How might a neighborhood improve health? One answer to explore is social-contact design. Environmental cues can encourage social interaction. Over time, frequent social interaction may develop into neighborly support and deeper relationships. People with supportive social ties have lower levels of mortality, better physical health, and improved psychological well-being. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, an 80-year longitudinal study, has found that, “Our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health”. Close relationships are better predictors of happiness and longevity than genes, socioeconomic status, IQ, or even cholesterol levels.
Socially-designed neighborhoods such as pocket neighborhoods and intentional communities, have seen a steady increase in development in the United States over the past 20 years. A pocket neighborhood is a pattern of housing that fosters a strong sense of community among nearby neighbors, while preserving their need for privacy. An intentional community refers to the intentionality of the residents to share common values and associate with each other. In studies, residents in socially-designed neighborhoods have reported higher levels of perceived quality of life, feelings of mutual support, and less isolation compared to similar non-residents.
My graduate research focused on how socially supportive neighborhoods may facilitate healthy aging. I have been lucky enough to meet a group of people interested in building an intentional community in Sioux Falls. For many of them, buying into a socially-designed, aging-friendly neighborhood is a strategic move to stay healthy and in control of their lives. Everyone in the group desires a balance of privacy and socialization that will shift over time as their needs change.
At our last meeting, we also discovered that our group shares some commonalities in important neighborhood design parameters. Members have prioritized age diversity, easy maintenance, social activities, sustainability, and beautiful green spaces. They want to be with family and friends and have opportunities to meet new like-minded neighbors.
This group, along with numerous retirees I have interviewed in recent years, share a desire to be a part of things without commitment. They want the freedom to participate or not, on their terms. And that is the beauty of social-contact design. The walkable green space and social activation make participation spontaneous and natural. The shared morning walk, the playground conversation, and all the chance encounters grow into something more - health and happiness. To learn more, visit www.nestcompanies.com and/or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.