind of CX there is in that it directly affects you, your family, and society.

Sadly, many communities are suffering from a sort of societal depression made worse by COVID-induced isolation. The cloistered mushroom colored cul de sacs of large, planned communities can serve as a fertile petri dish for general malaise and clinical depression of its denizens[1]. In many parts of the United States neighbors no longer know neighbors. Children don’t walk to school and the closest corner store is miles away. In short, we have seemed to have lost our sense of community in many of our communities.

But how did this happen?

Mid-Century Modern

At the end of World War II, returning GIs in the United States needed housing as the Great Generation started procreating in earnest. But how to provide a massive amount of housing for their 2.2 children in such a short period of time? By the end of WWII, America was a finely tuned production machine and as such, turned its mechanized gaze toward housing.

The mass market model was started in Levittown[2], which was an overt whites-only community that enabled the white flight from what was then crime-ridden cities. These developments mass-produced pre-planned houses on a scale never seen before. People who use to live close to where they work now fled to the newly developed suburbs.” Now working professionals had a place to live and a place to work, neatly bifurcated like their white starched shirts neatly folded in their drawers from the navy-blue plants in their closets.

Also, the advent of the “commute” was born. Millions of newly hatched suburbanites drove in the private comfort of their shiny new Pontiacs, Oldsmobile, and Studebakers into work every day while after kissing their spouses who largely stayed home and tended the home, the kids, and perhaps a few Valiums and an extra dry martini in the afternoon.

Mass transit was never adequately built to these new utopias, effectively shutting out the economic lower class and bringing automobiles as the go-to method of transportation, all by design[3]. This set the stage for two class system of mobility in the United States: cars for the wealthy and mass transit for the poor. Investment was made accordingly.

Since these new developments had no integrated retail, these new homeowners now needed a place to shop. Across town, up by the newly create interstate freeway system (finalized in 1956[4]), malls were built at a staggering rate making developers of these retail behemoths unbelievably wealthy[5]. Now, you could get in your car and drive across town and get your shopping done in the air conditioning wonder of mass retail.

But what about grocery shopping? At one point there were corner stores in most neighborhoods and perhaps medium to smallish grocery stores spread throughout the city. They were largely walkable, and many did so.

That wouldn’t do in the new mid-20th century world. We thirsted for a vast selection of goods at the lowest possible price; born were the mega marts of the mid-20th century of today. Today 90% of people live in a 10-minute drive of a Walmart store[6].

And boy oh boy did we get busy. Those cheap houses suddenly got more expensive as well as those fancy cars and the fuel that went with them. It wasn’t long before mom went to work as well, whether by choice or by family need. Early on women were supporting the household and now they are more often the breadwinner. But who was going to cook dinner when both got home at 6:30 at night or later? Well, initially it was delicious “TV dinners” that required minimal prep, and later of course Mickey Ds or the other hundreds of thousands of quick-serve and fast-casual restaurants propagated across the suburban landscape next to those new malls.

But hey, life was good. Families could afford to find developments to live in that didn’t suffer from much crime, folks could find the schools they liked for their children, and commuting gave time for reflection and driving enjoyment. So, what if you didn’t see the kids much? What could go wrong?

For better, or more likely worse, this abrupt redesign had a profound impact on Western society.

Surburban Decay

First, being cloistered into developments with like-minded individuals has further decreased ideological diversity and increased the powerful and calcifying effects of social media of the ‘us and them’ that is now the coarse political fabric of our country. It has separated our nation both physically and ideologically[7].

Second, the flight to large developments have further isolated some individuals[8]; especially newcomers, the young, the infirmed, and the elderly causing profound psychological damage to those groups affected[9].

Finally, it requires Americans to drive almost everywhere almost every day. In 2020 Americans drove 2.9 billion miles compared to 718 million in 1960. While our population increase by 84% our total miles increased by over 300%[10]. This has clogged roadways in a Sisyphean paradox… we have road congestion, so we build more roads, and those roads become more congested and so we build even more roads…ad infinitum.

While most people reading this, outside of rural parts of Rural America and Europe have never experienced anything different, for hundreds of thousands of years things were very different for humankind.

Before the early 20th century most of the world lived in small towns or villages. In large cities, even if they were sometimes more prone to crime, smaller ‘neighborhoods’ were well recognized by inhabitants.

With the advent of more than half the nation working from home, skyrocketing fuel costs, traffic congestion, and damage to infrastructure and environment. Perhaps it’s time for a change?

Unarrested Development

While it’s not for everyone, many (most?) people like the idea of least knowing their neighbor. Perhaps not having them over for dinner every night, but you know at least a cordial “how-do-you-do”. Many also like the idea of popping down to the cornerstone for a six-pack or that forgotten quart of milk in the early evening. Dining out on a sidewalk downtown on a warm early fall evening to people-watch is inviting. I don’t know many who don’t like the idea of their children being able to play outside without fear of harm.

This is possible. We just aren’t building for it. You see the same old cookie-cutter approach to development happening even in the most progressive communities. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be that way. Here are a few ideas that might make living a better experience.

Mixed Use Zoning

Cities are obsessed with rigid zoning guidelines and for good reason. Who wants a muffler fabrication shop next to their 3-bedroom two-bathroom bungalow? However, some municipalities may have gone too homogeneous in their planning. Mixed retail, light commercial, and residential housing have always successfully co-existed in small towns. 

Most community members appreciate that kind of thing. Growing up on the east coast, small neighborhoods were littered with small “mom and pop” retail shops, local bars, pizza parlors, and even neighborhood beauty salons. In many small cities, towns, and villages in Europe this is still very common.

We should learn from the ‘social engineering’ disasters of the 60s and 70s that set up communities for success, but never funded or designed them properly and so they fell into a state of disrepair, chaos, and eventually rampant crime.

With conscious and careful planning for mix use spaces, we can introduce novelty and attractiveness to new neighborhoods and simultaneously reduce the need to drive. Now we would build sidewalks with the purpose of actually using them in mind, rather than an obligatory building requirement.

Right Housing for the Right Size

The average home size in 1950 was 983 square feet and housed about 3.6 people. Now, the average home size is 2,261 square feet, and houses about 2.6 people[11]. As Americans, we love big and historically have equated big with better.

Figure 1 Square Footage and Household Membership over Time

I know some folks (more than a few) who live in humongous houses for two people. Sure, that’s their right, but geez, it sure seems wasteful. As we age our housing needs change. Early on social interaction is critical; later with many having families where space and proximity to education are critical; later in life downsizing is commonly welcomed.

However, once again, our laws and planning largely ignore these dynamics. Many laws (such as Prop 13 in California[12]) result in people staying in much larger houses than they need to due to the tax implications of moving. Finding a high-quality small house in a neighborhood you might like is nearly impossible outside of cities in the United States.

Making housing choices easier as we age and as our needs change would create a more efficient housing system. Looking closely at reforming urban planning, housing valuations, regulation, and tax code can help encourage good behavior versus square footage hoarding.

Diversity

Like it or not, diversity is the cornerstone of American society. We are a country of immigrants with exception of a few hundred thousand indigenous populations that managed to survive colonization by Westerners. The power of this diversity is not in the color of our skin or in the country we came from; it is in those unique experiences and world views that are brought to the table of innovation.

Happily, most (two-thirds) of American see legal immigration as a net benefit to the country[13]. They should. There is a reason why America leads the world in innovation. It’s no fabrication that we have 595,000[14] patents in 2022, second only to China who has a population nearly three times the size of the US. Likewise, immigrants provide a disproportionate number of patents and patent citations than native-born Americans[15].

Diversity of thought is also healthy for communities. If you are friends with your neighbor, you may be a bit more open to his or her point of view on topics. You may still not agree with your neighbor on them, but you respect him/her and perhaps have a glimpse into why they think the way they do. That is the basis of empathy and empathy is the key to healthier people and societies.

Reducing Commutes

The average commute time for Americans is 20 miles and takes about 28 minutes one way[16]. There are 115 million Americans who commute almost every day to work[17]. That is by far the number reason for driving a vehicle. Imagine if we could reduce that 10% of people simply not driving to work and working from home. Assuming each person goes to work 50 weeks a year, that’s a reduction of 115 billion road miles for the American public. At $3.85 a gallon, that would save the American worker $442 billion (say it like Carl Sagan for better effect). That could pay for four Los Angeles to San Francisco rail systems!

No EV revolution can compete with this cost reduction. Not driving every day reduces the impact on the environment, infrastructure, and personal cost, as well as the physical and mental consequences of driving. We still need vehicles, but perhaps not the same kind we have today and perhaps not as often. Advances in technology have allowed all forms of ride-sharing, ride-hailing, and ownership models.

Likewise, work from home has done more good for the American worker than anything since the creation of labor unions[18]. It’s not only associated with better productivity for those who can work from home, but higher work-life balance, and morale. It also keeps cars from unnecessarily driving to work

Removing Anonymity with Accountability

Everyday drivers roll down multi-lane freeways ensconced in their metal shells with tinted windows. The societal consequences of cutting someone off or butting in front of a line of cars for many is inconsequential for that sweet gain of 30 seconds in getting to your Starbucks coffee. For many American drivers, this is what is clinically known as being a jerk. I was hoping to say that most people aren’t that way… but unfortunately, the data says otherwise. In 2019 a staggering 82% of US drivers report engaging in some form of road rage behavior resulting in 12,610 injuries and 218 murders [19].

I can’t help but wonder if hurried commuters would be as apt to scream at someone who driving 2 mph under the speed limit if they knew it was their friend’s 80-something-year-old grandma being extra cautious. For example, would you let someone ahead of you who was in tears trying to get home after losing a job or worse… a loved one? Would you flip off your child’s orthodontist on the road? Ok, don’t answer that last one, but you get the point.

Anonymity has bred a kind of lack of consequence which you can plainly see on social media. I think it was Mike Tyson who said people would be much more polite if they knew they might get punched in their face for saying rude stuff (which Mike aptly demonstrated recently[20]).

While I don’t advocate violence, I think most people would advocate for decency. Being decent is easier if the folks driving next to you aren’t dehumanized silhouettes behind the shadow of tinted windows. We can be very cruel and rude to our friends and family; we are less so with acquaintances and neighbors. This is part of the human condition that has worked for centuries in keeping us civil (well mostly) that we sabotaged by cloistering ourselves behind computer screens and the steel and glass walls of homes and vehicles.

Walkable and Rideable

I was recently riding past a new development in our area and was stunned as the whole barricaded encampment looked like it was designed to keep very famished zombies out. The newly constructed Keep had 10-foot brick walls outside, no sidewalks, and not even a shoulder for bikes or people outside its perimeter. Happily, the moat was absent. This new development was set directly in the middle of what was formerly a large field for cows. It was clearly designed for the people inside.

Yet, the inside wasn’t appealing either. Row after row of McMansions devoid of character or anything bigger than an 8′ fast-growing Bradford Pear tree. I suppose somewhere tucked into the back was the obligatory ‘community center’ with the matching kidney-shaped pool. Really? Why are we still using a 1950 design in 2022?

Imagine if they had sidewalks and bike lanes that could connect them to a larger community. One where you could conceivably walk to the doctor or grocery store without fear of being smooshed by an F-350 dually pulling a horse trailer.

Better yet why not have those facilities within the stronghold? Better still, Mr. Developer! “Bring Down Those Walls!” You’re in Arkansas, not war-ridden Somalia. We had not one machete death in Arkansas from a marauding swordsman[21].

How about some more sidewalks, bike paths, and trails? Oh, and stenciling “Bike Lane” onto a road without doing anything else doesn’t count. If you build sensible biking and walking infrastructure people will use it.

What About Cars?

If you know me you might be thinking by this point in the article, “hasn’t Dave spent a good portion of his life in automotive?” Why, yes, I have. And all our data indicates two things: people will continue to drive into the foreseeable future and two, people will continue to buy cars.

Why? Well first because progress is very slow. The redesign suggestions I am proposing will be slow to be adopted, not because people don’t want them (and admittedly some don’t[22]), but because governments move like molasses, urban planning inertia, and of course money.

There is a symbiotic relationship between urban planning and mobility use. If you create communities around cars, you have our current form. Los Angeles’ sprawling freeways and interconnected megalopolis some nearly 100 miles long x 100 miles wide was no accident. It is a city built for driving, and at the time made sense. But does it now? With thousands of people fleeing metros for more rural setting[23], the answer for many; it doesn’t.

However, if you create communities around people and you will have a different form; one that many might very well prefer.

I do have hope, there are many great experiments on this new/old form of community creation. Ross Chapin’s work on pocket communities is inspiring[24]. Small experiments such as Black Apple[25] and Umatilla Hill[26] also bring me hope. As for me, I hope to see more experiments on my rides that strive to put full communities back together again. I will also be on the lookout for zombies, just in case.

Notes

[1] https://www.webmd.com/women/news/20040927/suburbs-may-be-hazardous-to-your-health

[2] https://ushistoryscene.com/article/levittown/

[3] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-08-31/why-is-american-mass-transit-so-bad-it-s-a-long-story

[4]https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/interstate/history.cfm#:~:text=Eisenhower%20signed%20the%20Federal%2DAid,the%20American%20way%20of%20life.

[5] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/death-and-rebirth-american-mall-180953444/

[6] https://www.forbes.com/sites/stephenmcbride1/2020/01/08/walmart-has-made-a-genius-move-to-beat-amazon/

[7] https://www.economist.com/interactive/briefing/2022/09/03/american-policy-is-splitting-state-by-state-into-two-blocs

[8] https://www.forbes.com/sites/mishagajewski/2020/07/20/heres-why-you-shouldnt-panic-move-to-the-suburbs/?sh=68935ad74007

[9] https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html

[10]

[11] http://eyeonhousing.org/2019/05/new-single-family-home-size-first-quarter-2019-data

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/RHORUSQ156N#0

[12] https://www.nber.org/digest/apr05/lock-effect-californias-proposition-13

[13] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/08/20/key-findings-about-u-s-immigrants/

[14] https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/patents-by-country

[15] https://web.stanford.edu/~diamondr/BDMP_2019_0709.pdf

[16] https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2021/acs/acs-47.html

[17] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2017/10/03/americans-commuting-choices-5-major-takeaways-from-2016-census-data/

[18] https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/remote-benefits

[19] https://www.thezebra.com/resources/research/road-rage-statistics/

[20] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3C4pWwDqps

[21] There were in fact 31 homicides with a “Knife/Cutting Instrument” in Arkansas in 2020, so I suppose there may be sword in there somewhere.

[22] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/08/26/more-americans-now-say-they-prefer-a-community-with-big-houses-even-if-local-amenities-are-farther-away/

[23] https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2019/february/rural-population-trends/

[24] https://rosschapin.com/projects/pocket-neighborhoods/

[25] https://www.architectmagazine.com/technology/black-apple-pocket-community-brings-high-performance-homes-to-suburban-arkansas

[26] https://www.pinterest.com/pin/556405728933574813/

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